Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Winters' Tales by Jonathan Winters

Alas, we've lost Jonathan Winters.  

If you knew his work as
an actor and comic, you know what an incredible talent he was but if you look into who he was, you'll find darkness.  An only child who felt unloved by his parents who divorced when he was quite young, he was alcoholic and he suffered breakdowns for which he was institutionalized.  There were voices in his head, for certain, but unlike most who suffer, he brought them out to play and put them onstage for the world to see and hear.  This was how he coped, I suppose, and how he found success.  

In the late '80's, Vintage published Winters' Tales: Stories and Observations for the Unusual, and unusual they are.  Since he passed last week, I've been re-reading it for the first time in years. I've no idea how well the book sold or if it's still in print but I would imagine most of his fans who bought the book were disappointed it wasn't a "laff riot" because Winters' Tales is not what you expect at all. 

A mix of memoir and fiction, most of the pieces are very short, some are dated and the gags threadbare, a few are downright creepy but throughout, they are very, very dark.  Still, there are many that are really wonderful, especially the stories in the section, Children's Voices. What Are You Frightened of, Johnny?,  I Was Behind the Couch All the Time, and How Much Money Did You Make Today, Little Man? are my favorites. They appear to be autobiographical and are surprisingly hopeful. More than anything, the book seems to lay all his demons out there for everyone to see, maybe even more than he did onstage, and that took considerable bravery.

If you ever want to see a master at work, check out this clip from the Jack Paar show where Winters does four minutes with nothing but a stick.  Astonishing.


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