I’m generally not given to hagiography in the wake of celebrity death. Still, hearing about Jonathan Winters’ dying touched me. This is likely in part because he looked so much like my grandfather, but also because I really liked Jonathan Winters. I remember fighting to catch my breath watching the short-lived sitcom Davis Rules as a kid. If memory serves, Winters’ had advised his grandchildren that to dissuade people from sitting near you at the movies, you should stick Raisinets to your face and cry, “fungi fever.” It was the delivery that sold it. The Emmy voters agreed as he won Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for the sitcom that could not make it past 29 episodes.
My favorite Winters moment comes from a less esoteric source: It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. This film contains, with all due respect to the Stooges and Chris Farley, my favorite three and a half minutes of anarchic, destructive physical comedy in a visual medium.
In this scene, Winters’ captors condescend as they explain that he is about to be shipped off to a mental hospital. In fact, Jonathan Winters had, by this film’s 1963 release, spent time in what he referred to on his 1960 LP The Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters as “the zoo.” Mental illness haunted Winters throughout his life. Despite the challenges and stigmas associated with these issues, he had broken through by the 1960s. In an era where comedy engaging in profanity, political commentary, or innovation ran the risk of being called “sick,” Winters embodied the mentally ill connotations of the term – acting out the manic half of his real-life bipolar disorder with stream-of-consciousness routines that I trust the surrealists (along with a coked-up Robin Williams) appreciated. Introducing Winters on The Jack Paar Program in 1964, Paar made sly reference to Winters’ mental illness explaining, “If Jonathan Winters is ever accused of anything, he’s got the perfect alibi. He was someone else at the time.”
While stunt doubles seemingly accomplish much of the physical comedy in the above scene from It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Winters’ continual attempts to calm the situation even as the gas station lays in rubble, along with his voiceover’s underplayed threats (“uh huh, there you are”) speak to his particular angle on sick comedy in mid-century. Winters lay at one end of a spectrum occupied at the other end with the likes of Bob Newhart. If Newhart (in his routines and on his sitcom as a psychologist) calmly played sane while those around him demonstrated the world’s insanity, Winters was the comic driven to mania and dissociative disorder by an overly buttoned-down world. But Jonathan Winters’ discontent would not be repressed by civilization. The joy of his comedy then was that he broke from the attempt at control, tearing out of and tearing down the proverbial electric tape and gas station that could not contain him.
(c) 2013, Phil Scepanski