Comedian Jonathan Winters: elastic talent

Turning back the clock to a 1975 interview with The Christian Science Monitor

This is reprinted from the Nov. 17, 1975 issue of the Monitor with the newspaper's Los Angeles correspondent.

By Phil Elderkin

Jonathan Winters is a comedian for all seasons!

Winters talent is elastic, stretching across a wide variety of situations and characters. Often he supplies his own sound effects, ranging from gurgling fountains to bouncing Ping-Pong balls.

And he’ll tell you frankly that no one knows exactly what makes people laugh.

“There is no stock or easy answer to that question,” says Winters, who is currently resident humorist on ABC’s “Good Morning, America. “Humor is real all right, only at the same time it’s intangible. It has no definition of its own because so much of it just happens.

“What works for me might not work for other comedians and vice versa,” said the man who so admires the precise timing of Laurel and Hardy. “I do satire because it’s something I like, something I feel comfortable with, and something that turns me on. But if I tried to be a stand-up comic and just deliver clever lines from a stage, I don’t think I could make it.”

On Jan. 21, 1976, as part of America’s bicentennial celebration, the NBC television network will present a one-hour comedy special tracing the 200-year-old roots of American humor and starring Jonathan Winters.

Starting out at Plymouth Rock and working south and west on the same paths traveled by our America's pioneers, Winters will portray famous people, both real and legendary, as they tell about the things they found humorous.

Viewers can catch this ex-marine as an Indian chief, colonist, blacksmith, Virginiia
farmer, Betsy Ross, and Ben Franklin.

Winters seems to have an honest appreciation for the multiple problems and barriers facing most of today’s young comedians.

“All of these new kids are in trouble because there are so few places – so few small clubs left on either the East or West Coasts – where they can go to polish their craft.

“Years ago radio was a tremendous help. It was a training ground for all kinds of actors and actresses just getting started. But when television came in it changed the role of radio. Now the opportunity to learn the business from behind a studio microphone simply isn't there.

“Nobody gets a show in Las Vegas today without having first made it big somewhere else,” he continued. “You've got to have a name. The competition is terrific, and the critics are tough. They can bury you. Barriers like this stop a lot of kids before their talent has a chance to mature. And the few who make it often can’t stand the pace.

“As a performer, I look at a man’s head as his own private movie camera,” Jonathan said. “His eyes are the lenses and his ears are the most fantastic piece of sound equipment in the world. That also makes him the editor of anything he watches or hears. And that’s why timing and clarity are so important to an actor. If he misses on either one, he’s lost his audience to the refrigerator.

“In fact, staying on top usually is tougher than getting there. For example, TV rarely forgives a bad show and it almost never gives a second chance to young comedians who don’t make it their first time out. It’s entirely possible for a kid to blow his entire career within the space of an hour.”

Winters says the big thing in television production today is to keep costs down and force the director to get his show on film as fast as he can.

“The unions, with their high labor costs and special rules, have made shooting time more important than quality,” Jonathan remarked. “Basically, directors are just as fussy about their work as they ever were. They still know how to do a job well. But the cost factor often makes them settle for less.”

Winters also claims that part of a comedian’s survival today is to stay abreast of what is going on, whether it’s straight news, sports, politics, the economy, or whatever it is. He feels a comic’s material has to be as fresh as today’s newspaper or the public doesn’t think he’s with it.

Eventually, Winters probably will go back to work on his autobiography, tentatively entitled: “I Couldn’t Wait for Success, So I Went on Without It! ”

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

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