SCOTT SIMON, host: This week, 3-D Smurfs have invaded movie theaters across the country. Now, viewers of a certain age taking children, maybe grandchildren, might recognize the voice of the white-bearded Papa Smurf. It belongs to Jonathan Winters, who also played Grandpa Smurf in the 1980s TV cartoon series. Jonathan Winters has practiced comedy for 60 years on radio, TV, nightclubs, recordings and movies. Many comics - many - cite Jonathan Winters are their favorite comedian, so much so that in 1999 the Kennedy Center awarded him the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Pat Dowell talked to Jonathan Winters about what he does and where it comes from.
PAT DOWELL: Jonathan Winters says he doesn't tell jokes.
JONATHAN WINTERS: I have always classified me as an actor-comedian, a humorist. I started out as an artist and what I do is, I do verbal paintings. I paint a picture. Hopefully you'll see the characters and understand what they're doing and what they're saying.
DOWELL: Like the proprietor of the Used Pet Shop, from a 1960 album.
WINTERS: I can give you that kangaroo over there for 10 and a half. Come all the way from Australia; most of them do. I got him as far as Muncie and he fell off a flatcar and broke his tail. Now, you know, most of them set back on their tails like this. But this one, you got to lean him against something.
DOWELL: There's a little hint of danger in the idea of the maimed bargain animals, as with so many of his routines. That's the way it should be, Winters says.
WINTERS: I am dangerous.
DOWELL: Winters found a natural home on dangerous shows, like Steve Allen's and Jack Paar's in the 1950s. Once Jack Paar handed Jonathan Winters a stick about three feet long and told him to make comedy.
WINTERS: Send in those big cats. Send in the smaller ones.
DOWELL: Winters turned the stick into more than a dozen skits. The quicksilver improvisations, countless characters and mercurial changes of expression and mood led people to call him a wacky genius. Winters often drew on his Ohio childhood for characters. He says he was a lonely child, that his parents either ignored him or belittled him, even after his success. He brought his mother, a radio professional herself, onto the Jack Paar show, thinking she would get a kick out of it.
WINTERS: And Jack said you got a hell of a talent here, you must be very proud of him. And my mother said, he's the biggest joke I ever wrote. But they were both insanely jealous of my career.
DOWELL: At the height of his success, in his early 30s, Winters voluntarily committed himself to a private psychiatric hospital.
WINTERS: At that time they didn't have a label for me. I said, what the devil, I know I'm not schizophrenic, I'm not catatonic. Now why is it you don't have a label? And the guy said it would only upset you. I'll tell you what's upsetting me is the cost of this place.
DOWELL: Now, his diagnosis is bipolar, but then they did not have effective medications for it. Winters declined electroshock treatment that doctors told him would erase some of the pain he was feeling.
WINTERS: I need that pain, whatever it is, to call upon it from time to time.
DOWELL: For his comedy. Winters even joked with the doctors treating him, the kind of joke that might prolong your stay.
WINTERS: I said to the guy you didn't ask me what I did in the Marines. And he said, OK, what'd you do? I said I was in demolition and I have guys outside now in construction. I have contact with them. What's the story? Well, they would visit you. They would visit me? Yeah, there'd be just the one visit.
DOWELL: Winters left the hospital after eight months. He, of course, used his breakdown in his comedy thereafter.
WINTERS: Said I was John Q. I'm from outer space and left the mother ship, and they caught me. You know, that was a terrible thing. But I had fun. It was interesting. You know, playing checkers all day and making rope-soled shoes, and everything. Oh, crazy.
DOWELL: Jonathan Winters had his own TV talk and variety show in the 1960s and '70s and regularly appeared in sitcoms, winning two Emmys. He won a 1995 Grammy for one of his recordings. His movies include the slapstick saga "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and the dark satire "The Loved One," in which he played twins, funeral home directors who scheme to launch the departed into orbit.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LOVED ONE")
WINTERS: (as Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy) I tell you, Harry, this first resurrection has got to be perfect.
(as Harry Glenworthy) How about a Nobel Prize winner? Herskovits?
(as Wilbur Glenworthy) Nobel, Schmobel. It's got to be national appeal, Harry.
DOWELL: Winters is 85, and says what gives him the most pleasure now is selling his colored pencil drawings - surreal sketches that always include eyes or coat hangers, or fruit, or stylized creatures. But he's also written a dramatic script for a western. And he's working on his autobiography.
WINTERS: I chose this title, I think, works. It's me. And the title of the book is "In Search of a Playground."
DOWELL: A place perhaps where a child with dangerous gifts might play to his heart's content. For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: And that's music from "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad" - how many mads are there? - "Mad World." And there is video of Jonathan Winters making comedy out of a stick on our website, NPR.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.