On Winters

Just found out Jonathan Winters died.

Wow. What a loss. I don’t use the word “genius” carelessly, but there is no other word for him. Well, there are lots, but you can’t mention him without using the word genius.

[x_video_embed type=”16:9″ no_container=”true”][/x_video_embed]With the exception of Robin Williams, there really hasn’t been anyone like him. Without him, there would be no Robin Williams. That’s not a knock on Williams. On the contrary; that Williams was so influenced and inspired to make the career he has, and make it his own with originality, is more of a testament to both men. What Winters (and Williams) do is a rare talent. But Winters did it… well, like Winters.

Winters was one of those guys that would come on TV, and the whole living room would stop, voluntarily or otherwise, eyes and ears transfixed by a rapid-fire fluidity of characters, wit, voices, truth. By the time I was old enough to watch TV (in the late 70’s), Winters’ work had kind of been done. He achieved super-guest-star status on every Roast Dais. Until Mork and Mindy, the only way to catch Winters was the occassional appearance on variety shows, like Carol Burnett and The Muppets, or the odd walk-on to Carson’s set. And those nights were always special.

I heard him last on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. Maron reported on a room in Winters’ house with a ceiling completely covered in model airplanes. There was something touching and poignant about that; kind of hard to put words to it, but it was a detail that was not only unique, but especially telling of soul like Winters. He was a troubled man, battled depression, had a hard life with mental illness (some of which may or may have been unfairly attributed to him.) Truth be told, most humorists, comics especially, fight one form of mental problem or another. Maybe it’s more of a symptom that comes from being so tuned into… life. It’s the same symptom that lends to an amazing sense of humor. Perhaps they’re two sides of the same coin.

As I think about watching Winters as a kid on the living room carpet, my face ridiculously close to television in rapt attention of every move and face he made, I can’t help but wonder how much he influenced me the few times I got to watch him work. Whether it be as an actor, my past life in improv, or just as a humorist and writer (of sorts), I can’t help but think there was some part of my psyche that just knew when I saw him: “I want to be like that!”

If you can catch Maron’s interview with Winters, I can’t recommend it enough. He was a rare, special man. I will miss him.

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Jonathan Winters

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