In many of the tributes to Robin Williams -- and indeed, in many articles over the years -- it was mentioned how much he looked up to and was influenced by Jonathan Winters. It was something Williams himself acknowledged readily and often.
Here, for instance, is him talking so affectionately about Winters. One of the few interviews I'm seen Robin Williams do where he wasn't just making jokes, but talking so clearly deeply about someone who meant the world to him.
I had reason to very briefly meet Jonathan Winters. It was when I was working at Universal Studios in PR. I was running an "Academy screening" for a movie we were pitching for an award, and he showed up. It was early, and we couldn't let people into the screening room yet, so the half dozen people who had already arrived had to wait a few minutes. He was one of them, and what I most remember -- and always liked -- is that he didn't feel any need to be "on," making quips about everything. He was very low-key, personable, and said a couple of witty things, but overall he was quiet and friendly.
You'll note in the clip that David Letterman comments about Robin Williams talking about Jonathan Winters at the Emmy Awards. Last year when Wilnters passed away, it was Williams who gave the tribute tom him, and began by saying --
"Jonathan Winters was my mentor. I once told him that and he said, 'Please. I prefer 'idol.'' But I knew it was true. I knew the moment I saw him on The Tonight Show when Jack Parr handed him a stick. What happened next was a genius at play. John and that stick transformed into a dozen different characters, complete with sound effects -- a fly-fisherman, a matador, Bing Crosby playing a round of golf ... he was comedy at the speed of thought and I was hooked."
The stick. That famous stick. I thought you might want to see what he did.
Here, from 1964, is Jonathan Winters on The Jack Paar Show.
What I most like about this is not the sheer, breathtaking vibrancy of coming up with different characters and situations that become funny simply by their inventiveness, but that each one has an actual joke.
And all that Paar does is hand him...a stick.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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