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Jonathan Winters, 1925-2013

jonathanwintersbigwJonathan Winters was… well, let’s say that before there was Robin Williams (whose son Winters played on Mork and Mindy), there was Jonathan Winters, whose often anarchic comedy was unique for its time and incredibly influential. When he would show up on TV talk shows from Jack Paar and Johnny Carson to Keno and Letterman, he was unlike any other comic of the era, whether he stayed in character as one of his stock players like randy grandma Maude Frickert or dim hayseed Elwood P. Suggins or going off in weird directions peppered with vocal sound effects and funny voices. Winters passed away today at 87, and students of comedy would do well to find clips of his work or his comedy albums and consider how this guy did stream-of-consciousness character stand-up before that was a thing.

In case you need some more direct nerd credits, he did cartoon voices on several shows, including as Grandpa Smurf on TV and Papa Smurf in the movies (including the sequel coming this year), and voices for Animaniacs, played the police chief uncle of Alec Baldwin in The Shadow, was the dead pool player in The Twilight Zone episode “A Game of Pool,” and was in Comic Book: The Movie. Plus, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which means he was right here down the street from me for the Big W scene — in fact, here he is, as the realization dawns on him that he’s found where the loot is:

A lot of his best work is lost, but there’s some representative stuff on the Net, with the caveat that these were from a time when you couldn’t get away with anything remotely like you can get away with today:

On Jack Paar’s show in 1964, he does some stand-up, starting with a demented idea and moving on to bits that show off his gift for doing characters, sound effects, and tangents:

Also from Paar in 1964, the host hands him a stick, and he just takes off on a totally random series of riffs:

This sketch had Winters as an airline pilot before a commission to defend himself before a commission considering revoking his license:

And from one of his Verve comedy albums, Elwood P. Suggins shows up in a 1962 bit about cars that veers off into observations about dating, kissing, rubber windshields, and fishing, among other strangeness:

One of the most influential and unique comedy voices ever.

UPDATE: Marc Maron has some thoughts.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Kliph Nesteroff is absolutely dominating as usual by digging up a treasure trove of video with Winters, including industrial films and a game show pilot from 1954. Click here and explore.

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