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Jonathan Winters: Warped and wonderful

April 12, 2013|By Chris Erskine

Both straight-faced and antic, Jonathan Winters could get a laugh out of Leviticus. His face had more rubber than a set of Goodyear tires.

There are comics who can make you laugh, and there are comics who can make you hurt. Winters was one of those.

Yep, the folksy, Ohio-born comic could be lethal with laugher and goes down as one of the funniest men of his time -- of all time -- right up there with Groucho, Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar. He may not have been the king of comedy, more like its reigning court jester. He could never leave a straight line alone.

PHOTOS: Celebrities react to Winters' death

“The warm-up on ‘Mork & Mindy’ was funnier than the show,” recalled producer Garry Marshall by phone Friday morning. “People would come from all over the Paramount lot to watch Robin [Williams] and Jonathan ad-lib before the show.”

They say Winters, who died Thursday at age 87, could be crazy, literally; that’s always a fine line. Show me a comic who isn’t half nuts and I’ll show you a guy working the Sunday show at the Minneapolis Hyatt.

Indeed, the best ones are all a little nuts. When the rest of us hear noise, they hear rim shots. As eternal third-graders, their minds frolic in places we can never see. They make a life of puffing on the wrong end of the cigar.

PHOTOS: Jonathan Winters | 1925-2013

I’m not sure if it’s a slightly warped frontal cortex, but I do know that it’s occasionally genius -- a whimsical rearranging of the norm, a way of making us laugh in fresh and beautiful ways.

Their loopiness keeps the rest of us sort of sane.

“It’s a sad day,” said Marshall, who first met Winters as a writer for Jack Parr. “You could never guess where his mind might go.”

How funny was Winters?

“He invented a new category of comic genius,” Albert Brooks tweeted Friday.

VIDEO: Jonathan Winters' improv genius on TV

In the 1970s and ’80s, he seemed to be everywhere, one of the rare guests who could make Johnny Carson do spit-takes. He was on “Hollywood Squares,” and appeared in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” With Woody Allen, he even voiced a Saturday morning cartoon called “Hot Dog.”

Then came the fourth season of “Mork & Mindy,” when he appeared as the middle-aged Mearth, the newborn offspring of Williams, in one of the great casting decisions in TV history.

“It was Robin’s idea originally,” Marshall said. “Robin loved him and idolized him. They were sensational together.

“When [Winters] got going, it was one of the few times you could see Robin stop talking.”

RIP, you warped and wonderful comic genius ... Maude Frickert right by your side. 

ALSO:

PHOTOS: Jonathan Winters | 1925-2013

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Jonathan Winters, comedy giant on TV and in films, dies at 87

chris.erskine@latimes.com | twitter.com/erskinetimes

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