Words of wisdom from Jonathan Winters, a gentle, timeless comedian


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DAYTON, Ohio -- Since his death April 12, at 87, Dayton native Jonathan Winters has been hailed as a comic genius, decades ahead of his time. Yet he told me something once that made me wonder if he could have made it in today's comedy scene, which often seems long on profanity and short on inventiveness.

"I have never pretended to be any kind of super-religious kind of man, but I feel very strongly that you can be funny without being dirty," Winters told me in 1987, for an article for Cincinnati Magazine. "What alarms me is that I think a lot of these guys are doing it for the shock value, and then you're not shocking anymore."

It was one of the more memorable interviews of my career, and not merely because Winters was a homegrown celebrity and a familiar figure from the television shows of my youth. It was because of his natural warmth, wisdom and unaffected candor.

Long before the era of Louis C.K. and Tosh.0, Winters worried about the crudity and mean-spirited nature of much of contemporary comedy. His comedy was character-based, born out of a wild imagination, but also a keen study of human nature.

"You've got to be an observer," he told me. "And you've got to take time to listen to people, talk, to watch what they do. I don't mean to put down drama teachers or coaches, but if you take a year out of your life and work at various jobs, this is gold. That's what a university doesn't teach you."

Far from being ashamed of his Ohio roots, Winters bragged about them: "Something I'll always remember -- when I was a kid, I shook hands with Orville Wright. Forty years later, I shook hands with Neil Armstrong. The guy that invented the airplane and the guy that walked on the moon. In a lifetime, that's kinda wild when you think about it."

While a life in show business was a life of constant change, Winters said, "I decided that I would not change -- not necessarily in this order -- my politics, my religion and my allegiance to the Cincinnati Reds."

Winters always defended his hometowns of Dayton and Springfield, Ohio, as he did in our interview when I asked if Cincinnati was too often the butt of a lot of unfair jokes.

"I think Springfield gets more, or Dayton," he told me. "I think that people in New York and the East look at people from middle America and say, 'Oh, please.' Like we're a bunch of nerds or we're all farmers, so laid back that all we do is sit back on a John Deere and suck on a can of Coors and ride shotgun. I think it goes without saying that there's a lot of history throughout the state, not only in politics, but also in the show business industry."

Winters did have his demons, including a struggle with alcoholism that at one time threatened his marriage to his wife, Eileen Ann Schauder, a Dayton native, who died in 2009.

"I think that what has scrambled a lot of minds today, in and out of the arts, is drugs," he told me. "During my years in the service and several years after, I had a hard bout with alcohol, and I wasn't a jack-o'-lantern for 10 years of marriage. If alcohol takes over -- which it does -- you get in most cases a Jekyll and Hyde. Same thing with drugs."

He was 33, with two kids. He didn't want them to be the children of divorce, as he himself had been. "Fortunately, I didn't lose my wife, and I didn't get a divorce and go through the painful thing of seeing your children now and again," Winters said. "We did stay together, but I'm sure if I would have continued on I would have been in deep trouble."

He stopped drinking in 1958. "I'm not going to sit on some kind of podium and pin medals on myself," he said. "I just realized, 'Hey, I'm either going to be around to perform and be a husband and be a father to these kids and paint or it's over, and I've got to pack it in.' And I just don't want to do that, and I still don't."

Winters relished being considered a pioneer of improvisation and a major influence on younger comedians, including Robin Williams. Winters appeared as Mearth, the son of Mork -- from the planet Ork, naturally -- on Mr. Williams' breakthrough show, "Mork & Mindy."

Winters told me, "It always makes me feel good to hear that some of these guys have patterned themselves after you, and if you are labeled a pioneer, to think that you have opened a door. I'm hopeful that some of the guys that are coming through that door will have something better to say than I did."

Here's hoping. But we may have to wait a long time before we again see the like of one of the most brilliant, gentle comedians on this or any planet.

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