Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Winters Tale

"I couldn't wait for success, so I went ahead without it."


For months I've been trying to write something about Adam Sandler, whose ultimate ambition appears to be to make the worst comedy in history. With every new release, Sandler proves that, instead of regarding film comedy as an Olympic event in which the bar is always raised, he thinks he's doing the limbo, and is always lowering the bar.

But every time I begin to write about Sandler, I seem to hear a small but insistent voice asking me, "Does it really matter how laughter is elicited? Isn't laughter scarce enough without kvetching about its quality?" (I think the little voice must be Jewish). A good laugh is reason enough to go very far out of one's way - even to a movie as frightfully mirthless as You Don't Mess with the Zohan.


A comedian who always reached the highest bar, Jonathan Winters, who died last Friday at the tender age of 87, was an American original, like Roscoe Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields, and Jack Benny. He was a master at a risky, tightrope-walking style of comedy made popular by Robin Williams, who was a devoted fan of Winters. One never knew where his improvisations would lead, so protean was his imagination and his ability to mimic and to create alternate personalities.

I saw him on television in the Sixties, and in movies like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I'm still puzzled that so many critics were bothered at the expense to which producer/director Stanley Kramer went for the often delirious laughs in that movie. I loved it when Winters got his own show, The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters (1972-74).

Robin Williams always gave Winters credit for his own improvisation-based style. News of his death prompted Williams to post on Facebook, "First he was my idol, then he was my mentor and amazing friend. I'll miss him huge. He was my Comedy Buddha. Long live the Buddha."

I was surprised to learn that he served in World War Two in the U.S. Marine Corps. I was not so surprised when I learned how he was hospitalized in 1959 and 1961 for what is now known as bi-polar disorder. One of his anecdotes could stand as an unofficial testament: He once admitted to parking in a handicapped space. A woman approached him and said, "Excuse me, sir. I noticed that you parked your car in a handicapped space, but when I look at your arms and your legs, you don't appear to be handicapped at all!" Winters smiled and replied, "Not physically!" and he opened his eyes wide and began to laugh maniacally. The woman ran away from him.  

He likened the entertainment industry to the Olympics, with actors standing on a platform to be handed their gold, silver or bronze medals. Except that "I think my place is inside the box, underneath the guy receiving the gold medal. They're playing the national anthem and I'm fondling a platinum medallion."

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