Jonathan Winters was, in my opinion, the funniest man who ever lived. This is a pretty serious declaration given that there have been a lot of living men over the course of history. We can assume that, at least, some of them were funny. Some were probably even very funny. Still, of all the funny men over all of the millennia, I submit Jonathan Harshman Winters is the funniest.
I am not alone in bestowing this level of Praise on Mr. Winters. A veritable who’s who of the comedic world counted Winters as an major influence. Frank Calendo, Patton Oswalt, and Lewis Black rank among his biggest fans. Bill Cosby and George Carlin both looked to this elder statesman when putting together comedy albums, at which Winters excelled. Robin Williams and Jim Carey have both spoken of the debt of gratitude they owe Jonathan Winters.
From his earliest appearances on the Tonight Show with Jack Paar, Winters proved himself as an improvisational comic. Improv is as old as vaudeville, but before Winters it had never really been showcased on television. Paar would often give Winters a prop such as a stick or a pen and pencil set, which Winters would use in whatever way his mind could think of. Often stretching the boundaries of reality. Every use of every item was accompanied by a change in voice, accent and demeanor. He took on the role of whomever was describing or using the item in question. His rubber face could mimic any expression.
If reading that last paragraph was confusing, it is because I am attempting to describe the indescribable; watch this.
Winter’s act did not translate very well to film or the sitcom driven network television scene. Outside of a very memorable, Emmy-winning performance on the 70s sitcom Mork and Mindy and a two season run of his own show in the 90s, Winters mostly spent his time in bit parts. Winters did a large amount of voice work for animated features throughout his career. Scooby Doo, Frosty Returns and The Smurfs were among some of the more prominent. His final role is as the voice of Papa Smurf in the upcoming Smurfs 2
So what makes him the very best? Scope of influence? Contributions to improv, television, and the comedy album? All of these things are true of Winters, but I believe his greatness transcends his resume. What sets Winters apart is the way in which his mind worked, and the speed at which his mind could bring those thoughts to life. In an era of live television, Winters never stumbles, never falters. He doesn’t catch himself up in laughter or break character. He commits to the bit much in a way best described by his most brilliant devotee in a 2009 interview for Comedy Central:
“I just do this for a living; Jonathan is actually crazy”- Robin Williams
R I P
Jonathan Harshman Winters
Funniest Man Who Ever Lived