Jonathan Winters: too funny for words

How do you explain the humor of Jonathan Winters to a generation that may not have seen him perform or heard one of his albums? A generation never introduced to Elwood P. Suggins or Maudie Frickert.

Like a Nureyev pas seul or a Pavarotti aria, you can’t explain it. You can’t adequately describe it. You have to experience it.

When the Dayton native died last week at the age of 87, obituary writers struggled to capture the essence of his long comedy career. As The New York Times tried to explain, “He was one of the funniest, least definable comics in a rising generation that included Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart.” But, in a tribute that filled half the newspaper’s page, it was unable to cite a single one-liner as an example of his humor.

I had my shot at defining him in 1976.

It was in the press box at a Cincinnati Bengals game. Winters was there because he was a big fan of the visiting Los Angeles Rams.

So I cornered him for an interview, convinced that all I needed to do was open my notebook, jot down a few of his jokes and walk away with material for the funniest column ever.

“I don’t do jokes,” he told me. “I do reality. Say, are you paying me for this interview? No? Too bad.”

Reality, though, is in the mind of the beholder. And the far-out mind of Jonathan Winters was the same one that prompted him to insist his hobby was “kicking naked fish.” The same mind that induced him to name one of his paintings “Two Birds Watching Doris Day’s Cat and Dog Drown.” That gave birth to Piggy Bladder, football coach for The State Teachers Animal Husbandry Institute for the Blind.

I did my best to play straight man, to set up him up for one-liners I could quote. I asked him about the Dayton-area bank that carried his family’s name.

“Used to be, but they lost that in the depression,” he said. “That’s when they gave my roller skates away.”

I asked him about the football game down on the field.

“That guy that just got in, he’s kind of funny,” he replied. And then, inexplicably, “I’ve stopped eating Skippy, but that’s just for a while. We should have gone through Atlanta twice.”

For half and hour he kept me, and everyone around us in the press box, laughing. But when I sat down the next day to write the column, there was virtually nothing in my notebook that come close to capturing the comic genius of Jonathan Winters.

Some things you just have to experience.

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