The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of Jonathan Winters
I did something in my interview with veteran comedian Jonathan Winters that I’ve never done in the 25 years that I’ve interviewed (hundreds of) celebrities. I asked him to marry me. I made him laugh. He didn’t say yes but he didn’t turn me down either. He’s thinking about it.
Jonathan Winters hasn’t lost a beat in his 86th year. Prior to our interview, I thought perhaps he would be a little slow upstairs because, let’s face it, at 86, people are at different levels of lucidity so I was nervous. The good news is: he can hold his own with comedians half his age. He’s funnier than ever! If you’ve watched him over the years, you know his humor, you understand his quirky tangents. If you ask him a question, be prepared to hold on to something tight because you’re going for a mental high-end rollercoaster ride, and you’re not sure when it’s going to slow down so you can catch your breath.
Baby Boomers will know the Ohio-born comedian from his classic movie “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and his guest appearances on “The Jack Paar Show,” “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, “The Dean Martin Show” and “The Steve Allen Show,” where his loose-cannon style of comedy served him well. Younger audiences know him as the voice of Grandpa Smurf in the 1980s cartoon TV show and Papa Smurf in the 2011 “The Smurfs” film. Winters shared details of his long life with us and tells us what he wants to be doing when he takes his last breath.
I heard you just got out of the hospital with bronchitis. How are you feeling today?
JW: Well, that’s a big question. I’ll tell you — reading off the card. It says I’m fine. The weather is hot.
(Laughs) I’ve been a fan of yours forever so thank you for talking to me. You’re one of the funniest comedians that has ever performed on television. How old were you when you first discovered you were funny?
JW: Well, I guess when my parents got divorced, my mother and father were very strange people. They tried to be funny which is always very sad to me. It’s like the person that pulls the chair out from under you and laughs. They told a lot of jokes. I tried to tell them desperately all my life and the years that I was four to eight … my dad was an alcoholic which made for a fun parent. He quit when the war broke out – WWI – and didn’t drink after that, thank God but by that time, they were divorced when I was seven. My mother had a radio show – a Barbara Walters type of gal and was very successful for about 20-some years on a radio station, WIZE in Springfield, OH. I guess I found myself with my parents at an early age – 10 – doing little shtick, pretending I was a little sea captain. They said, “Don’t do that, you’re causing a scene.” At one stage just before I went into the [Marine] Corp, I got up one night and started doing some shtick and my mother said, “You’re causing a scene.” And I said, “Yes, and you’re not in it.”
What was the secret to staying married for 60 years? What’s the secret to a long, happy marriage because I’ve been married for 36 years, and I haven’t figured that out yet.
JW: Oh, get out now! Get out now! Run away!
I am getting out. It’s called divorce. If I get out now, will you marry me?
JW: (Laughs) Well there’s a strong chance. I’m 86. I’m a canoe without the paddle. You don’t want a guy who’s crippled up.
You were married for 60 years until your wife passed away.
JW: My wife died five years ago. We were married 60 years. Although we had a good marriage [there were] little bumps in the road which broke the axels in the car. She had five colleges she went to … and ended up at Ohio State with a Masters. At 17, I quit high school … I said, “Education is a mistake. That’s the place to have sex and biology and Physics III … and sex again before you have to study.” I had a year of college … it was a men’s college so I dressed as a woman and I got lucky with one of the guys. I’m kidding you, of course.
How did you meet her?
JW: Well, I’ll tell you. First of all, we met through an art school. A friend of mine came into a bar and saw me with another chick, and he said, “Dump her and come down and see Eileen. She’s a knock out. I said, “Well, whether she’s a knock out or not, this lady is taking me to her apartment to study her paintings and they are all on the couch.” He said, “What does this mean?” That I’m going to score. So he said, “She doesn’t look that cute to me.” I said, “Well you’ve been drinking, so who cares?”
So, I came down [to see Eileen]. She was asked later by Newsweek or somebody. They did a short little story … and they said, “Mrs. Winters – Eileen if we may call you that – what were your first impression of Jon?” I spent three years in the Marines, so when I married her I looked like a Marine ad … 32 waist, oh God, I weighed 170. I was in shape. You could crack walnuts on me. She said, (mocking her voice), “Well, it was love at first sight.” So they turned to me, and Eileen starred at me thinking ‘Oh, God, what’s coming.’ They said, “Now, Jonathan, what were your first impressions of Eileen?’ And I told the truth. I said, “I couldn’t wait to get her clothes off.”
Did Eileen laugh at you? Did she find you funny all those years?
