Jonathan Winters is Still Alive?

"New" in 2011.

Before I write another word, I must say that I consider it hugely rude to comment on older performers by saying, “That person’s still alive!?!?!?!?” I consider the general phenomenon of celebrity death watches to be of questionable taste — symptoms of a society that discards those who were once of value the second our attention wanders.

Performers who have delighted and inspired us are expected to vanish the second they get old and ugly — or, to put it another way, the second we don’t give a shit about them. I find that offensive; I bear no ill will toward, say, Steven Tyler or Courtney Love, so why should I wish to speculate on their potential to shuffle off this mortal coil any more than I would speculate on whether they’ll marry, breed with or break up with this or that fashion model, backup singer or Swedish bohunk?

Would doing so somehow make me feel more alive? Or does regarding all denizens of the show business world as pieces of meat who get born, grow up and die for the sole purpose of amusing us thoroughly devalue all human endeavor? Does it make the very fact of performance, whether it be a Beethoven sonata or a Johnny Carson skit, a stripper’s lap dance or a speed-fueled comedy monologue, utterly futile as a mode of expression and communication?

I vote the latter.

It is this utter credulousness that makes me do stuff like get excited when I hear that comedian Jonathan Winters is among the living, which is the only reason I would ever slap such a rude title on this post.

Yes, it’s true. I felt a vague sense of euphoria when I spotted Jonathan Winters mugging at me from a Facebook ad. It was weird.

The ad told me, “Yes, he’s still alive!”

I thought to myself, “Wow, he’s still alive!?! That’s really wonderful. I love Jonathan Winters!”

Why did I think that? Your guess is as good as mine; I don’t love Jonathan Winters. In fact, I don’t give a damn about Jonathan Winters, other than I imagine he’s probably a reasonably nice guy, and he’s never done anything to screw me over, so I’m glad to hear he’s alive because, generally speaking, being sorry he’s not dead would be creepy.

But it wouldn’t be creepy because I have any personal investment in Jonathan Winters; it’d be creepy in the same way it would be creepy to wish death upon some guy I had a pleasant conversation or two with at a stamp-collecting party. Insofar as I’ve ever had an opinion on Jonathan Winters, the opinion has been “Oh, there’s that guy again.”

That’s how I felt any of the thirty times I remember seeing him on Love Boat (a show that, to my knowledge, he was never on), any of the forty times I just KNOW I saw him on Fantasy Island (on which, again, he never guested), or any of the myriad times he was on Laugh-In saying “Sock it to me!” (that was Nixon).

I do love, just on principle, that Winters a veteran of vaudeville (which he’s not), that he appeared once on Hee-Haw (which he didn’t), and that he played the Dad on the animated sitcom Wait Till Your Father Gets Home (that was Tom Bosley).

Apparently my memory is correct on at least a few fronts, however — which is a relief; I was getting pretty worried that I’d remember serving with him in World War II or something. Furthermore, I discover I do give a damn about Jonathan Winters — at least enough to write a blog post about how weird it is that a 2007 documentary about him is on Facebook.

Anyway, the documentary now advertising on facebook is 2007’s Certifiably Jonathan. The title is surely a reference to the fact that Winters was institutionalized in the 1950s for a nervous breakdown, about he did comedy routines in 1960 — which, for what it’s worth, is pretty bad-ass; back then, people didn’t talk about their mental illness. Suddenly I love Jonathan Winters! I love him more than I love Hollywood Squares!

Thankfully, a few things I remember about the esteemed Mr. Winters do happen to be correct. Winters was, in fact, in the delightful ’63 yock-fest It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; he was a pool player in an old Twilight Zone with Jack Klugman; he was indeed in 1966’s The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming; he really did sell Hefty Bags; he was, in fact, Mork & Mindy‘s alien space baby. In the midst of all my murky Jonathan Winters memories bubbling up from my enormous mental reservoir of Things That Never Happened, I have to say that I’m most glad I didn’t hallucinate him as Robin Williams’s hatched-not-born alien space baby. That woulda been weird.

However, theĀ  film’s proclamation that it’s “Coming in 2011, [a] new film” is sort of disingenuous. It’s apparently just being released or re-released on DVD or something; in its urgency to convince me that a four-year-old film is a new film, the publicists have failed to tell me why the hell I’m supposed to care that Jonathan Winters was alive and making movies four years ago, other than because not caring would be four-years-ago-worth of vaguely creepy.

But this is not “a new film.” I don’t begrudge the promoters from wanting people to see this damn thing (that is, after all, their job). But it once again smacks me in the face with the filthy lying nature of all PR. Why, oh why, must publicists treat Google, IMDB and Wikipedia like things only underground hackers with pink hair and facial piercings know how to use?

Anyway, after ridiculing it heartlessly, and discovering that Winters had the brass ones to publicly make light of his own mental illness in 1960, I now feel duty-bound to see the thing, if only to relive Jonathan’s greatest moments on Hee-Haw.

It is mildly helpful that the Facebook page asked people to post their favorite Jonathan clip, which helped me remember that not everything that happened to me before 1980 was something I watched on TV. Some stuff I saw in the theater.

The film features appearances by Mork, Howie Mandel, Nora Dunn, Sarah Silverman, Tim Conway, Jeffrey Tambor, Jimmy Kimmel, Rob Reiner, Ernie Hudson, Sheena Easton, and many more. It’s an absolute parade of media celebrities I’m vaguely aware of.

There are also, apparently, a whole damn shitload of Arquettes in the thing. But those people are a whole ‘nother post.

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