The segment above from The Jack Paar Show in 1964 shows a great comic improviser doing what he does best: finding humor in the moment. After winning a talent contest (and a watch) Jonathan Winters‘s professional performing career began as a disc jockey in Dayton, Ohio in 1946. He went on to have a much celebrated career as a comedian on television, film and recording (10 of his 12 comedy albums were nominated for Grammys, and he won once).
On the big screen he appeared in the star-studded comedy It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. On TV he was a favorite guest of Jack Paar, Dean Martin, and Johnny Carson in their heyday, amongst many others, and he hosted his own show for several years. Now at age 85, he’ll be the voice of Papa Smurf in The Smurfs, due out this summer. And there’s an online petition for him to host Saturday Night Live (as there was successfully for Betty White last year).
Here’s Winters again, completely improvising a scene as a pioneer wagon master on a 1950s TV show. It’s obvious that the other actors were told to shout out random questions for him to respond to on the fly.
Winters has influenced countless comedians, but none more than Robin Williams, whose own manic improv style has direct echoes of Winters. Here are Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams together on David Letterman from 1986:
A few years back Winters was the subject of the comedy/documentary film Certifiably Jonathan in which comedians Sarah Silverman, Ryan Stiles, Howie Mandell and many others, try to help him find his lost sense of humor. The movie also showcases some of his work as painter.