JW: She laughed as long as she could stand it. It would be about a minute. I never saw her fall down. People would say “Oh, stop, you’re killing me,” but she was a critic. She didn’t have my humor. She had her own humor which was good. I believe this, I must tell you. Extraverts marry introverts. I believe extraverts should marry extraverts because you’re both crazy, you both like the same things, you both do the same things, whereas the introvert sits there with his mouth — it looks like it’s been stitched — and the other person is just doing just all kinds of crazy things. I stood in front of my wife one night – granted I was drinking; I haven’t had a drink now in 54 years – but in trying to be funny, I rented a gorilla costume. About 9 O’clock I came home, stood in front of her with a banana. I said, “You have a choice of me or the banana, and the banana has potassium.” She said, “You asshole!”
(Laughs) How did you develop your own brand of comedy?
JW: I began [doing stand up] and realized that I may not be the king of comedy, but at least I’m different. And one thing Groucho Marx said, “I like you kid because you’re clean, and you tell the truth.” I never cursed, I never used any bad language in all the years I’ve been in this business. [People would say], “Are you reborn?” No, I got it the first time.
Your humor was always clean, no cursing. Was that a deliberate choice?
JW: I know you can be funny without being filthy. You can be risqué, blue, naughty, dirty … it’s another thing to be filthy. Richard Pryor had his scene … we’re all rebels. Color has nothing to do with it as far as I’m concerned. Pryor is a genius in his own right, you have Lenny Bruce, you have Mort Sahl, and you have all these guys … Robin Williams, and we’re all rebels. I didn’t want to do jokes. I do people.
All the years I used to watch you on The Jack Paar Show, The Tonight Show, The Steve Allen Show, etc., where did come up with all those funny, hilarious comedy routines? Did you have to rehearse it a lot or were you just adlibbing?
JW: Just adlibbing. I have a thing in a book I wrote of short stories, and at the end, my philosophy on certain subjects. I said one thing that has made me very difficult person to work with – and it’s only one group of people, it’s not the director, it’s the writers. I said the greatest contribution of sitcom writers is canned laughter. If things are so funny why do we have (he imitates canned laughter) … what is this? Allow me to think what is funny. Don’t put it in a can.
Do you hang around with funny people now? Who makes you laugh?
JW: I just had lunch with Bonnie Hunt. She is by far — men and women included – she can improvise better than anybody. Between the two of us, you can throw the script in the air. When I say that, don’t think that I’m down on great writers because I’m not – the O’Henry’s and Twains and guys that have written for television, but they are few and far between. Leno has five or six cards when you go in to say what are you going to talk about tonight. With Johnny [Carson], he walked in alone. “What do you want to talk about tonight, Jon?” “Well, my dad drunk trying to sell my grandfather’s farm … and he had a raccoon coat and they shot him.” (Laughs) [Johnny] said, “Save it and we’ll do it when you come out.” And that’s the difference. You have to be trusted.
Do people recognize you on the street now?
JW: A woman came up to me the other day and she said, “Are you who I think you are?” And I said, who do you want me to be? “Aren’t you in the movies or television.” And I go into character. So I said [to the woman], “I’m Leland Buckhorn. I’m from Cheyenne, Wyoming. Do you go to rodeos? Well, you see I broke a whole side of me, my ribs are broke, broke my nose – I was thrown against the fence in Cheyenne. I got a silver buckle out of Calgary, I’m not wearing it today.” With that, a woman came up … very pretty. I’d say about 60. And she said, “Helen” – meaning her friend – “You know who this is? This is Jonathan Winters … what have you said to her?!” Well, you could tell by the voice she’s a bitch … and so, she said, “Are you making fun of my friend?! She’s a Stanford graduate, and very wealthy, and they live here in Santa Barbara.”
I said, “Well, I steal at night, but only cowboy equipment.”
“You’re Jonathan Winters!”
“Yes, I am, and you’re a very beautiful woman but, of course, you’ve had a lot of work done.”
‘You know, my husband doesn’t like you, and I don’t think you’re a bit funny.”
I said, “You’re not alone. Thousands can’t stand me. My mother and dad didn’t like me.
“Why are you in that wheelchair?”
“Mental case. I pretend that I’m crippled in this chair [in case] I see someone that is cute with a huge purse.”
(LMAO) You did some great characters. Where did your character Maude Frickert come from?
JW: Maude came from an aunt I had. My grandmother’s sister was crippled. We use to play cards, and she always gave me a little thimble full of brandy, and I guess that started me out to be an alcoholic, but she was funny. She was bedridden most of her life, but she had a great sense of humor. She said, “When you come into the room, don’t bring flowers because they wilt. Bring money. And don’t bring candy because I’m a borderline diabetic. And don’t stare at me, and for God sake, don’t ask me how I feel. Just say, Are you still crippled?” I loved that. (Laughs) She said, “Don’t put the flowers in the window, because I can’t see the brick wall.”
What about Elwood P. Suggins?
JW: He came from guys I grew up with. Where are you from, where did you grow up?
I’m from Alabama, I’m a southern girl.
