Comedian Jonathan Winters died. When I was a kid and heard he was appearing on the Tonight Show, back in the Jack Parr and then Johnny Carson days, I would stay up late to watch him. The schtick was to hand him an object–a stick, a rope, a mop–whereupon he would improvise comic riffs that would leave me laughing so hard it would hurt.
From Megan Buerger in the Washington Post:
Jonathan Winters, the rotund, rubber-faced, squinty-eyed master of impressions and improvisational comedy who became a staple of late-night television for decades and was a mentor to Robin Williams and an inspiration for performers as varied as Steve Martin, Jim Carrey and Jimmy Kimmel, died April 11 at his home in Montecito, Calif. He was 87.
In a career spanning more than six decades, Mr. Winters received some of the highest honors of his profession and appeared in dozens of movies and television programs in addition to his work on the comedy circuit. He was known to start his stage shows by commanding an applauding audience that had risen to its feet, “Please remain standing throughout the evening.”
Yet it was less the punch line he savored than immersing himself in a far-ranging series of characters: hillbillies, arrogant city slickers, nerve-shattered airline pilots trying to hide their fear, a hungry cat eyeing a mouse, the oldest living airline stewardess.
“I was fighting for the fact that you could be funny without telling jokes,” he told the New York Times, adding that he thought of himself foremost as a writer and less as a stand-up comedian. He said he idolized writers with a gift for humor and singled out the sophisticated absurdity of James Thurber as an influence.
Two of his most memorable characters — cranky granny Maude Frickert and bumpkin farmer Elwood P. Suggins (“I think eggs 24 hours a day”) — were born from his early television routines.
“Nobody was safe,” said Gerald Nachman, an entertainment journalist and author. “He dug ruthlessly into American archetypes: disgruntled westerners, judgmental Martians, little old ladies, nosy gas station attendants. It was risky, but he did it so well. It became a commentary on Americans, and no other comedian could pull it off.” . . .
On television, Mr. Winters’s self-titled variety show aired on NBC from 1956 to 1957 and displayed him in dazzling form as a sketch comic. In one episode, he lampooned newsman Edward R. Murrow, conducting an earnest interview with Napoleon (he played both roles). In other spots, he portrayed Robin Hood and Gen. George Armstrong Custer.
His second show aired on CBS from 1967 to 1969, with Mr. Winters, in his signature characters, bantering with celebrity guests. Among them was Jack Paar, who had helped jump-start Mr. Winters’s career by hosting him on his own show years earlier.
In 1964, Mr. Winters asked the audience of “The Jack Paar Show” whether they ever undressed in front of a dog. Once the laughter died down, he added: “You think about that for a minute. A bird somehow doesn’t count. Or a cat. But a dog.” Pause. “They really stare.”
In another appearance with Paar, Mr. Winters was handed a long stick and asked to improvise. As he held it, he started making the clicking noise of a fishing reel.
“Well, that was a pretty good cast, wasn’t it Bob?” he said to an imaginary friend. “I think we’re on to something.”
Then, he looked into the distance and tugged at the pretend fishing rod. “I’m sorry, Margaret,” he said, “try to swim in.”