Jonathan Winters was indeed a comedic genius. I remember buying and listening to one of his comedy albums, over and over again. There was a Robin Hood routine, there was a Frankenstein routine, there was a Maud Frickert routine of course (his most famous character). He was the true master of the improv long before Robin Williams and others became famous for improvising routines on the spot. As the first picture above with attest, he was also the hilarious character Mearth (what an appropriate name) in the Morky and Mindy show that launched Robin Williams career into the stratosphere. As Robin Williams says in a nice appreciation article in the NY Times when he was along side of Williams on the show and there was time for an improv he would try to enter in and follow Winter’s lead, but “I felt like I was standing next to Coltrane and I was holding a kazoo”.
Jonathan Winters was a WWII Pacific veteran, a Marine, who came back from the war wanting to resume his childhood. He came home to discover his mother had given all his toys to a mission. Why, he asked. ‘Because I didn’t think you would ever come back.’ As his wife Eileen was later to say, Jonathan went through his childhood, the terrible 2s for 20 straight years. He really was a child at heart, but he had a devastating sense of humor. He made even hard bitten comedians, veterans like Jack Benny, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson die laughing. I have posted a link to an NY Times clip below which you should watch, which has a clip of when he did the roast of Carson.
What I have learned about humor and teaching and preaching is that humor causes people to drop their defenses, or at least lower them, and then it is possible to really reach them with something important when they have allowed themselves to be vulnerable for a bit. Humor is healing, good for the human soul. It is, in some ways, the opposite of grieving. When you are grieving deeply, it’s hard or impossible to see that anything could be funny or fun about life. Some people never recover their sense of humor after someone they loved dies. And yet it is so important to do so.
I am thankful for people like Jonathan Winters who made me laugh when I was growing up and needed a good laugh. After a bad day of being taunted or called names at school, I could come home, put on my Winter’s lp and recover my sense of humor. I am thankful that God, and Jesus too, has a sense of humor. I mean look at some of the ridiculous looking creatures God has created! Watch the BBC Animal Crackers show sometime. If you don’t laugh there is something wrong with you.
Thank you Jonathan Winters for bringing some joy to my life, and the life of millions of others. There may be a fine line between genius and insanity, especially when it comes to improv, and you crossed it regularly with glee. In an age today where comedians think that all you need to get a laugh is to be crude, or rude, or use a bunch of four lettered words, Jonathan Winters is a refreshing reminder that you don’t have to say those sorts of things to get a laugh. In fact it doesn’t take any talent all to be abusive and cruel and vulgar. And that’s a fact.