I write this after reading of the passing of one of the great comic minds in the last 50 years. A man whose wit and imagination blazed a path for other giants of improvisational comedy that were to follow. I am speaking of Jonathan Winters, who died on April 14 at age 87.
I remember the magical 24 hours we spent with Mr. Winters quite a few years ago in the early 1990’s.
At the time we were producing the corporate video production for most of the inaugural ship celebrations for our client, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, at a time when it seemed like they were turning out new “bigger and better” cruise ships at the rate of two a year.
It was always our job to create a fabulous video presentation to show to thousands of travel agents as these new ships left the shipyard in Saint Nazaire, France, and made their way across the English Channel to Southampton and then for inaugural celebrations in Boston, New York City, down the East Coast, through the Panama Canal, and to the West Coast Ports. At each stop, thousands of travel agents would see our shows and explore the new ship.
For each new vessel, we created a unique theme, and a show that often involved multiple projectors, huge videowalls and special effects. We always tried to do each video one better than the last – to make each presentation something the audiences would remember.
Personally, I always loved writing comedy and still believe that people love to laugh – and that helps sell product. Challenged with the creation of a new show, my mind went to the famous old Mel Brooks – Carl Reiner routine, “The Worlds Oldest Man,” which I always found to be a comic masterpiece. What if I did a variation on that theme for this show and created “The Worlds First Cruiser: Father Cruise”?
It could be very funny, and offer hilarious bits that could get the audience laughing and still relate to the cruise industry, and the product (showcasing the new Royal Caribbean ship).
At my initial pitch meeting with my client, then VP Sales of Royal Caribbean, Mike Applebaum, I presented the idea and read some of the script I had written. Mike laughed at each segment and loved it.
He then said, ”How do you produce a piece like this?” Jokingly, I said “Easy, I get Robin Williams.” Mike said without missing a beat, “How much would he charge?” He was totally serious.
Well, I knew that Robin Williams was not affordable for a production like this – not even close. He was in the height of his career, making movies – a Hollywood “A lister.” But it got me thinking – what about alternatives? How about the next best thing: Jonathan Winters? Someone who Robin Williams always said gave him the inspiration to do what he did. I wondered, what was he doing? I had seen him on some hilarious TV commercials recently.
It didn’t take long to find his agent, make a deal (it still wasn’t cheap), but the client loved it and was able to get the budget and the idea was approved. A production date was set.
I was so excited to work with Jonathan Winters, knowing he was doing a comedy bit that I wrote. I worked on the copy for weeks and sent him a draft a few days before he was to fly to Miami for the shoot in our South Miami video production studio.
His agent said the Mr. Winters “loved the script” and thought it was very funny, and that he would most likely be improvising a bit and wouldn’t read exactly what I wrote – but would add to it.
Of course, I thought. This was Jonathan Winters. I want him to go crazy and improvise on what I wrote, and make it a masterpiece of his comic genius.
The shoot day came, and I was to pick Mr. Winters and his manager up at the airport, have dinner with him, Mike, and a small group of people, to talk about the next days’ session, and to get to know our star.
At the airport Mr. Winters was polite and quiet. He was very complimentary of the script, my ideas, and what we were planning to shoot the next day. But at one point his manager pulled me aside and suggested that we don’t talk about the next day’s session, as Jonathan will “do better” when he doesn’t go into a scene with lots of instructions.
I said that was no problem. Besides, we would have a teleprompter there to make it easy on him. “Oh, no…” his manager insisted, “he won’t need a teleprompter. He never uses one.”
“That’s odd,” I thought. “Did he memorize all my dialog?” It was eight pages of script and anecdotes, and I was curious how he would do that much copy from memory. But, we went to dinner, and I must say he was on that night!
He was doing comedy routines with the waiters, the people at the next table, and anyone that passed by and asked for an autograph. We laughed so hard that I remember actually having pain in my sides the next day. Not just me, every one of the 8-10 people who had joined us for dinner at the Grand Bay Hotel that night had a totally memorable evening.
The shoot day came, and Mr. Winters arrived right on schedule. The Limo driver walked into the studio, laughing, apparently he too was the recipient of some of his humor.
We put the main points of the scripts on large cue cards to be safe, so it wouldn’t slow down the shoot.
We got Mr. Winters into the first of six costumes – a Viking outfit. Big horns and all. He was a riot, and got right into the part with a Norwegian accent. The cameras rolled, and for the next ten minutes he made up a story about the Vikings and the first Nordic cruiser, a guy he named “Horny Olaf” (on the spot). The crew and I had to put napkins in our mouths so we would not laugh out loud, and spoil the recording. It got a little “R-rated,” and then evolved to the “X-rated” side. I worried how we would edit it, but we just let him go. After all, this was Jonathan Winters. How can you stop genius and tell him to “stick to the script”?
In the next scene he was to play a Nile cruiser on Cleopatra’s barge. We had an Egyptian outfit for him, and once again he went off talking about Elizabeth Taylor. Her many husbands, her boobs, her sexual appetite… you name it. It went on for 10 minutes and it was a riot.
Again, in my head I am thinking “how the hell am I going to ever edit this?” And can I possibly get him to do anything close to the script I wrote, and that was fully approved by the client?
I pulled his manager aside and explained my concerns. He said quite matter-of-factly, “You hired Jonathan Winters, not an actor. He doesn’t read scripts. He gets a story in his mind and tells it.”
Well, that thought had never crossed my mind.
I was panicking a bit, but Mike (the client) from Royal Caribbean was laughing so hard we removed him from the studio and had him watch from the control room. We talked it over and agreed to let him “do his thing.” There was no point in doing anything else.
We would get what we would get!
We went on and did a total of six scenes plus, two or three he made up on his own. This went on for hours.
At lunch break a FedEx delivery man walked in the door, and Jonathan did a whole routine on FedEx, and entertained the driver and everyone for 20 minutes.
By 3 p.m. Mr. Winters was exhausted (he was in his 70’s at the time) and it was time to stop. We called it a “wrap,” he said his good-byes, and said to me very sincerely,” I hope you got what you wanted. I have no idea what I did, but I hope it was good.”
He smiled, got in the limo and left.
We now had 4 hours of Jonathan Winters on tape and over the next week or two we edited away to get something that was not “X-rated,” and something that had anythingto do with Royal Caribbean, or the product. It was funny alright, but we hit a creative wall. It just wasn’t working for our intended purpose.
It was funny… but not for what we needed.
We then decided that while it was comic genius, we simply couldn’t use it at all, so we would not use it. And the truth is, it has never has been seen by an audience. The tapes still sit on our shelf in the warehouse.
But with his passing this last week I stopped to think about his genius and about the day I laughed longer and harder than I ever have in my life, and I thank him for that.
Now, I will wade through the warehouse, find those tapes, and maybe I will put it on YouTube, now that he is gone.