Bill Cosby was once asked whom he would choose if he had $50 in his pocket to buy a ticket to see only one stand-up comedian, live, in their prime. The comic legend barely took a breath before answering, “Jonathan Winters will make every last one of us stand there in awe.”
Winters, who died yesterday at the age of 87, was a master of voices, mimicry, and right-field spontaneity. “What I do is verbal paintings,” he told National Public Radio in 2011. “I paint a picture. Hopefully you’ll see the characters and what they’re doing and what they’re saying.”
For decades after he became famous for his comedy albums, he was a coveted late-night guest because no one — not the audience, not hosts like Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, likely not Winters himself — knew what he was going to do. An evening with Winters on the sofa was can’t-miss television, and a generation of comics that followed him — like Robin Williams and Jim Carrey — marveled and were inspired by his daring, try-anything antics.
Winters often joked about the mental hospital, playing slightly disturbed characters who belonged to or claimed to have escaped from the asylum. He was drawing from personal experience. At the height of his early fame, he had committed himself to a mental hospital and went on to live with what he diagnosed as bipolar disorder. “I need that pain — whatever it is — to call upon it from time to time, no matter how bad it was,” he told NPR.
So there was a bit of the tortured genius to him, but his comedy was rarely dark. It was manic and sly. Cosby compared Winters’ talent to jazz master John Coltrane, a improvisational artist who could inflate whole stories and characters off a single verbal cue. He was unstoppable, unpredictable, and inimitable. Take a look at some of his best work.
Humor Seen Through the Eyes of Jonathan Winters, his 1962 comedy album
Visiting Jack Paar in 1964, explaining the awkwardness of being naked in front of his dog.
Accepting Paar’s challenge of turning a simple stick into a dozen funny stories.
One of his most famous characters was Maude Frickert, who was really just a dirty old man dressed up as a dainty old lady.
In It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Winters played a furniture mover who completely wrecked a gas station in one of the gonzo movie’s most gonzo scenes.
Winters resurrected Maude and her whole family for this 1979 Wendy’s commercial
Simplicity and precision were hallmarks of Winters’ best bits, like this baseball sketch from an NBC special.
Winters had played Robin Williams’ son in the last season of Mork & Mindy. The two were kindred spirits, as evidenced in this 1986 interview with David Letterman.
Winters looks back at the beginning of his television career, and slips seamlessly into some of his classic characters.