What Is So Important About Growing Up? A Lesson From Jonathan Winters

A Jonathan Winters album cover. | Photo: epiclectic/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A friend of mine once encountered Jonathan Winters -- who was, among many things, a gifted comedian -- at a coffee shop in Ventura. An unabashed admirer, my friend walked up to Jonathan, shook his hand, and told Jonathan how much fun he had had watching him over the years.

Jonathan looked up with a big, round deadpan face.

"Can I borrow five dollars?"

Apparently such behavior was not usual for young Jonathan. A resident of Montecito, about six months ago he was with a friend in the parking lot of a Santa Barbara supermarket. Spying a woman carrying her groceries to her car, Jonathan approached her and did what came naturally: impersonated an attentive, though decidedly over-age, bag carrier. The woman, utterly convinced, allowed Jonathan to carry her bag to her car where she then offered him a tip (he accepted neither the tip, nor my friend's five dollars). You never knew who you'd get when you called Jonathan's home. "I answer my phone as anybody but myself," Jonathan once told David Letterman, "because life does get a little dull when you're not working steadily."

If you are of a certain age -- older than Justin Bieber, younger than those Mediterranean sheep herders who live to be 110 and look like some kind of wood -- you know exactly who Jonathan Winters is. If you don't know who he is, Google him. He would probably enjoy the feeling. This is a man who once turned to a seatmate on a plane and said, "Gosh, see that down there... H-E-L-P... Oops. Snow blowed it over. Well, that's life."

If all this sounds downright childish, it is -- and that is the joy, and lesson, of Jonathan Winters. Large parts of his life were sad and hard, but he never swerved from a not-so-simple belief.

He claimed he never grew older; he just became an older child.

Since we are ostensibly two adults engaged in an adult exchange of information, I must provide you with a modicum of fact: among other things Jonathan Winters hosted his own comedy-variety television shows in the 1950s, '60s ,and '70s, and anyone who saw those shows suffered a near aneurysm as a result. Mostly Jonathan impersonated characters -- from country hicks to swinging grandmas -- virtually all of them dredged up suddenly from the shallows of his imagination. When Jonathon was on -- stage and TV mostly, for more than 50 years -- no one had the faintest idea what he would do. I cannot remember what it was my wife asked me to do before she left this morning, but I remember, bell-clear, the half-twisted faces of worried television hosts in the moments before Jonathan let fly. I once saw a similar expression on a boyhood friend who had just used a leaf swarming with red ants for an act of toiletry. The best way I can think to describe it is scrunched-faced.

Some people thought Jonathan Winters was mad. Maybe he was. All I know is he reduced my otherwise stoic father to tears.

Jim Carrey called him "a sparkling and childish comedic genius." His comedy, opined one critic, "defied categorization." He was Robin Williams' mentor and idol. "He's a force of energy," Williams once told a reporter. "Comedy would be more closed off without him."

Closed off. Yes. Ask an adult to paint like Monet and they will protest. Ask a child and they will sit down and get started.

Jonathan Winters really was a child. He did the first thing that popped into his mind (well, maybe not always the first thing). He did not acknowledge adult boxes or acquiesce to them. He didn't just do comedy. He wrote books ("Winter's Tales: Stories and Observations for the Unusual" was a bestseller). He did pen-and-ink drawings that some called "surrealist-impressionist-primitive", which is likely adult art-speak for I-have-no-idea-what-this-is. He stepped on to a crowded elevator, turned to a friend, and said, "You don't think we tied him up too tight?"

Think about the last time you were on an elevator.

This leads to the vital question. What happened to us? When did we become so elevator-silent, so dour, so proper, so scrunch-faced, so mature? Granted the world cannot move forward if everyone spends their days performing stream-of-consciousness impressions and startling people on elevators. But why not just a little of this? Life is short, as Jonathan Winters -- and the lot of us -- will eventually discover.

Yes, Jonathan Winters -- who passed on to the now far more entertaining Great Beyond on April 11 at age 87 -- was a brilliant comic, a madcap impersonator, and someone who kept folks on the edge of their seats.

He was also someone we can learn from.

Young Jonathan lived a life unrestrained.