Monthly Archives: December 2013

In Memoriam: Goodbye, Mr. Winters

As 2013 ends, “In Memoriam” lists start to pop up on blogs. I’ve been fairly lucky this year in losing only a few friends, relatives and acquaintances. But, the world lost a comedy genius this year, and I lost a one-time collaborator, when we lost Jonathan Winters.

JWIn the world of improvisation, even among improvisers, Jonathan Winters was too hip for the room. Television, then and now, simply didn’t know what to do with someone so uniquely talented. Pure, raw comedy just oozed out his pores, and film and television executives didn’t know how to contain it or package it in the same way they did it for other stars. He was wonderful in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and The Loved One, but movies were few and far between. Youtube is full of clips of Jack Paar and other talk show hosts sitting down with him and letting Jonathan be Jonathan. But TV execs could never find a way to use him in a conventional sitcom or variety format, even though they tried (most prominently as Robin Williams’ infant son on Mork and Mindy).

When we were living in Montecito (the rich suburb of Santa Barbara), and I was working for John Cleese, Jonathan Winters was a prominent local resident. I kept my eyes peeled for him, but after a year, I had pretty much given up hope on ever seeing him. But he did do a book signing at a local bookstore, and I joined the line with my then-young son, and listened to him address the gathering.. We got a book and got a photo, and we left, impressed and hoping for more such encounters. Based on the stories we had heard, Jonathan Winters was supposed to be ubiquitous in the Santa Barbara area, but that was the last we saw of him, at least for a while.Jonathan WintersWhen I was growing up, I loved his too-infrequent television appearances and his too-brief TV series. I also owned several of his comedy albums, which were off-the-wall wonderful, and in junior high school, my bit in the school talent show involved lip-synching to a Jonathan Winters album. I loved the guy, and my only regret was that he wasn’t on TV more often.

Finally, on the day we were going back to Illinois for the holidays, I pulled into the parking lot across from our house, and I stepped out to grab a newspaper. “University of Illinois, eh?” I heard someone comment. I turned around and realized that the Great Man had been looking at my license plate holder. I stammered a bit and remembered that he was from Ohio, and a big Ohio State booster. I made a little small talk about their football teams, all the while thinking “I’m talking to Jonathan Winters!”

He looked exactly the way he looked on television, and acted a little like a bored townie hoping to chat. Naturally,I obliged him. I told him we were heading back to Illinois for Christmas, but lived just across the road, and maybe we’d run into each other after I returned.

That was my parting memory of Santa Barbara that year, and I couldn’t wait to get back to see if I could arrange to run into my new–well, acquaintance, at least. I ran into an old classmate while I was back, who asked me what California was like. I said “It’s pretty much the same as Illinois, except when you’re standing in line at the post office and you see somebody who looks like Jonathan Winters, it really is Jonathan Winters.”

Upon our return to Montecito, I made a post office run mid-morning, and in the strip mall where the small local post office was located, I saw a large expensive-looking car parked in the handicapped space outside with the license plate reading JW 1. I swerved  into the first parking space available and went in to “buy some stamps,” hoping that what I was doing would not legally constitute stalking. He was indeed standing at the counter, mailing out copies of his recent book. As I had a copy of it at home, I approached him and asked if I could get him to sign it sometime. “Sure,” he said, “can you meet me at the pharmacy at lunchtime?” The pharmacy he referred to was about a minute’s walk away, and was actually a drugstore with an outdoor area that served lunch. Laurie and I decided to eat there, and sure enough, shortly after we arrived, Jonathan Winters arrived. He signed and we chatted–for some reason, we talked sports again, and told him about working for John Cleese. Just before he left, he said “I’ve got an idea I’d like to talk to you about. Can I call you?”

Could he call me? I gave him all of my phone numbers, figuring there was at best a 50-50 chance I’d hear back from him. But a couple of days later, I had stepped away from my desk when the phone rang and the machine kicked in, and I heard his familiar voice leaving a lengthy, hilarious message which I still kick myself for not saving. We arranged another lunch at a nearby cafe.

He discussed a film that he wanted to write with me, a sports-related film. Over several weeks, we made several attempts to break the story, but none of them really succeeded–while I was trying to write a story and a vehicle for Jonathan Winters, he was much more interested in writing a very serious, very dark story. Ultimately, we couldn’t reconcile the approaches. Write something serious for Jonathan Winters? To me, the man sitting across the table was comedy.

There was a dark side to him, make no mistake. He fought–and mostly conquered–many well-publicized demons, and was never shy about talking about any of them. But he channeled the pain into comedy, into laughs like the world had never seen, all improvised.

Eating lunch in public with Jonathan Winters, I found out, was as entertaining as any of his television performances. Sometimes people would recognize and approach him, other times he would notice something someone was wearing or carrying and he would approach them and make a comment. He lived in his own reality, a strange but very funny reality, that he created for each and every person he talked to. He always referred to me as “This is my stepson,” a role I embraced. And, when I initially referred to him as “Jonathan,” he politely corrected me, and I always respectfully referred to him as “Mr. Winters.”

So as 2013 draws to a close, Mr. Winters, I’ll say a last goodbye from your friend. Your collaborator. Your stepson.

