I don't often write obituaries, but when comedian Jonathan Winters passed away last week at age 87, I knew I had to write something about him.
These days, he's best known for four things: as Mork's Benjamin Button-ish, backward-aging son Mearth who punched his way out of a giant polystyrene/cardboard egg ("That's not a boy, that's an old man!") in the final season of Mork and Mindy, as the hapless, everyman truck driver racing to find gangster Jimmy Durante's hidden suitcase of money "...buried under a BIG 'W'!", in It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, appearances on various talk shows and variety shows from the 50s through the 70s and sporadically thereafter, and voiceover work (as himself and Ma Frickert - a character he created and played often in drag - in an episode of The New Scooby-Doo Movies, Grandpa Smurf in The Smurfs TV cartoons produced by Hanna Barbera and Papa Smurf in the live-action/CGI-animated Smurfs films.
His comedy style/persona was hard to describe (actually, it's very easy to describe, if you've checked out his profile on Wikipedia, but it seems less interesting when it's explained as frankly). It was a form of low-key, light satire: he could play average guys, stereotypical gay men, windbag authority figures, showbiz phonies, doddering old codgers, fishing & hunting-obsessed outdoorsman types, myopic children, martians, a cat stalking a mouse and Ma Frickert - Whistler's Mother brought to life. If he was British, he would've been one of the Goon Gang (Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe), The Pythons, or even the Top Gear clowns (Jeremy Clarkson and James May are exactly the kind of characters Jonathan Winters had in his repertoire). Neil Simon once described Spike Milligan as "a demented Jonathan Winters". If you just so happen to own a copy of The Muppet Show Season 3 on DVD, or have seen anything with Milligan (who often came across as a deranged tramp who wandered past security and onto a sound stage) after reading this, you'll wonder, "Is that what the inside of Jonathan Winters mind is like?"
Those who knew him or were fans of his wondered why he never became as popular or successful as his contemporaries or spiritual comedic descendants. Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Bill Murray, Will Ferrell, Zach Galifinakis, Steven Wright, Andy Kaufman - any comedian who attempted to always appear "on", not as themselves, can be linked to Winters, but he was only able to find steady work in commercials, voiceovers and in sporadic appearances in film and television (he played the police chief uncle of Alec Baldwin's Lamont Cranston in The Shadow and won an Emmy co-starring as Randy Quaid's Dad in the short-lived 90s sitcom Davis Rules). I'm inclined to believe the reason for this is because he actually succeeded in becoming his default character as he got older - Elwood Suggins, a farmer who "..can think eggs 24 hours a day" - not particularly edgy, but polite and you knew he was winking at the peanut gallery. I tend to think Inspector Clouseau was Peter Sellers' default character, but his Dr. Strangeglove is too imposing to make people believe that. Winters, like the Goons and the Pythons and the Gear heads, was a trickster.
Another thing: I've never seen a comic book with Jonathan Winters on it. Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope, even Don Rickles (as Goody Rickles in DC's Jimmy Olsen comics), Elvira and others, but no Winters. I think a comic with him might have had some potential to be entertaining. Or at least have its place in the longbox graveyard with the others. Who knows?
A website devoted to a film and DVD about Jonathan, Certifiably Jonathan, has its own website and can be previewed here .
"I think my place is inside the box, underneath the guy receiving the gold medal. They're playing the national anthem and I'm fondling a platinum medallion." - Jonathan Winters