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.
In 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.When 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.
Long before I had met any of the Pythons, I did my first celebrity interview, and it was the first article I ever got money for writing. I was still in college at the time, working a couple of shifts a week at the college radio station, including a weekly comedy show which primarily consisted of playing album cuts by the Smothers Brothers and Jonathan Winters (this was before I had gotten my mitts on Monty Python albums. I discovered that a friend of a friend was running a convention in California, and he was bringing in several guests. One of them caught my eye.
Ironic, in retrospect, because his own eye had been caught by Moe on numerous occasions. By this time, though, Moe and Larry had both passed away. But Joe DeRita, “Curly Joe,” was still alive and well and apparently doing public appearances. Although I figured Jonathan Winters and the Smothers Brothers (to say nothing of the Pythons), would probably be too busy to deign to do a college radio interview, I had a feeling that Curly Joe might have a little more time on his hands. I was right. Using my radio show to justify my request, I finagled his number and made a call, and that very week I was interviewing Curly Joe. He couldn’t have been nicer, and answered all of my fanboy comedy questions with great patience and tolerance. Eventually, at the urging of Mr. Jewell, my former speech teacher, I transcribed the whole thing and sent it off to a nostalgia magazine, which eventually printed it. As a college kid stuck in the Midwest, I couldn’t believe I had spoken to someone who was part of a comedy legend, and to get paid for it? I couldn’t think of a better way to make money.