[Marxism] Jonathan Winters, Funny Man and Comedic Inspiration, Dies at 87

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Apr 12 18:31:08 MDT 2013

Jonathan Winters in his prime:


NY Times April 12, 2013
Jonathan Winters, Funny Man and Comedic Inspiration, Dies at 87

Jonathan Winters, the rubber-faced comedian whose unscripted flights of 
fancy inspired a generation of improvisational comics, and who kept 
television audiences in stitches with Main Street characters like Maude 
Frickert, a sweet-seeming grandmother with a barbed tongue and a roving 
eye, died on Thursday at his home in Montecito, Calif. He was 87.

His death was announced on his Web site, JonathanWinters.com.

Mr. Winters, a rotund man whose face had a melancholy basset-hound 
expression in repose, burst onto the comedy scene in the late 1950s and 
instantly made his mark as one of the funniest, least definable comics 
in a rising generation that included Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman and Bob 

Mr. Winters was at his best when winging it, confounding television 
hosts and luckless straight men with his rapid-fire delivery of bizarre 
observations uttered by characters like Elwood P. Suggins, a Midwestern 
Everyman, or one-off creations like the woodland sprite who bounded onto 
Jack Paar’s late-night show and simperingly proclaimed: “I’m the voice 
of spring. I bring you little goodies from the forest.”

A one-man sketch factory, Mr. Winters could re-enact Hollywood movies, 
complete with sound effects, or create sublime comic nonsense with 
simple props like a pen-and-pencil set.

The unpredictable, often surreal quality of his humor had a powerful 
influence on later comedians like Robin Williams but made him hard to 
package as an entertainer. His brilliant turns as a guest on programs 
like “The Steve Allen Show” and “The Tonight Show” — in both the Jack 
Paar and Johnny Carson eras — kept him in constant demand. But a 
successful television series eluded him, as did a Hollywood career, 
despite memorable performances in films like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad 
World,” “The Loved One” and “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are 

Jonathan Harshman Winters was born on Nov. 11, 1925, in Dayton, Ohio, 
where his alcoholic father (“a hip Willy Loman,” according to Mr. 
Winters) worked as an investment broker and his grandfather, a 
frustrated comedian, owned the Winters National Bank.

“Mother and dad didn’t understand me; I didn’t understand them,” he told 
Jim Lehrer on “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” in 1999. “So consequently 
it was a strange kind of arrangement.” Alone in his room, he would 
create characters and interview himself.

The family’s fortunes collapsed with the Depression. The Winters 
National Bank failed, and Jonathan’s parents divorced. His mother took 
him to Springfield, where she did factory work but eventually became the 
host of a women’s program on a local radio station. Her son continued 
talking to himself and developed a repertory of strange sound effects. 
He often entertained his high school friends by imitating a race at the 
Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A poor student, Mr. Winters enlisted in the Marines before finishing 
high school and during World War II served as a gunner on the aircraft 
carrier Bon Homme Richard in the Pacific.

After the war he completed high school and, hoping to become a political 
cartoonist, studied art at Kenyon College and the Dayton Art Institute. 
In 1948 he married Eileen Schauder, a Dayton native who was studying art 
at Ohio State. She died in 2009. Mr. Winters’s survivors include two 
children, Jonathan Winters IV, known as Jay, of Camarillo, Calif., and 
Lucinda, of Santa Barbara, Calif., and five grandchildren.

At the urging of his wife, Mr. Winters, whose art career seemed to be 
going nowhere, entered a talent contest in Dayton with his eye on the 
grand prize, a wristwatch, which he needed. He won, and he was hired as 
a morning disc jockey at WING, where he made up for his inability to 
attract guests by inventing them. “I’d make up people like Dr. Hardbody 
of the Atomic Energy Commission, or an Englishman whose blimp had 
crash-landed in Dayton,” he told U.S. News and World Report in 1988.

After two years at a Columbus television station, he left for New York 
in 1953 to break into network radio. Instead he landed bit parts on 
television and, with surprising ease, found work as a nightclub comic.

A guest spot on Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts” led to frequent 
appearances with Jack Paar and Steve Allen, both of them staunch 
supporters willing to give Mr. Winters free rein. Alistair Cooke, after 
seeing Mr. Winters at the New York nightclub Le Ruban Bleu, booked him 
as the first comedian ever to appear on his arts program “Omnibus.”

