Jonathan Winters: Laughing Through Life

October 21, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, honoring one funny man. Kwame Holman begins with this background.

KWAME HOLMAN: Last night at Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, comedy stars from several generations gathered to honor an icon of their crafts, Jonathan Winters. Winters was the second recipient of the center’s annual Mark Twain Prize. The first was Richard Pryor last year. Even before the night’s festivities began, Winters was working for laughs.

FAN: Who do you like in the World Series?

JONATHAN WINTERS: I’d like to see the Yankees do it. I’m a Cincinnati fan, but we quit in July.

KWAME HOLMAN: The act continued on stage.

JONATHAN WINTERS: I’ve played some pretty good-sized pads in my career. I don’t think I’ve ever played anything this size and this high — the chandeliers. My wife said, “Could we get one?” We live in a trailer. 

ANNOUNCER: What can I say? The one and only Jonathan Winters, ladies and gentlemen.

KWAME HOLMAN: Jonathan Winters has performed standup comedy for nearly five decades.

JONATHAN WINTERS: I’ve been married 32 years, and people have said, “Isn’t that… oh, that’s so… even in or out of that business, that’s so wonderful.” You try it.

KWAME HOLMAN: He broke in with the dawn of television in the 1950s. Often appearing on the “Steve Allen Show,” and later frequented the “Tonight Show.” Winters’ signature was his ability to improvise instantly into a multitude of characters, here a prison guard.

JONATHAN WINTERS: Come on, Tiger, I know you’re down there. (Gunshots) Well, we know one thing: He’s armed.

KWAME HOLMAN: Some of the legion of comedians Winters inspired gave testimony prior to last night’s award ceremony.

ROBIN WILLIAMS/COMEDIAN: For me, he was the guy that I saw make my father laugh, and I went, God, that must be amazing, because my father was a tad stern.

MARK CURRY/COMEDIAN: He’s definitely a pioneer. He’s probably older than the pioneers, so he probably was doing comedy on the “Mayflower.”

STEVE ALLEN/COMEDIAN: Nobody else is like him, nor I think will anyone ever be, and he was always sort of fiery and undependable and spontaneous.

KWAME HOLMAN: On the big screen, Winters appeared in the 1963 madcap comedy, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World,” and “Viva Max.” Receiving the bust of Mark Twain at last night’s ceremony, Winters was Winters.

JONATHAN WINTERS: A lot of things I’d like to say. I thought the head would be bigger. (laughter in audience)

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Winters, welcome. Explain to us the pleasure you get in making people laugh.

JONATHAN WINTERS: Well, I’ll tell you very honestly without getting carried away in a very long answer. I think comedy — and whether I think it’s the rarest thing — I’m sure others hopefully would agree — that laughter is probably one of the rarest things we have. Even look at the minerals, diamonds, and rubies and gold and silver and platinum, oil, all these little goodies that bring so much wealth to people. But as far as laughter, and you can say yes, those are very rare. And they are, they’re rare. But how often can you say to yourself or to your wife or — excuse me — your loved ones, whatever, that you sat down and watched this specific show in television and in the movies, whatever, and found yourself out of the chair and on the floor? That’s how rare laughter is. That’s how rare comedy is. We don’t find ourselves on the floor very often.

JIM LEHRER: When did and how did you realize that you could make people do that, that you could make them laugh until they fell onto the floor?

JONATHAN WINTERS: Well, I was an only child. I don’t say that with, you know, little tears. Mother and Dad didn’t understand me. I didn’t understand them. So consequently, it was a strange kind of arrangement. They didn’t understand me. And I’d be in my room. Being an only child, I’d talk to myself, interview myself. I would be a general. I would be a war hero or something, whatever I wanted to be. And it was always, “What is he doing in there?” And I — so I decided, hey, I was working alone; maybe I ought to try something in the schoolyard. I was really not a class clown. People who are still living would tell you I was somewhat of a class clown. I had a terrible fear of failing. I think I still do, not as much as it used to be because I’m close to 74 years of age, and if I fail, so what? I don’t want to get into this failing tomorrow, by the way. I hope I’m, you know, fairly articulate and at least say “thank you for the statue” and “where’s the rest of the body?”

But I think the first time — I was in the Marines, I did a real test. I was on a carrier, the “Bonhomme Richard” as a matter of fact, CV-31. We were in the Pacific. Now, that’s got a complement of well over 2,000 sailors, 75 Marines, which was our contingent aboard. And the old man said to me, “How about being funny tonight, Winters? You’re always clowning around here on the ship.” And I said, “Well, sir, I don’t have any routine.” “Get up on the deck.” So on the hangar deck, we had some 2,000 characters and, of course, the Marines. And I won — over some sailors, which was really something — five gallons of ice cream.

JIM LEHRER: For being the funniest?

JONATHAN WINTERS: For being the funny man.

JIM LEHRER: You have always… you are considered the master of — the master of improvisation, of going with a situation and not doing it, everything scripted. Has that always been the way you’ve done it? For instance, was that the way it was on the aircraft carrier?

