Friday, April 12, 2013

The Tenth Muse

When I was a little boy, I wanted more than anything in the world to be funny. It took years to realize I'm not, but before I finally accepted the truth (after the usual five stages of grief), my heroes were the great comedians. Groucho was one. The other was Jonathan Winters, who died Thursday at age 87.

I watched Jonathan's CBS television show religiously, as well as his syndicated show, neither of which lasted very long. He also enlivened the last, dreary season of Mork and Mindy. His compilation album from Verve, Movies Are Better Than Ever, spun endlessly on the turntable in the family dining when I was in my early teens, and it may is still in my vinyl collection. Any guest appearance on any TV show was, for me, an event akin to a presidential election.

Winters had an extraterrestrial sensibility that came across best in small, sudden bursts. He never seemed at home in series television, and he was wasted in the movies. He appeared in no great pictures, and he never gave a memorable screen performance. Pauline Kael once said of him that he "never found his forms." That may be true, and in retrospect, I have come to believe that even the greatest comedians are funny only about half the time. With Jonathan, one had to wait for inspiration to strike, but when it did, he seemed to tap into a metaphysical realm normally reserved for bodhisattvas.

I offer this clip as a sample of the weirdness:

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