Saturday, May 4, 2013

He contained multitudes: Deceased Artiste Jonathan Winters (Part 2 of 2)

[Please read part one first. Exploring a blog is like watching time move backward very, very slowly....] I was surprised at how little “primo” Jonathan was on YouTube (aside from the few Paar clips). But this clip from an unlikely source, the Dean Martin roast for Pallie Frank, actually perfectly highlights what Jonathan did best. These roasts were “canned” events where the panelists read scripted jokes; the only two people who were “allowed” to ad-lib were Don Rickles (who is another force of nature, but a very different type of standup) and Jonathan.

I’m not sure how many of the panelists were even present for Jon’s performance, since it has been revealed by both Rickles and Bob Newhart that the roasts were shot in “pieces” (for instance, Orson Welles would come in and do several “poems” and reaction shots for a bunch of the shows at once). What matters here is the directions that Jonthan takes, and the fact that he is genuinely killing Dean and Frank (sure, Dean laughed at just about anything on his show — including the dreaded Foster Brooks — but here he looks like he's really amused).

As noted, the crop of Winters' clips on YouTube is very disappointing, in that it contained no examples of his work on Steve Allen's shows, only one skit (no standup) from the Andy Williams series, and one sole clip from his many years on Carson (where he's NOT playing a character). There are no clips from the many weekly shows he hosted over the years, and only one LP cut. The single rarest thing is a fascinating-if-you-like-early-TV failed game show pilot called “Pass the Line” from 1954 (warning: Jon isn't funny at all and the game's concept is ponderously slow).

One thing I found interesting in exploring old episodes of the NBC network radio series “Monitor” was that Jonathan started regularly doing commercial campaigns as early as the late Fifties. He was particularly good for these kinds of things as he could play both interviewer and interview subject, and either follow the script to the letter or (if the sponsor was in any way adventurous) could make up his own bit, while remembering to mention the product (or cause) an ample amount of times. Here are some bloopers with Jon “winging it”:

He also was featured in a number of industrial films and PSAs. Here he appears in various guises to talk about litter on the streets and in parks:

Somewhere along the way, producers realized that the best set-up for a Winters spot would be to put him in a set filled with wigs and hats and have him just go with the flow. One of the earliest instances of this was on a 1963 special with guest star Art Carney, which the producers clearly edited; George Schlatter talks about the show, which was being prepped when the news that JFK had been assassinated came through, here.

A handful of the best Winters clips that can be found online come from the primetime Jack Paar Show. The first shows off Jonathan’s skills as an impressionist — he avoided doing celebrity voices in his act and his sketches, but he was excellent at them. Here he and Paar talk about how Jon prank-called Jack pretending he was JFK. (This was during the Cuban missile crisis!)

Now for the gold: a Paar appearance from 1963. From Paar’s praiseworthy intro to Jon’s lengthy tangent about “what married couples do” (pretty racy for ’63), this is just great. The main piece is a bit about fishing from the POV of the fish:

Another gem occurred in ’64, when Jon discusses undressing in front of a dog and does his own deranged version of a classic horror movie, replete with some awesome verbal sound effects:

As noted above, the Winters clips online are incredibly skimpy on certain busy periods in his life. For instance, he was a regular guest on The Andy Williams Show, but the only trace of those many appearances is in a mega-montage I link to below, and this odd 1971 sketch in which Jonathan plays a small-town TV broadcaster who produces a show starring a cheesy big-band duo (guests Ozzie and Harriet), along with their daughter (Karen Carpenter!). Only the before and after bits show Jon doing his thing with Andy:

Winters was so overpowering you rarely saw him work with other comedians, but here he is with Mort Sahl playing his straight man (and some other comedian watching TV), in a 1986 cable special, and with Peter Ustinov (and John Astin!) in the cute but not-hysterical film Viva Max.

