A comic who improvised his success

Jonathan Winters knows a lot of funny people. And they're all him.

Actually, over the years he's created some of the most amusing characters around and added them to what has become his personal repertory company, upon which he draws whenever the need arises.

Many of these characters, along with his legendary skill at comic improvisation, are on display in a new retrospective throughout August on PBS in "Jonathan Winters: On the Loose" (check local listings). In this pledge-drive special, viewers have an opportunity to see the legendary funnyman in a collection of historical clips as well as inspired comic bits from his current repertory.

Winters has influenced several generations of younger comics, particularly in the area of improvisation. But over the course of his career, he says, "I find that humor ... has just changed drastically." He points to the degradation of language as one example: how innocent it was when he started in the 1950s and how vulgar it is today.

While he's had his own TV show (three times), as well as starred in various sitcoms ("Mork and Mindy," "Davis Rules"), he says TV comedy holds little attraction for him these days.

"I haven't gone back to sitcoms because of the writing. You're dealing with as many as seven to eight writers," says the comic, who left Ohio to make it in New York City in 1953.

His first breaks were on the small screen when the early TV pioneers invited him on their shows - "The Jack Paar Program," "The Steve Allen Show," and "The Tonight Show."

But Winters says the current script-by-committee format has taken the fun out of TV work. He describes the relentless march toward the last day of production, when the head writers have run out of patience.

"Just do the lines," Winters says, mimicking the frustration of the writers, who don't like to work with his improvisatory style. " 'If it doesn't work, we'll sweeten it.' And that's where we are: canned laughter. You don't get canned laughter in the movies. You don't get canned laughter, certainly, in the theater. You get it in the sitcoms."

While his style has always owed its spark to improvised characters and situations, Winters says he admires good writing. In fact, some of his biggest inspirations are writers, rather than performers.

"I keep going back to my roots," he says. He greatly respects a fellow Ohioan, writer James Thurber. "I was very influenced [by him] because of the pictures he painted on paper; the same thing with O. Henry." Both were primarily writers, not performers, he adds.

That is not to say that he hasn't learned from other comics.

"There were a lot of guys I enjoyed and still do. I think Laurel and Hardy were two of the funniest guys. I never even got close to them and their approach to humor, but I never laughed so loud as I have at those guys. And Groucho [of] the Marx Brothers ... was one of the funniest individuals I'd ever met."

As for training, Winters confesses to learning from the school of life. "I've always been a people watcher. I never went to dramatic school," says the comic who arrived in the Big Apple with $56.46 in his pocket, not enough to pay for drama classes. "But I've been influenced by a lot of people [who] were interesting, and they were not professionals."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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