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Jonathan Winters found a home for his improv genius on TV

April 12, 2013|By Patrick Kevin Day

Jonathan Winters, who died on Friday at age 87, had a talent ideal for the small screen. Though he did appear in several comedic classics, including "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and "The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming," it was the less constrained world of TV that allowed him to flit and morph between comic bits at lightning speed.

One of the first great venues on TV where the comic rose to prominence was on "The Jack Paar Program." This appearance from 1964 demonstrates Winters' ability to improvise at a moment's notice, in this case with the prop of a simple stick.

One of Winters' most popular comic personas was the slightly naughty, extremely frumpy old lady Maude Frickert. Winters frequently appeared as the character on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. (In fact, the character inspired Carson to develop his own old lady character known as Aunt Blabby.)

In this clip, Winters appeared with Dean Martin on "The Dean Martin Show," and demonstrated how his improv wit allowed him to continue to stay current even as the times went from stodgy to more swingin'.

He frequently appeared in character, especially around Carson. Winters even appeared in character as an unnamed bumpkin from Carson's past at the revered late night host's 1968 Friars' Club roast.

Of all the comedians Winters influenced with his rapid-fire riffs and spontaneous character creation, none owed as obvious a debt or became as famous as Robin Williams. The comedian, who ran with Winters' style and amped it up to a dizzying speed, revered Winters and on the fourth and final season of his breakout sitcom, "Mork and Mindy," Winters joined the cast as the alien child of Mork.

Yes, Winters was older than Williams, but that was explained away by the bizarre alien physiology of the Orkan people.

Unlike many comedians who broke out in the 1960s and faded into obscurity over time, Winters managed to remain respected and popular, even into the 1990s, when he starred in the sitcom, "Davis Rules," alongside Randy Quaid.

Although the sitcom only lasted two seasons and was criticized for being too safe of a family sitcom, it did allow Winters some space to demonstrate a little of his comic flair, even if it was between the more traditional sticom elements.

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