The most interesting rarity to be found “hidden in plain sight” is the entirety of the 1959 Motorola LP “Progress in Sound/Magic Moments in Music,” which was given to customers who bought a Motorola record player. The first side of the LP features that inevitable ping-pong game between the left and right channels, but the second side contains interview with Jonathan in character (as a British hunter, Maude Frickert, and a bragging businessman).


Now a short tangent about the serious side of Winters (more brilliantly funny stuff below this, for you impatient types). 

Unlike most of his fellow standups, it didn't seem like Jonathan sought out a serious acting career. His two best-known films are It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, World (which he literally steals in a famous scene set in his character’s gas station) and, for aficionados, The Loved One (1965). Those who have seen items like the unbelievably poorly paced Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad have seen Jon’s talent squandered on a massive level.

He did have a very serious side, which came out in interviews and some of the work he chose in the last few years. One quite sweet inclusion in one of the shows he hosted was this little segment about his family, about whom we heard very little (aside from discussing his breakdowns and time “inside,” Winters was a very private man, to his credit).

In 2009 Jon did a spoken-word CD where he recited various items, including the Serenity Prayer and the 23rd Psalm (he spoke in interviews of being religious, but seeing no need to preach to other people; he also spoke about having become sober in 1959 after years of struggling with alcohol). He recited a piece called “Ghost Brigade” and did some pieces on old age, including “Just a Memory”:

One of his best-remembered serious efforts — which did prove he could’ve had a good dramatic career if he’d wanted one — was his appearance on The Twilight Zone opposite Jack Klugman in “ A Game of Pool.” Here is an abridged version of the ep:

Most interviewers did want Jonathan to segueway into his characters (listen to what seems to be his very last interview here). But the single best on-camera talk with him comes courtesy of the PBS talk show called Day at Night, hosted by James Day. This talk, which aired on November 27, 1973, finds Jon quoting Emerson (“Humor is the mistress of sorrow”), discussing his grandfather as this comedy inspiration, and talking about the influences on his art (Klee, Miro, and Magritte):


Back to comedy: One of the best sources of full-blown Winters madness are his guest appearances on The Dean Martin Show. Perhaps it was producer Greg Garrison’s wise idea to let Jonathan loose and then just edit his improvs down to an airable length, or maybe it was just host Dino’s breezy “let’s not take this thing too seriously” attitude, but Winters shone with Dean, as he had with the first three hosts of Tonight.

Here he does old Maude Frickert, uttering her catchphrase, “all over my bodeeee” A real piece of unscripted weirdness takes place here when he assumes the role of an annoying passenger on an airplane (replete with beautifully weird riffs that aren’t meant to be openly funny, as when he talks about his brother who lives in the basement and rolls his cigars).

The airplane concept was also carried out with a full set (and Dean in a tuxedo) and Jonathan in full flower, ad-libbing as he goes. Again, the notion of an unseen brother (in a dark turn, Jon’s character discusses using his brother’s dead body out on the lawn “with bunny eyes in ’im”):

I was mesmerized by the roasts on Dino’s show as a kid. Now I’m still fascinated by the mix of un-p.c. humor and celebs reading off of cue cards, but the two comedians who ALWAYS “killed” on that show were the only two who ad-libbed their segments, namely Don Rickles and Jonathan. Here Maudie Frickert mocks Ronald Reagan’s hair dye. And, as “Willis Mumford,” a country boy, he gets to crack up roastee Johnny Carson.

In recent years, despite having health problems, Winters continued to appear on talk shows. Bonnie Hunt wisely had him come out in character, something most contemporary hosts are scared of — with talk shows being so tightly constructed these days, there is no time for anything that didn't come out of the writers’ room. He did get off a few lines (out of character) to Craig Ferguson about his ill wife and how he likes to scare her from time to time.

That is what is so incredibly impressive about Jonathan’s art (and his ad-libbing did move from standard comedy into sheer artistry): the fact that he created very bizarre images with his choices of words and sounds.

