On Thursday, improv comedy legend Jonathan Winters died at age 87. Winters began his career in the 1950s, endearing himself to legions of fans with his remarkable gift for creating indelible, instantly memorable characters out of thin air, and for appearances in films like It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and TV shows like Mork & Mindy. The news Friday of Winters' death resulted in an outpouring of tributes from comedians including Patton Oswalt ("No him, no me") and Steve Martin ("You were not only one of the greats, but one of the great greats.")
If it's difficult to eulogize Winters, if only because he played so many diverse characters worth eulogizing. "I don't do jokes. The characters are my jokes," said Winters in an interview quoted at The New York Times. With his words in mind, The Week pays tribute to Jonathan Winters with a collection of some of his most memorable characters and sketches:
1. Improvising with a pen and pencil set
In this remarkable piece of improvisation, Winters takes a seemingly banal pen and pencil set and turns it into a series of brief, hilarious sketches.
2. As a baseball player
Without speaking a single word, Winters improvises a memorable, sharply realized performance as a baseball player — complete with self-made, perfectly timed sound effects.
3. Performing with Dean Martin
In this sketch featuring Jonathan Winters and Dean Martin — with Martin playing straight man and reading all of his lines from cue cards — Winters improvises every one of his lines as the cigar-chomping, hilariously obnoxious Howard Stufflefinger.
4. As an airline pilot
Winters improvises a scene as a pilot facing intense scrutiny from a justifiably skeptical board of inquiry determining whether or not he can safely fly a plane.
5. Roasting Ronald Reagan
In character as Miss Maude Frickert — the purported first-grade elementary teacher of Ronald Reagan, and a character he played frequently throughout his career — Winters poked fun at Reagan for everything from his suspiciously sandy hair to his decision to go to college in Eureka, Illinois.