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Morning Sun
  • TRUE STORIES: Blame it on Jonathan Winters

  • Jonathan Winters has to take a good deal of the blame for me getting put out in the hall repeatedly in Sacred Heart grade school and sent to the principal at Frontenac High for trying to make my classmates and teachers laugh with renditions of his madcap routines — complete with rubber faced gestures and sound effects — I’d seen on the Jack Paar and Dean Martin shows.

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  • Jonathan Winters has to take a good deal of the blame for me getting put out in the hall repeatedly in Sacred Heart grade school and sent to the principal at Frontenac High for trying to make my classmates and teachers laugh with renditions of his madcap routines — complete with rubber faced gestures and sound effects — I’d seen on the Jack Paar and Dean Martin shows.
    I got to see lots of wacky comedians on TV when I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s; Lucille Ball, Sid Ceasar, and Ernie Kovaks for instance. But none of them blew me away the way Winters did.
    Winters, who died April 11 at age 87, was not only a bottomless pit of comic genius, he was utterly fearless. You could hand the guy a stick, a coat hangar or a ballpoint pen and he’d do 15 minutes of comedy with it as a variety of characters complete with his own sound effects.
    It was like watching a tightrope walker or trapeze artist perform without a net.
    Sometimes he was just plain weird. In 1964, 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."
    Anyone reading this who didn’t have the opportunity to see Winters in his prime might think of him as a combination of the rubber-faced Jim Carrey and the off the wall Robin Williams — albeit a little more understated. Williams worshiped him and insisted that he be made a regular on "Mork and Mindy" so they wrote him in as an overgrown child, which was perfect casting.
    Jonathan Winters was not always in his right mind. Not just in the showbiz sense, but in the mental health sense. He was diagnosed manic-depressive and spent time in a mental health hospital at least once in his life.
    He grew up in Dayton, Ohio. No doubt his early life played into both his comedy and mental health. An only child, he spent lots of time in his room making up characters.
    His father, an investment banker, was an alcoholic. Winters said his father once locked him in the car for hours while getting drunk at a bar. He was 7 when his parents divorced. His upbringing with his mother was equally unpleasant. She became a radio talk-show host, and he described her as increasingly jealous of his success.
    Winters, most times, avoided the big punch line in favor of immersing himself in a 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, fish commenting on a fisherman’s ineptness from under the surface, etc.
    Page 2 of 3 - “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.
    Winters also made dozens of comedy records filled with oddball characters, some of which were Grammy winners.
     Of course, growing up in the Republic of Frontenac, I was exposed to a slew of spontaneous, madcap characters, not the least of whom was Jack Kotzman, who made his own wacky comedy tapes on a little reel to reel recorder and had a large collection of comedy albums — Winters’ included.
    When I called Jack’s son, John, to reminisce about Winters and his dad, he recalled a sketch in which a prison warden faces a crazed felon who’s gotten his hands on a gun. A Catholic priest, Father Duffy (Winters), is called in. He goes down and says, in a fine Irish brogue, "Ah Jimmy me boy, it's me, Father Duffy. Be a good lad now and put down the gun." After several statements of kind heartfelt encouragement by Father Duffy, the prisoner finally hands him his gun. Then Father Duffy asks, "You are a good Catholic, right enough?" The prisoner says, "Naw, I'm a Lutheran." BLAM! Father Duffy shoots him!
    Fortunately for me, I was able to find venues to do my Winters routines that were more accepting than the classroom. Chicken Annie’s, for instance, where the Pichlers and Lipoglavs actually egged me on — once we were closed for the night and cleaning up — by giving me something of my own standup improvisation and characterization stage to perform for them, the dishwashers and waitresses (my future bride, Linda, among them).
    Speaking of Linda, Winters gets part of the credit for me ending up married to her. In fact, I often get asked — sometimes teasingly, sometimes earnestly — by friends and acquaintances, “Tell me, just how did a guy like you ever end up with a creative, intelligent, gorgeous woman like Linda?”
    Sometimes I give them a sly Winters smile and nod ... then shoot back a comeback like, “Sorry pal, but that’s a little secret I promised never to reveal.”
    Most times, though, I just shrug and say, “I make her laugh.”
    J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and prevention and wellness coordinator at Pittsburg State University. He also operates Knoll Training, Consulting & Counseling Services in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or jtknoll@swbell.net.
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