I remember seeing John Cleese say, in an interview, that Michael Palin was the funniest Python because he could occasionally create comedy that did not depend on any preexisting frame of reference. He gave an example. It may have been the fish-slapping dance. (see below) It’s true that most comedy pushes off some static object. Either it pours heat and light onto a familiar thing or it asks: what if this familiar thing were different? What if the airline pilot’s announcements suggested a general lack of competence?
And then there was Jonathan Winters. Some of his stuff pushed off the real world, but even that material was often punctuated by flurries of whistles, winks and grimaces that suggested a larger, wordless, cosmic joke, an unseeable field of Higgs Boson mirth. And like Palin, he could be funny in a way that seemed utterly unmoored from anything. Robin Williams at his best is very good, but the difference between him and Winters is the way he has one foot tucked back in this world.
Winters improvising is everybody’s favorite thing, but some of his set pieces were amazing. On the “Down to Earth” LP he recreates an amateur show in a small Midwestern town with a sickly sweet emcee. “Now that we’re finishing up our sherbet…” One by one he ushers out a series of implausible young singers, all of them him. One guy sings, in one of Winters’ many unplaceable south-of-Dayton Middle American accents, “I rode my Harley. I rode my Harley. MyfacebrokeoutlastnightbutI’minlove. I’m in luh-ove, Oh my God, I’m in love!” By the end the singer is keening, moaning. What is it, exactly? Some fusion of how Dylan and Elvis sounded, melded into one in Winters’ mind and then played out through the mouth of some inept small town Clark Kent? Maybe. I have no idea. I know it’s so indelibly funny that one night in the 1990s, John O’Neal and Steve Metcalf and I were standing at a cookout when one of us somehow sang “I rode my Harley” and the other two joined in. We all knew the whole bit, which was 30 years old.
My father, who was a tough laugh, used to laugh very hard at Jonathan Winters. My dad would have tears streaming down his face. He thought of himself as girded against anything anybody might try on him, but there was no way to get ready for Winters.