Friday, 18 September 2009

294: Jonathan Winters 1962-1965

Jonathan Winters was a stand-up comedian whose career began in the early 1960s. Like Bob Newhart and Lenny Bruce much of his act consisted of in-character monologues, routines and sketches. Lenny Bruce was the high-end of controversy, and his act could sometimes be somewhere between a revivalist meeting and an encounter group session. Newhart’s routines were very carefully worked-out monologues. Winters didn’t touch directly on social and political matters, and his act was more free-form and exuberantly silly than Newhart’s. Even as Lenny Bruce was in decline, suffering concerted oppression from the law, Jonathan Winters was becoming a regular guest enlivening early and mid-60s talk shows. As he flipped from character to character on stage, improvising and following his fancy, it was obvious Winters was getting a lot of boyish fun out of own pretending, and so he sets an obvious model for Robin Williams, establishing a livewire format and manner which would make Williams warehouse-loads of cash. Indeed, Williams brought on Winters to play his son in the later seasons of “Mork and Mindy”.
Winters had a lot of stock characters and mannerisms which he could draw upon, some of which would go on to popular success, such as playing an eccentric old lady in drag. In the early ‘60s Winters had a number of pieces of schtick which centred on playing a fey camp gay character. Most of the specimens I can find date from about 1962-1964. This means he may have had a bit of reputation for dealing in this sort of humour and may possibly explain a little why he was one of the actors in the ultra-camp film of “The Loved One” (1965).

Given the era, Winters camp portrayals usually edge beyond merely sissy, but then he’s confronted by the problem of how much further he can actually go, of what he is allowed to say. There’s always the need to take his audience’s attitudes into account, and also the mores and censorship of whichever media or venue he happens to be playing in. So these gay gags become a practical matter of balancing the performance within the larger joke of the piece, and also configuring them both so that Winters won’t fall foul of somebody’s offended sensibilities. And at the time, there was probably enough novelty and daring just in Winter’s performance, without having to go much further than that. Whereas by the ‘90s just putting on a gay manner was nowhere near good enough for a decent joke for informed audiences (for unenlightened audiences is maybe another matter).

from the Jack Paar Program (circa-1962-1965)

Here, in character with Tv talk show host Jack Paar, Winters is a playful, delightfully naughty faun – a bouncy, exuberant sissy. So some of the joke is that Winters is playing a faun, and some of the joke that this mythological creature is a bit camp. And on top of that, in the interview there’s a strong amount of “Is he/isn’t he/” flirting between Paar and Winters resulting in Winter’s “They know in the forest!” So it’s not merely a camp performance, but also slightly deniably, should complaints come down from executives, that it was all within the context of Winter’s faun joke. So funny to play gay, but a little ambivalent, and not outrightly homosexual

“Moby Dick and Captain Arnold” from “Jonathan Winters' Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963)
Listen to it at:

This is a camp take on “Moby Dick”, the epitome of obsession in the rugged nautical world. Its notable though Winters doesn’t make any attempt at jokes about what sailors get up to when the lights go out. Arnold is just described “as a bit of a strange fellow”

This is the longest performance I’ve got of Winters so it gives me a little more latitude to describe his performance. For a start besides being queeny, it’s slightly lispy, because Americans more than the British tend to think that homosexuals lisp. It’s not spectacularly effeminate, but there is an overall unmanly and simpering tone to his performance. Part of the unmanliness is a tendency to triviality, to lavishly deploy the epithet "silly". He employs a slightly drawn out pronunciation - vowels are dipthonged. The triviality results in a tendency to try to keep everything on his level, but when crossed (the gruff sailor calling him a “sissy”) he becomes slightly petulant. Again it’s a largely unsexualised performance. Statements like "You're so strong" and "hold me" could be come-ons, but they could just as easily be the sort of sissy pleas that Bob Hope used to make in scary situations.

"Fairies Can Fly" aka “The Cop and the Fairy” from “The Underground Tapes” a 2007 collection of bits which were too risque or controversial to be released in the early 1960s when they recorded.
The sketch is only a minute long so you can listen to the first half at

Officer: Where’s the fire, where’s the fire?
Driver: In your eyes, officer! In your eyes!
Officer: (slight pause – declarative) you’re a fairy, aren’t ya?
Driver: Do you see any wings (giggle) I think that’s an asinine remark on your part – You great big man-neanderthal person, you. Yeahss, just a hood with a badge, that’s the only difference.
Officer: What did you call me?
Driver: A hood, a hood! You ought to have one right over your ss-kull! Jayssuss!
Officer: I don’t want you cursing. I happen to be patrolman O’Brien
Driver: (slightly sarcastic) Oh tell us, oh leader, where is your motor-sssickle? Do you have the multi-coloured fox-tails and the devil on the front? What’ll a Harley do? Open it up on a sssnowy day, mmm, and then we’ll see.
(mimics crashing noise)
Officer: Oh, you damn fool! You ran right into me!
Driver: Yeah, yeah! Fairies can fly, can’t they.
Officer: Alright lock him up. Joe. Fag, put him down in number 3-6-7-12. I don’t want to fool with him. Get in the back seat with those devils and they tear your clothes off

This plays a slightly more flirtatious and defensively queeny camp type against a bluff ignorant cop. A touch of gay panic at the end, although how could one be afraid of such is a sissy is probably part of the joke. The “where’s the fire?” – “In your eyes” would be repeated in an episode of “Laugh-In” with Alan Sues.

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