Jonathan Winters passes away at 87

Jaime J. Weinman on why terms like 'comedy legend' almost seem inadequate to describe him, and his influence

After the announcement of Jonathan Winters’ death at the age of 87, we’ve already heard many great comics (such as Albert Brooks) praise him as one of the greats, and we’re going to hear many others. The usual terms that are thrown around, like “comedy legend” and “comedian’s comedian,” almost seem inadequate to describe Winters and his influence; he was an influence on just about anyone you can name. The most famous example, because he spoke openly about his debt to Winters and eventually invited him to be a regular on his show, was Robin Williams. The rapid-fire changing of personalities and voices and pop-culture references, the way the speed of the transitions are as big a source of comedy as the jokes themselves–that’s all anticipated in a Winters improvisational routine like this one.

Outside of the world of stand-up and improv comedy (and the comedy audio record, in its ’60s golden age), stardom in other media seemed to elude Winters – the fact that obits mentioned his role on the last and worst season of Mork & Mindy just shows how slim the pickings are there. His best acting roles were often small ones, like his appearance in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, often considered one of the best performances in the large cast of comedians. He also had a good part in Tony Richardson’s film of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One.

If Winters didn’t always have the greatest luck in the acting roles he got, he did eventually carve out a fine sub-career in cartoon voice acting. Smurfs viewers may recall him being added to the cast as Grandpa Smurf (he was promoted to Papa for the feature film version), and the producers of cartoons in the ’80s and ’90s were big fans; this Animaniacs cartoon was written around his voice as an elderly basset hound, and the producer of the show wrote that “A major highlight of my career in cartoons was getting to work with Jonathan Winters — and one of the highlights of being a dad was being able to introduce my sons to one of the greatest comedians of all time.”

But it’s as Jonathan Winters that Jonathan Winters will be primarily remembered, as an extraordinarily influential comic, and–for TV viewers–the type of guy who could turn up on any show at any time and kill.

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