Friday, April 12, 2013


I only had a passing acquaintanceship with this American comic genius who died today at the age of 87, but he was the kind of person who left an indelible mark on anyone who ever met him.

It was in the early 1980s when I was on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference. One of the students, an aspiring mystery writer who happened to be a prominent Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, Dr. Charles Smith Deal, was a good friend of Jonathan's, and a neighbor of his in the upscale Montecito suburb of Santa Barbara. I was running the all-night "pirate sessions" at the conference, where aspiring and published writers would come and read their work and have those other writers sitting on the carpeted floor in the large room offer their comments and critiques. Charles said Jonathan was working on his first book, and would be willing to come and talk at one of the sessions. He showed up on the dot at midnight and basically gave a hilarious one man show for the next several hours, going in an out of character more rapidly than anyone I'd ever seen before or since. 

At an outdoor cocktail party at the conference at the historic Miramar Hotel, I was standing nearby when Jonathan walked up to a distinguished African-American gentleman who identified himself as a college professor. Jonathan went into full improv mode and pretended to be a Southern congressman who was still championing segregation. The professor seemed stunned, having no idea that it was a put-on, which Jonathan continued for twenty minutes before turning and just walking away. I don't know if the professor ever found out whom he'd been talking to, but I got a lot of laughs telling the story for several years afterwards.

Another time, at Charles' home in Montecito, we were waiting for Jonathan to show up at lunch. His wife of many years, the very quiet, white-haired Eileen, who died in 2009, was there. She was the sturdy dock to his meandering ship, and began to worry when he was 45 minutes late, considering they only lived around the corner. Charles went out looking for him, and found him doing a routine for two telephone workers on a telephone pole. Jonathan said it was one of the best audiences he'd ever had.

Many a top comedian has said this in the past, and it is certainly true for me as a fledgling stand-up comic. Jonathan Winters' talent was so multifaceted and spontaneous that if I felt I had to reach his level of performance, I might just give up. Check out his videos on YouTube and you'll see what I mean. It was a rare privilege to know him even briefly.

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