SAN FRANCISCO — Jonathan Winters and Friends Showtime/pay cable. Saturday 9:35-10:35 p.m. Repeats April 20, 24, and 30. HUNDREDS of young stand-up comedians across America count Jonathan Winters as the godfather of their craft, and three of these - Franklyn Ajaye, Jeff Altman, and Louise DuArt - have been all smiles recently. That's because they were picked to appear on ``Jonathan Winters and Friends,'' a special premi`ering Saturday on cable's Showtime channel.
``Jonathan stays fresh,'' says Mr. Ajaye, a lifelong Winters fan. ``His point of view is never that of an old cat; he's not anachronistic at all.''
Relaxing in the Registry Hotel in Los Angeles earlier this year, the beefy Winters was in a wry mood. ``At 63 years of age, I'm pretty happy just to be where I am,'' he announced in trademark tones, flat but with a sharp edge. ``And I can tell you that I am alive, here in this magnificent hotel, surrounded by used food and flowers - I guess they whipped the body out of here. And I want to assure you that I've been working fairly steadily.'' Winters' recent work has been remarkable in several different media, in addition to his television comedy. His book of epigrammatic ``Winters' Tales,'' published by Random House in 1987, stayed on the New York Times' fiction best-seller list for 14 weeks. It was followed last year by ``Hang-Ups,'' which features reproductions of 50 of Winters' visionary paintings, completed over a 25-year period.
It was as a visual artist that Winters was trained in his native Ohio, after a stint in the Marines during World War II. While still in art school in Dayton, he was convinced by his wife, Eileen, a fellow art student, to display his knack for humor at a local talent show. Besides winning him a much-needed wrist watch, his victory at the show led to a drive-time job on a Dayton radio station, and later to a TV spot in Columbus. ``I thought my star was rising, and it wasn't,'' recalls Winters. ``It was just kind of sitting there locally.''
So Winters moved on to New York City with $56 in his pocket and was booked into several of the Big Apple's ``showcase clubs.'' Then in his late 20s, the comedian showed a magical ability to build instantly from a simple prop or audience suggestion.
He became a favorite guest on New York-based, national TV shows in the late '50s, sometimes appearing separately with hosts Jack Paar, Garry Moore, and Steve Allen within the space of a single day. He maintained a manic level of mad humor that left both hosts and audiences gasping. Paar tapped Winters as his vacation replacement on the ``Tonight'' show in 1958, and bookings in clubs across the country followed.
But the pace finally caught up with the comedian, forcing him to take a short rest in a mental institution, an experience which enhanced his legend and provided him to this day with more grist for his comic mill.
During the '60s, Winters had several of his own TV shows and a handful of albums. Within eight recorded tracks on one of them Winters, using only his mouth and a mike, created 47 characters, from a Marine lieutenant to a Martian, and provided 51 sound effects, from a rip saw blade to an entire stadium crowd.
Perhaps Winters' best-loved and most recurrent character was Maude Frickert, based on his Ohio kin, a randy and rambunctious old woman who, like Winters, had a way of cutting through blarney and getting what she wanted.
WINTERS moved to California with his wife and two children and found more time to return to art work and fiction. In 1981 and '82, he appeared on TV's ``Mork and Mindy'' as the son of Robin Williams, who in real life seemed the heir-apparent to Winters' domain of improvisational, multiphrenic comedy.
Like Williams, all three of the Showtime special's young comedians grew up collecting Winters' albums. Franklyn Ajaye, a laid-back stand-up comic with film and TV credits, says he was thrilled when Winters invited the three to join him at an Italian restaurant near his L.A. home on the night before the taping last November. ``He just launched into his stories over dinner,'' recalls Ajaye.
Louise DuArt, an in-demand impressionist, adds, ``When he left in his car, we all just looked at each other and said, `This is unbelievable! We're gonna work with this man?' I think we were all very intimidated.''
But she notes that Winters was ``nothing but supportive'' during the taping of the program, which gives all four performers a relaxed setting in which to show off. Jeff Altman, whose nationally syndicated alter ego, Leonard Moon, is based on a Winters creation, predicts that ``people who see this special will see something unique: Jonathan doing something he hasn't done on TV since the early '70s. They'll see him in a free-floating mode, where he's doing his characters and having fun with the audience and not being restricted in any way.''
``To be able to pick and choose is an ideal situation,'' notes Winters, ``and I'm very close to being in that situation.'' Essentially a private man, he divides his time between his L.A. home and a more isolated site in central California. He's working on an autobiography and producing more of what his personal manager, George Spota, terms ``surrealist-impressionist-primitive'' paintings.
To those who emulate him, Winters says, ``It's always been hard for anyone that's the least bit different to find a place to play. One side of it makes you think you've got a lot of material to fire up an even bigger furnace. Another side says, `Maybe we oughta shut down everything.' But I don't think any real comedian does that.''