The trailblazing comic improviser Jonathan Winters, who died Thursday at age 87, was a seminal influence on scores of comedians and the person Robin Williams credits as his mentor.
Winters’ high energy, unpredictable and often surreal comic riffs included an array of characters, reenactments of movie scenes and pointed, quick-morphing sound effects that he often produced on the spot.
Take, for example, his 1964 appearance on “The Jack Paar Program.” In order to illustrate Winters’ genius for creating comedy out of thin air, Paar gave him a simple wooden stick. “Do something with the stick” Paar said, and in what’s now a classic bit, Winters morphed from wayward fisherman to tepid circus ringmaster with a whip, to highbrow flute player.
Johnny Carson was just as taken with Winters’ comic brilliance, said Andrew John Nicholls, head writer for “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” from 1988 to 1992.
“Jonathan thrilled Johnny down to his socks,” Nicholls said. “They became like two 8-year-olds together. Harmless anarchical craziness, the loopy connection of disjointed ideas, deliberate mental misfiring just to see what’d happen, where it’d go. Johnny loved that stuff, it just tickled him pink, and Jonathan was the all-time master.”
Dan Pasternack, vice president of development for IFC and a stand-up comedian himself, was one of Winters’ closest friends -- they spoke on the phone weekly. “Jonathan’s influence is absolutely singular,” Pasternack said. “There are so few original voices where you can say ‘it starts with this guy.’ As far as I’m concerned, anything in contemporary improvisational comedy starts with Jonathan Winters.”
He pointed out that Williams hardly ever accepts an award without crediting Winters’ influence on his fast-paced, free-form streams of consciousness. Winters, however, who always watched proudly from home on TV, humorously took issue with that, Pasternack said.
“He’d tell Robin after: ‘Don’t say mentor, say idol!’”
The cherubic-faced Winters, also an accomplished painter, appeared in several films, including now-classic performances in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “The Loved One,” and he was no stranger to TV -- his hourlong variety show for CBS, “The Jonathan Winters Show,” ran from 1967 to 1969 and “The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters” was in syndication from 1972 to 1974.
But he never achieved the kind of major, A-list Hollywood success that many of the comedians he influenced did. His legacy, however, is a cumulative one, living on in the plethora of comic voices he inspired.
Maria Bamford, who talks about her lifelong struggles with depression, anxiety and OCD in her comedy special, “Maria Bamford: the Special Special Special!” said she turned to Winters -- who also talked openly about his mental health struggles -- for personal advice recently.
“He didn’t know me at all, but he took time to talk to me on the phone, this was about a year ago,” Bamford said. “I was worried about going back to work and not stressing my brain and not feeling afraid and going back to performing live. And he said: ‘Well, you got a good shrink?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said: ‘Well then, you just keep going!’ I thought that was very simple, but it was a relief to me. I’m now touring again and working on new material and feeling pretty great.”
“I was honored to have talked to him” said Marc Maron, who interviewed Winters on his WTF podcast in 2011. “I’ll miss him. There was no one like him and there won’t be ever again. He took comedy where no man had gone before.”
Added Andy Kindler, who’s also appeared on WTF and who was a series judge on the final season of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing:” “Jonathan Winters had a quote that I always loved and agree with wholeheartedly: ‘Most people don’t have a sense of humor. They think they do, but they don’t.’”
Jamie Masada, owner of The Laugh Factory in Hollywood, said he remembers a night in 1986 very fondly. “Jonathan came into the club with a bunch of comedians that night -- he didn’t go onstage, but he walked around and did impressions of Groucho Marx. Everybody was on the floor laughing. It was such a moment.”
“He’s the father of improvisational comedy,” Pasternack said. “Nobody did it before him.”