Friday, April 12, 2013

The Impact of Jonathan Winters

Jonathan Winters is gone and it is sad.

There shall and should be many tributes to him, but instead of fulminating about who got what wrong about his legacy, I will do my best to summarize it.

Comedy in America has been many things.  It has been mostly the domain of men, and it has been part of the Vaudeville show, the person who emceed before the dancers came onstage, the opening act for the band, the warmup for the politician, the warmup for the band, the warmup for the radio/TV show and inevitably, the main act.

With all of those niches comes a need and the prerequisites for being a comedian changed over time.  Before radio, one piece of material could sustain you for years as you toured the country.  Then radio came along and that one piece could absolutely kill on the air, but what do you do for an encore?  You had to be new every week and those who could do this did and those who didn't, fell by the wayside.  There was also the wave of comics who would find a book of jokes, memorize them and tour doing just that.  Eventually comics started doing their own material or material written for them.

Sometime in the 1950's, amid the family jokes, the drunk jokes, the traveling jokes, the straight person-funny person double acts, new types of comedians started appearing.  Richard "Lord" Buckley would recite Classical Literature and History in what he called, "Hipsomatic" that took African-American slang and re-used it for his own ends as well as affecting his own posh persona (he was "Lord" Buckley!).

There was Shelley Berman whose monologues concerned themselves with character and also reflected a wild neurosis, i.e. "the ugly white map" that buttermilk leaves on the glass.  There was Mort Sahl who mostly took what he read and saw in the media and reflected on it; a clean break from the old schools of humor.  There was Lenny Bruce who took on the social mores of the day with amazing frankness.

Then there was Jonathan Winters.  You couldn't confuse him with anyone.  His fertile imagination, range of expressions, command of accents,  and love of sound effects made him truly unique.  Coming from a time when the predominant media were movies and radio, he wasn't solely a "sound effects" man like Wes Harrison or Michael Winslow.  He was steeped in theater of the mind, as much of America was at that time.  Bill Cosby's act is also augmented by self-generated sounds.  There were imitators, to be sure: Robert Klein used to complain that if he followed one of those acts the mic would be wet from saliva.

As we know now, there was no one quite like him.  His most prominent fan would be Robin Williams, and there is no denying his talent, but, and it cannot be emphasized enough, there was no one quite like Jonathan Winters.  He did what he did, almost without precedent and there are few direct descendents.  Richard Pryor mirrors many of the same qualities, but his most famous stage persona solidified AFTER Winters' rise.

Eighty-seven is a good run.  He left behind a wealth of material.  Watch him on YouTube : this routine shows what he could do UNPREPARED for four minutes, just being handed a prop. Listen to his albums on Verve although his CBS album can descend into too much improv, but oh what a standard he had! If the truth is to be told, avoid his most famous film role in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World!", which, in the long run doesn't do a lot of people justice.

R.I.P. Jonathan Winters.  An original if there ever was.

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