That isn’t something that is tolerated on late night talk shows these days, though — on a guest appearance with Jimmy Kimmel a few years back he showed up as a deranged scout master who dressed his little boy charges as little girls. The bit was not hysterically funny, but Winters' word-paintings got stranger and stranger (and more and more brilliant) until he finally got to a description of a flood that came through the woods and washed all their little dresses downstream.

The piece was a top-notch example of Winters’ talent, but all Kimmel could do was interrupt him, ask him “Can I speak with Jonathan?” and then move on to quiz him about his work on other shows, from Paar and Carson to Dean Martin. Rather than have a bona fide piece of Winters’ weirdness on his show, Jimmy wanted to reconnect to the old weirdness and hear a bunch of reminiscences.

Thus I give full kudos to Marc Maron, whose podcast “WTF?” (as noted here before) is an odd amalgam of interview show and therapy session. As he so often does in his chats, Marc's interview with Jonathan got the latter to go to “the dark places” in his past: the fact that his parents never were affectionate to him and hated his work as a comedian. The other sad topics tackled included Jon’s time “in” and the clever ruse that at one point helped him to escape having electro-shock therapy.

However (as Professor Irwin is apt to say), Marc also prodded Jon to dip into his stash of characters and, unlike Kimmel, allowed him to come up with little slices of genius. The whole interview is worth your time and attention, but Jon begins “winging it” (as he often put it) at the 55:00 mark.

A truly BRILLIANT bit of comedy occurs at 1:01, as he plays out a therapy session in which the therapist is fed up with his spineless patient and begins instructing him on ways to off himself. Remember, at this point Winters is 85 and still functioning on all cylinders. You can listen to the interview here (caution: at some point this interview will be “locked up” for pay, as Marc does with all his older shows).

The routine that Jon did on the Maron podcast is a fascinating echo of Winters' “underside,” which is heard at length on the privately-pressed 10” record called It's Hee-Hee-Hee Hee Larious (an anonymous slab of white-labelled vinyl that is credited only to "J.W."). The original record is indeed a rarity, since presumably it was made to be given away as a gift to Jonathan's friends. It connects him with the other radical "black humorists" of his day; if you want proof he was not only friends with the Vegas folk, you merely need to check out the Lenny Bruce CD box set Let the Buyer Beware, on which you can hear Lenny doing an early show strictly for the benefit of Jonathan, who was playing in the same town (and evidently had told Lenny he wanted to see his show, but was doing his own at the same time). On the Maron interview, Winters notes that he knew Lenny professionally, but was "running buddies" with the inimitable (and equally irreplaceable) Lord Buckley!

It used to fetch hundreds of dollars, but I see by a quick Google search that a copy of this extremely rare record just went for a lousy fifteen bucks on eBay (*after* his death). Whatever its monetary value, it is priceless as an example of Jon truly being a “sick comic,” doing a series of dark sketches and radio-commercial parodies. The whole thing can now be heard on a CD called The Underground Tapes, but only a small sliver of it is up on YT. Feast:

On that same note, here's a very intriguing slice of standup in which Jon seems pissed off about something. The poster doesn't note what show it came from, but it is from 1980 (he timestamps it by mentioning that he's been married 32 years). He really goes to town here, free-associating about gas stations, going to dinner parties, and generally making bitter fun of his marriage (not his usual sort of material – and of course he did remain married to his one and only wife for another 29 years!).

Showing that he had indeed lost none of his edge in his final years, here is an outtake from the mockumentary Certifiably Jonathan in which he riffs a Western poker game, and below is a radically weird and uncensored retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. This definitely fits in the “Hee-Hee-Hee Hee Larious” mode, and I'm very glad the filmmakers caught it on video. The guy was 85 years old and his mind was as sharp (and blissfully strange) as ever.

And, because I'm sure he'd want this aspect of his public life emphasized, I link to his personal website where he displayed and sold his art, both paintings and sketches. Winters' mind is now silenced, but his imagination will live on for a long time to come.

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