JW: Alright, I’ll give you a little Alabama. (He goes into a southern drawl) “Al, do you remember Mrs. Simmons? ‘Yes, I do.’ “You know, during the war she had a tremendous figure. She had the body of a Marilyn Monroe and a mind of Jackie Onassis, she was something … from Mobile. I was in school with her, and I was only going to have an affair with her. She was extremely bright and go all A’s, went to Smith, but I was the one guy that jumped her in the cemetery. We laid on the slab there and I went to work, and she laughed because she said, ‘The dead don’t talk.’
Who inspired you growing up?
JW: My grandfather was the one man who had a great sense of humor. He married a woman whose face looked like she got the top prize for Halloween. He said all the money in the world kid won’t make a woman warm. He was a funny, funny man. He was more than a substitute for my father because my father – when the war broke out in’41, he quit drinking, but by that time, I was 17 and ready to go in the corp. My grandfather filled in in a marvelous way. He left me his gold watch and a thousand bucks. The money was great but of course the watch meant more to me than anything. He would look at it and say, ‘Well, it’s time to go out there and sit on that bench and look at somebody younger.” He was never a dirty old man. He would say to a woman his age – he died when he was 77 – “Did you ever think of buying a cellophane raincoat? What you see is what you get.” I said, ‘Grandpa, that’s an embarrassing remark.’ “Oh, but son, it’s meant to be. You never know when a woman would go out of her way to go to Cincinnati and get one.”
I understand you recently got together with Mickey Rooney & Carl Reiner for a “Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” reunion. What was that like?
JW: It was a great night. Mickey Rooney, myself – Sid Caesar couldn’t be there because he’s so crippled up – but all the rest of the main cast are dead.
What was that like making that movie?
JW: Oh, it was my first movie so I was just in high cotton. Every day was … how often do you find people who say I can’t wait to get to work? I was up all night wondering when we can start.
What comedians do you like today?
JW: Robin Williams and I are good friends. I have a great admiration for the guy who did the Church Lady …
JW: Yeah. I wanted to play Grandma Frickert (on SNL) as a sinner and say, “I wonder if you could save me. I’m being serviced by five men … that’s not good. I mean one guy is good, the other guy is fair, the other guy is on occasion. Help me, help me. I want to find God and surely he wouldn’t OK this. Do you speak to him often?”
Did you ever appear on SNL?
JW: No. I thought you came in on a Friday and did the show Saturday. No, you came in Monday and worked every day in rehearsal. Why do I have to rehearse. I come out and do something, and go back and do two sketches and on top of that it’s only five grand. So I said, for a top show – Saturday Night Live – and you’re only getting five [thousand dollars]? Come on, who’s getting the big money? And they said, “It’s for exposure.” Really? Try to go to Nordstrom’s or Saks and get a suit on “exposure.”
What do you miss most about doing your comedy on television?
JW: You know, audiences have changed so drastically. It was a gamble in the beginning, and now it’s more than a gamble. Who’s out there that knows you, who remembers you?
I read that you are writing your autobiography.
JW: Yes, I am. I go back and forth writing it myself because to tell you the truth – I could be very wrong – but if you can’t write about yourself, then don’t write it. It’s called “In Search of a Playground.” And there are very few playgrounds left. The teeter-totter, the merry-go-round. But the most important thing of all is the players. Be careful who you play with.
What will we find out that we don’t know about you?
JW: Oh, that I was gay in the Marines and I fooled my wife and towards the end I wore a dress. (He goes into his little old lady voice): “I was a woman after all.” (Laughs)
What do you do for fun? What makes you happy?
JW: Well, it’s interesting you should ask that. I’ll turn, hopefully, in November – 87. And there’s a gal that flies out to see me. She’s a Chicago gal so we have a lot in common. I mean a lot. She’s been out here five times … flown out here on her own money. She’s just a sweetheart. What happens, I don’t know. She’s 60, I’m 86. I said, “I don’t have that much time.” Nobody knows. It gets pretty thin when you get in your 80s, you’re getting pretty close … they can just do so much for you, and then it’s over. You don’t want to be crippled up and you don’t want to be deaf and have just one eye — you can’t wink at people. I’ve had a hell of a life. I’ve done more than I ever dreamed of.
How does 86 feel?
JW: I had cancer of the bladder and beat that, but at 86, things are beginning to fall apart. It looks like a good looking building but it’s been gutted inside. Someone asked me recently :Are you afraid to die?’ I said, “Oh, hell, no. I’m not afraid to die. It’s how I die … with a stroke — cancer took my wife after 20 years — people that are paralyzed and can’t talk, people with Alzheimer’s. I just want to be able to lie down, hopefully with a [nice, young] Caucasian woman and say, “Give me a kiss,” and go.’ I really want to be cremated. My wife was. But I’d also like a marker, maybe back in Dayton – a parking meter that says: Expired. And then for a quarter, I’d talk to you.
What do you want to be remembered for?
JW: Well, the most terrible fear that anybody should have is not war, is not a disease, not cancer or heart or food poisoning, it’s a man or a woman without a sense of humor.
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