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14.4.13

The Day The Laughter Stopped

The world is a lot less funny today.

The Funniest Man In The World has moved on to greener pastures.  I, among many, am mourning the passing of Jonathan Winters.  Even more than when George Carlin died, because I had a tenuous but real connection to Jonathan.  Not only was he my favorite comedian when I was a child, but I had the honor and pleasure to work with him on two occasions.

The first time I met Jonathan was in 1983.  I was on the tech staff - sometimes I WAS the tech staff - for a famous and now-defunct comedy showcase in Houston.  Sam Kinison was a regular there honing his act that would eventually become famous.  Many top-rank comedians had early successes at the club and it wasn't unusual for big names to drop in unannounced to play the house or join in on improv night.

It was a particularly stormy night in April.  A Wednesday, since it was improv night.  The crowd was light because of the storm and the house was about half full.  None of the box office crew noticed when a somewhat portly, unassuming man bought a ticket and came inside.

The show went up as usual and the cast was good, but it wasn't one of their best nights.  At one point in the evening, they typically asked if anyone in the audience wanted to join a skit.  Normally, these were not professionals and the cast mostly worked around them, using the unsuspecting guest as a straight man and fall guy.

This night, a somewhat timid man raised his hand and said, "Can I join?"

The cast, being blinded by the lights, could just make out that he was a fairly chubby, shy looking man and figured they had an easy mark.  The man made his way up to the stage and the cast was preparing to roast him when one of them said, "My God!  It's Jonathan Winters!"

Some of the looks on the cast members' faces were priceless in themselves.  The improv nights were recorded for later development into routines, and that moment became a favorite at the club, just watching the reactions over and over.

At first, the cast tried to out-laugh Jonathan, but he had a unique talent of stealing the spotlight with little more than a glance.  He had an incredible presence when he was "in mode".  It's as if he were the center of gravity and anyone else on stage could only orbit him.  And when it came to improv, there was no one better at the craft.

It didn't take long before the rest of the cast just pulled back and let him run.  They couldn't hope to compete.  No matter how funny they were, he could steal it right out from under them with little more than a twitch or a word or two.  His timing was impeccable.

The show ended an hour later and the audience left breathless from laughing.  It was probably more workout than most of us regularly received.  I sat in the booth the whole time howling in hysterics, trying my damnedest to stay conscious enough to check the light and sound levels on occasion.

After the house had cleared, the cast and crew begged Jonathan to stay on and talk with us, which to the amazement of most of us, he did.  We raided the bar (TABC be damned) and pulled some tables together and chatted with a legend.

Despite the fact he was a household name, he was one of the humblest and kindest people I've ever met.  One of his more famous characters was the Shy Man, and I suspect that character was more the real Jonathan than anything else he let out in public.

He offered advice, talked shop and regaled with anecdotes.  At one point, he stopped in mid sentence, picked up a cocktail napkin and launched into a 10-minute improv with the napkin that was one of the funniest moments of my entire life.  It's a very special moment when you are in the intimate presence of a master watching the craft up close and personal.

At some point long past sociable hours, he excused himself and said he had to return to his wife.  "Please don't tell her I was in a club," he said.  "She thinks I'm out chasing dames."  He shook each of our hands and thanked us by name, which was amazing to everyone.  Then he slipped out as non-chalant as he had come in.

The second time we met was in December of 1993.  He had been hired to do a series of skits as a wrap-around for some training videos.  It was very exciting because you didn't often get to work with big names on these types of projects, but this one had some serious backing.

It was bitter cold outside, unusual for a December in Houston.  Jonathan came in, cheerful and excited to work, which also was unusual for such a Big Name.  He made no demands, didn't bark any orders and simply asked where he could change into the first costume.

When he came out, he went around to each member of the crew and introduced himself.  You can only imagine how impressive that was, since most Big Names couldn't care less if you died on the spot.

When he got to me, he took my hand and looked me in the eye and got a strange, distant look on his face.  Then he said, "Bernard.  1983.  Comedy Workshop."

My jaw dropped.  I had been just a 'techie' at a small comedy club on an impromptu visit, yet ten years later he remembered my name, the year and the place we had met before.  This was so unusual that even other members of the crew stopped and gawked.  Needless to say, my stock went up at that moment.

We proceeded to work a full 10-hour day.  Jonathan played four different characters, and even though he had pages, he rarely stuck to them except as a launching point for his world-famous improvisations.  Normally, this would have been a real nuisance in this type of shoot, but not only did he hit all the points the writer and producer needed, the rest was hysterical.  Even the outtakes were the stuff of guffaws.

Even though it was cold in the studio, Jonathan never once complained.  When we paused to reset or fix a problem, he didn't run off to the green room.  Rather, he stayed in position and quietly rehearsed, thinking up lines and gags that would improve the scene.  On a few occasions, everyone would pause and just watch him work.  He was so involved that he hardly noticed that everyone had stopped, until someone would burst out laughing at something he had done.

At the end of the day, he changed back to his street clothes and when he came out, he once again went person to person and thanked each of us by name.  Then he stepped into the winter blast, got into his limousine and sped off.

It's hard to express, though you may well imagine, just how unusual a man he was.  Though one of the biggest names in comedy ever, though inspiration to comedians like Robin Williams and Carrot Top, though able to demand and get pretty much anything he wanted...yet, he was a humble, quiet professional.  He had a gift, he knew it, and he used it to try to improve the world just a little.

Of all the Big Names I have met and worked with in my career, he has left the deepest impression, not only because I so admired and enjoyed his work, but because he was also a wonderful and genuine human being.  He was a man who could literally find humor in everything - a stick, a napkin, even thin air (his pantomimes are legendary).  He was a consummmate professional, a master of his craft and a true gentleman off-stage.

I mourn his passing, both for the Big Name that he was, and for the human being he was.  I will never forget the brief moments our paths crossed.

He was one of my heroes - a face I knew from early childhood and whose comedy made me laugh so many times throughout my life.

God bless Jonathan for the gift of laughter.