In his stand-up act, Mr. Winters initially relied heavily on sound 
effects — a cracking whip, a creaking door, a hovering U.F.O. — which he 
used to spice up his re-enactments of horror films, war films and 
westerns. Gradually he developed a gallery of characters, which expanded 
when he had his own television shows, beginning with the 15-minute 
“Jonathan Winters Show,” which ran from 1956 to 1957. He was later seen 
in a series of specials for NBC in the early 1960s; on an hourlong CBS 
variety series, “The Jonathan Winters Show,” from 1967 to 1969; and on 
“The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters,” in syndication, from 1972 to 1974.

Many of Mr. Winters’s characters — among them B. B. Bindlestiff, a 
small-town tycoon, and Piggy Bladder, football coach for the State 
Teachers’ Animal Husbandry Institute for the Blind — were based on 
people he grew up with. Maude Frickert, for example, whom he played 
wearing a white wig and a Victorian granny dress, was inspired by an 
elderly aunt who let him drink wine and taught him to play poker when he 
was 9 years old.

Other characters, like the couturier Lance Loveguard and Princess 
Leilani-nani, the world’s oldest hula dancer, sprang from a secret 
compartment deep within Mr. Winters’s inventive brain.

As channeled by Mr. Winters, Maude Frickert was a wild card. Reminiscing 
about her late husband, Pop Frickert, she told a stupefied interviewer: 
“He was a Spanish dancer in a massage parlor. If somebody came in with a 
crick in their neck he’d do an orthopedic flamenco all over them. He was 
tall, dark and out of it.”

One of Mr. Winters’s most popular characters, she appeared in a series 
of commercials for Hefty garbage bags, which also featured Mr. Winters 
as a garbage man dressed in a spotless white uniform and referring, in 
an upper-class British accent, to gar-BAZH. Mr. Carson kidnapped Maude 
Frickert and simply changed the name to Aunt Blabby, one of his stock 
characters. Mr. Winters said that the blatant theft did not bother him.

Although Mr. Winters often called himself a satirist, the term does not 
really apply. In “Seriously Funny,” his history of 1950s and 1960s 
comedians, Gerald Nachman described him, a little floridly, as “part 
circus clown and part social observer, Red Skelton possessed by the 
spirit of Daumier.”

He was hard to define. “I don’t do jokes,” he once said. “The characters 
are my jokes.” At the same time, unlike many comedians reacting to the 
Eisenhower era, he found his source material in human behavior rather 
than politics or current events, but in him the spectacle of human folly 
provoked glee rather than righteous anger.

In 1961 Variety wrote, “His humor is more universally acceptable than 
any of the current New Comics, with the possible exception of Bob 
Newhart, because he covers the mass experiences of the U.S. common man — 
the Army, the gas station, the airport.”

Mr. Winters did much of his best work in nightclubs, but he hated life 
on the road. In 1959 he suffered a nervous breakdown onstage at the 
Hungry I in San Francisco and briefly spent time in a mental hospital. 
Two years later he suffered another collapse, and soon after that he 
quit nightclubs for good. Between 1960 and 1964 he recorded his 
most-requested monologues for Verve on a series of albums, notably “The 
Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters,” “Here’s Jonathan” and “Jonathan 
Winters: Down to Earth.”

The conventional television variety show did not suit Mr. Winters, but 
film did not seem the right medium for him either. Scripts stifled him. 
“Jonny works best out of instant panic,” one of his television writers 
in the 1960s said. He thrived when he could ad-lib, fielding unexpected 
questions or pursuing spontaneous flights of fancy. In other words, he 
made a brilliant guest, firing comedy in short bursts, but a problematic 
host or actor.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Mr. Winters was a frequent guest on “The Andy 
Williams Show,” “The Tonight Show” and “Hollywood Squares.” He played 
Robin Williams’s extraterrestrial baby son, Mearth, on the final season 
of “Mork & Mindy,” and he kept busy with voice-over work in animated 
television series and films. He also published a book of his cartoons, 
“Mouse Breath, Conformity, and Other Social Ills,” and a collection of 
whimsical stories, “Winters’ Tales.”

More influential than successful, Mr. Winters circled the comic heavens 
tracing his own strange orbit, an object of wonder and admiration to his 
peers. “Jonathan taught me,” Mr. Williams told the correspondent Ed 
Bradley on “60 Minutes,” “that the world is open for play, that 
everything and everybody is mockable, in a wonderful way.”

This a

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