Remembering Jonathan Winters: Ken Tucker on the Tragic and Triumphant Life of the Late Comedian

Jonathan Winters died today at the age of 87. Best known for his role on Mork & Mindy, he was a gifted comedian, a painter, and a tragic figure. 

No one thought, moved, or sounded like Jonathan Winters, who has died at age 87. A comedian who worked in nightclubs, on television, and in movies, he was always the very odd man out, a deeply original, neurotic eccentric who was admired by contemporaries, idolized by the generation represented by his closest adept, Robin Williams, and encouraged and then chewed up by an industry that could never find the proper showcase for his unique talents. He fought depression, alcoholism, and a free-floating sense of never belonging, and in the latter regard, he was poignantly correct.

Winters in his 1950s-to-early-1960s prime bridged mainstream and hipster comedy. He came to prominence during a time when new terrain was being cleared by comedians such as Nichols and May, Dick Gregory, Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, Redd Foxx, and the so-called “sick” humor of Lenny Bruce, Shelley Berman, and—invoked just last week on the season premiere of Mad Men—Milt Kamen.

But Winters was different from them all. A large man with a round face that most often assumed a squinched expression—a combination of ingratiating humility, shyness, slyness, and an insuppressible devilishness—he didn’t tell conventional jokes and rarely performed the same routine twice the same way. A Winters routine might start off with an odd stray thought (“Have you ever undressed in front of your dog?”) or seem to embark upon a standard stand-up-comic ploy such as a horror-movie parody. Instead of punchlines, however, he let loose with a torrent of perfect impersonations of animals or the imagined musings of inanimate objects; his dartingly quick, impossibly precise sound effects—the sound of a whip lashing flesh, of the splat a body would make when thrown against a stone wall by an elephant—seemed to emanate from some machine inside his soul.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Winters onstage didn’t tend toward sarcasm or an engagement with social issues. He cultivated a naughty-boy persona that barely concealed a roiling emotional life. The son of a bitter alcoholic—“a hip Willy Loman,” in Winters’s acute phrase—Winters sought approval from audiences, and the all-powerful hosts of TV talk shows. Jack Paar adored Winters and was the latter’s best TV audience: Paar liked to simply sit back, set Winters up with a premise, and watch him improvise like a comic jazz musician. Winters also appeared many times on Johnny Carson’s version of The Tonight Show, even hosting the show occasionally. But Winters must have felt some ambivalence toward King Carson, who thought nothing of stealing one of Winters’s recurring characters, the mischievous old lady Maude Frickert, who became, in Carson’s audacious comic thievery, Aunt Blabby.

Winters recorded bestselling comedy albums (check out the ones he did for Verve, especially The Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters), and was given numerous TV variety and sketch-comedy shows that never succeeded because he simply couldn't be hemmed in by the framework of rehearsed scenes with guest stars, or pausing for commercials, or being required to perform the same characters over and over. He appeared in a small slew of movies, the best known of which is probably Stanley Kramer’s comedian-crammed, enjoyable mess It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, but the movies, with their scripts and retakes, combined with Winters natural reticence at becoming the central figure or star of any scene, rendered his film career even more ineffectual than his TV series.

He was an artist in many senses. Winters liked to paint—usually quirky joke paintings that owed something to surrealism and Kandinsky. As he grew older, he relied upon TV commercial work, and the kindness of admirers like Robin Williams, who cast his hero as his son on Mork & Mindy. But unlike Williams, who managed to transmute his own insecurities and addictions into a movie career that allowed him to develop his fundamentally serious side, Winters own sensitive soulfulness and grave view of the world remained largely untapped.

Like the legendarily anarchic nightclub performances of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Winters’s greatest work is probably stuff that was seen only by audiences in relatively small venues. Emerging into a world of burgeoning mass media, Winters’s talent was still too big, too unruly and spontaneous, to be harnessed in a way that could fully transmit what was going on inside his head. He is at once a tragic figure and a triumphant one.