Monty Python’s New Year’s Eve

The surviving Pythons appeared on the New Year’s Eve edition of BBC1’s Graham Norton show, proudly shilling for the stage show, and answering questions that he allegedly had prepared for a boy band. Very funny stuff. Knowing their various schedules, I suspect this was taped earlier in December, but it really doesn’t matter. Just watch and enjoy.

Merry Christopher Lee

What would Christmas be without a holiday message from Sir Christopher Lee? He’s still going strong at 91–well, maybe not as strong as he used to, but the fact that he’s still going at all, and is releasing heavy metal music, is enough for me.
I met Sir Christopher and had lunch with him and some of his friends many years ago, and my wife is still jealous. I’ll write about that on an appropriate day in 2014. In the meantime, Merry Christmas to all!

Superjock

If you are not of a certain age and you did not grow up in the Chicago area, the name of Larry Lujack probably doesn’t mean much to you. But if you listened to top 40 radio in the late 1960s, 1970s or 1980s, you listened to Larry Lujack. He was like no top 40 deejay that had come before. He was cynical, sarcastic, and very, very funny. He made no pretense of liking all of the songs he was playing and was often little more than tolerant. But he was my favorite disc jockey, by far, and when I went on to my own radio career, his attitudes influenced me way more than I used to admit.
He was best known for “Animal Stories,” and he and Li’l Snot-nosed Tommy (Tommy Edwards, whose air shift followed Larry’s), would go over the various animal stories in the news that day. (During one period, I used to send in stories regularly, and I even became the LaSalle County Bureau Chief). He started out presenting the “Clunk Letter of the Day,” and as his popularity grew, he gradually added other features, including “The Cheap Trashy Showbiz Report,” but “Animal Stories” remained the one for which he is best known.
He retired many years ago, and died this week, but he left behind a lot of laughter. Check back shortly for the story of the drooling horse and the biker.

Farley

It’s hard to imagine what a 49-year-old Chris Farley would be doing right now. Movies, of course. Naturally, SNL would have wanted to bring him back as their Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. So many things… But we’ll never know, because we lost Chris on this date in 1997. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone 16 years, despite the best efforts of so many friends who tried to help him. 

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My own favorite memories of him were when we were both part of the whole Chicago improv scene in the late ’80s, when everyone knew each other, closed the neighborhood bars after the shows, and crashed at each others’ places. It was an amazing scene, one that hasn’t been written about much yet, but eventually will be. (How could it not, with the talent that went through during that era?)

We had all heard about this kid from Wisconsin, the one that idolized Belushi and wanted to study with Belushi’s favorite director, but we hadn’t seen him perform. He had started taking classes with Del and Charna, but they kept insisting that he wasn’t ready to perform yet. Of course, this only made him want it all the more. Finally, they decided he was ready. I seem to recall that Del tipped some of us off, that we might want to catch this kid and his first time on a Chicago stage. Del did NOT say this sort of thing, ever, so when he told us that night, we made a point of watching.

I think we later came to accept the metaphor: Farley attacked the stage, with an intensity that blew us away. His was raw and unpolished talent, but he blew us away. Del later told him “You’re like one of those guys that the Vikings used to strap to the prow of their ships when they’re going into battle.” And he was right.

Of course, the more he studied, the more disciplined and professional he became, but I’ll never forget that first night. Miss you, Chris.

Billy Jack Meets The Committee

It’s difficult to overestimate just how popular BILLY JACK was when it was first released, but for many people, it was the first chance they had to see the now-legendary West Coast improvisational theatre, The Committee. While researching and interviewing for my book on The Committee, I heard stories about filming for Tom Laughlin, who passed away recently. He knew great comedic talent, however, and used it to great advantage for his film. This was shot in the square in downtown Santa Fe in the spring of 1970, with real passers-by in the background watching the filming. Billy Jack featured a number of Committee performers, including Howard Hesseman (who was then known as Don Sturdy), Dick Stahl, Ed Greenberg, Dan Barrows (now known as Beans Morocco) and Alan Myerson. Enjoy.

Christmas in Heaven

‘Tis the season for one of my favorite Graham Chapman performances, from Meaning of Life. I remember walking around the soundstage with Graham during the filming, and noticing the huge set of steps that he would have to walk down during the song. He admitted he was a little nervous–it was a huge, tall set of stairs, and his descent was being choreographed by Arlene Phillips. But he shot it shortly afterward–and the result should put you in the Christmas spirit…

More good news for Python fans

I’m always delighted when I can pass along some great news about another Python-related project, following in the wake of the Python Reunion shows in London next summer. I’m even happier when it involves a long gestating project that my pal Terry Jones has been trying to put together for a while. There have been various announcements over the past couple of years, but it looks like it’s official: Terry Jones’ Absolutely Anything is set to begin filming next March in London, with Simon Pegg (Star Trek, The World’s End, Mission Impossible 4) in the lead. There are more details here, but most people here will be especially interested to know that John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, and Michael Palin will be lending their voices to the aliens who give Neil Clarke (Pegg’s character) his magical powers. Robin Williams will be voicing Neil’s dog in the comedy. Terry and Gavin Scott penned the script, and this is going to be great. And, after principal photograph wraps, Terry will be climbing on stage at the O2 Arena in London with the other Pythons. Yes, 2014 should be a good year…