JONATHAN WINTERS: Oh, that was all made up. Sure, I improvised. I — at every opportunity I try to improvise because it’s a great exercise for me, and it’s a lot of fun. And, I must be honest, I’m in charge, you know, for a little while, not long. But I’ve been in a lot of movies, several movies — I shouldn’t say a lot — and I certainly adhered to those lines that were written, which were very good. You mentioned one about “Viva Max.” I did “Mad World” and “The Russians are Coming” with some fine directors and fine writers. So it’s not that I’m not disciplined to doing lines. It’s just that it’s a lot of fun to come up with something and just start, you know, with a glass. “These little minnows, we have 16 of them in there. You can’t see them. They’re miniature, but they make for wonderful hors d’oeuvres, especially if you’re in the poor section of town.” The glass here is from Lancaster, Ohio. Some of the glass was blown in Italy during the war, blown right out of the guy’s hand. This is room temperature, perfect. Also, now it’s filthy. So…

JIM LEHRER: You’ve been doing that kind of thing all your life.


JIM LEHRER: Do you still get as much pleasure out of it now as you did when you started?

JONATHAN WINTERS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I think it’s — I tell you what’s most fun is around a group of people that know you, such as your family and some friends who know you, not people that don’t know you. That sometimes isn’t fair. But people who know you, have laughed at you and with you, to see you do something new, that’s the test, is to do something. My wife will say– we’ve been married 51 years– and say, “You know, I don’t ever remember you doing something like that, John. That was funny.”

JIM LEHRER: So you’re still making it up?


JIM LEHRER: What’s the best kind of performance humor that’s being done now, in your opinion?

JONATHAN WINTERS: I know this from years ago. I know it now — for me; I would never speak for others. I know that you can be funny, I know that you can be hilarious without being dirty. I realize that a lot of the young people, this is their — they’ve chosen this way to go with their people, their guy, gals, what have you. It’s just not my cup of tea. I know, I look back at Laurel and Hardy, which I still — their material still stands up. It’s still funny. They’re still two of the funniest guys that ever lived. Groucho Marx was a dirty old man but never used any bad language, never pinched a lady. Got close. But a lot of funny people — W.C. Fields — I just, I don’t know — the old adage, you know, “to drop your pants to be funny,” come on. I think it takes a little more work to be funny without being dirty. It’s very easy to go into something, you know, blue, risqué, off — I don’t know.

I do think this: I think guys like Jim Carrey are very, very funny. I think that the guy that does the Church Lady, Dana Carvey, a very funny man. His impressions of Bush and — gosh knows — endless amount of politicians and people, he’s a very gifted guy. There are a lot of young people out there. Richard Pryor, who received the award that I’m getting –

JIM LEHRER: Last year.

JONATHAN WINTERS: What a talent.

JIM LEHRER: What about the late-night television people, Leno and Letterman?

JONATHAN WINTERS: Well, Letterman — I don’t know what’s going on there. I wish I could tell you. I don’t understand Letterman. Carson and I had a lot of fun together. But it was different from the fact, this guy wanted you to look good — 30 years on television, drop into that room that I — you know, the Green Room, “Johnny, what do you want to talk about?” And we talked about it, and we did it. I can’t tell whether these guys are jealous. Sometimes I think between Leno and Letterman it’s one word, “overnights.” I think that’s what they’re concerned about.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the Leno show is very much scripted, is it not?

JONATHAN WINTERS: Yeah. It’s a lot of fun, I guess, the jokes and the stories, yeah. But it’s — I don’t know. I took and still take from everything around me. I mean, life — and it’s pretty funny out there, these characters. A woman turned to me — my wife and I were Greece this past year, a year ago, and I — she and I came out of this temple, Athena or something, which was about, oh, 50, 60 miles outside of Athens. And we were on a bus with a lot of blue hairs and — so the woman turned to me, she said, “I know who you are.” And I said, “Yeah, so do I. It’s on my dog tag.” “You are him, aren’t you?” “I’m him. Now, who am I? The important thing is who are you, dear?” “I’m Agatha Lendler. We’re from Terre Haute, Indiana. This is my husband, Howard, my second husband. My first husband was run over.” “You better be on your toes.” So at any rate, she said, “Let me ask you something, Mr. Winters. Is it Mr. Winters? “Mm-hmm.” “What did you think of the temple?” And my wife was just within earshot. And I said, “I was terribly disappointed.” “Why?” “Everything was broken.” “Well, my God, man, it was 5,000 years before Christ.” “It should be repaired by now.” As I turned around, she just shook her head. He said to her, “You know, honey, a lot of them are completely burned out.” Perfect.

JIM LEHRER: Perfect, yeah. Does being — what does receiving an award with Mark Twain’s name on it mean to you?

JONATHAN WINTERS: Oh, gosh. Of course, I read almost everything he wrote. I just — I think I always dreamed — certainly as a young boy, maybe I do now still — I was standing on the banks of the Mississippi and seeing this great-looking man with the snow-white hair. It’s Mark Twain, and he’s looking out at a paddlewheel boat, and me with a long-cane pole and Huck Finn over here, and I’m Tom Sawyer. I think that — I know the story so, you know, holds up — as all his stories, a lot of the stories, a wonderful stories, “Celebrating Jumping Frogs” and “A Tramp Abroad.” But this is something special. This is Washington and this is the Kennedy Center and this is the Mark Twain award.

JIM LEHRER: Well, again, congratulations and thank you very much.

JONATHAN WINTERS: Thank you. Thank you.