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Jonathan Winters, RIP

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Thursday was not a good day. Jonathan Winters, a comedian of great originality, is dead at 87.

Though he never had a breakout starring role, over the years his appearances on TV shows made him a beloved figure in the entertainment world. He was a favorite guest on "The Tonight Show" -- particularly in the early '60s when Jack Paar hosted it -- and turned up on the game show "The Hollywood Squares," Dean Martin's celebrity roasts and countless variety shows.

Video clips.

Mr. Winters’s inspired riffs with even the most rudimentary props made him a favorite on late-night talk shows like “The Steve Allen Show” and “The Tonight Show.” Here, he entertains Jack Parr and his audience with a stick.

For cable subscribers, The Tonight Show bit with the stick was shown on one of Showtime's "Inside Comedy" episodes with Winters and Robin Williams from last year, which has a very good interview with Winters.

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Comedians really reflect their era, much more so than actors do. When I think of Winters I think of the total package -- the person, the style and the context.

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Hmmm...food for thought there, sandik. I think I see what you're getting at, but doesn't a "serious" actor like James Dean exemplify his era as much as Sid Caesar (or perhaps Milton Berle is a better example, a comic who was huge at the time but whose work hasn't endured).

The great improvisers like Winters, the late Peter Cook, and Robin Williams create their own universes in a way.

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Good point about context -- I do think of Dean in his world. But I think there's a case to be made for context with many artists, and Winters really does seem to carry a certain mid-century vibe with him for me. Perhaps I just haven't seen enough of his work yet...

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....and Winters really does seem to carry a certain mid-century vibe with him for me

Oh, definitely, especially his "character" comedy.

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An appreciation by Robin Williams.

Jonathan’s improvs on “Mork & Mindy” were legendary. People on the Paramount lot would pack the soundstage on the nights we filmed him. He once did a World War I parody in which he portrayed upper-class English generals, Cockney infantrymen, a Scottish sergeant no one could understand and a Zulu who was in the wrong war. The bit went on so long that all three cameras ran out of film. Sometimes I would join in, but I felt like a kazoo player sitting in with Coltrane.

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Jonathan Winter added a further element of degree of unpredictability to early tv – you don't know where it's going and if it would go wrong. It also sometimes went on too long and you felt he didn't know how to end it, whereas someone like Lenny Bruce had definite break-off points to his improvisations. My aunt and uncle once shared a cab with Winters and were somewhat overwhelmed by his performance – he could never stop, never drop character they said.

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Thanks, Quiggin. Much the same thing was said about Peter Cook. He was always "on," tended to dominate whichever proceedings in which he was participating, was a superb talk show guest but a poor talk show host, and was sometimes hard put for the punch line. And like Winters big-league stardom escaped him, although he did score an historic success with Beyond the Fringe and for a time established a successful partnership with Dudley Moore. (Winters could have used a Dudley Moore; not a competitor but a complement, contrast, and appreciative audience.)

I can’t say that most of Bruce’s material has aged particularly well for me; his best bits are still great but I don’t think of him as being in the same class of funny, more of a brilliant yakker. But he had other fish to fry entirely.

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