16 September 2005 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Weak improv wants improvement.
'The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters' was a syndicated half-hour show that ran in various U.S. markets without a specific time slot. I saw several episodes of this series at a screening in London when a representative of the show's production company was hoping to sell the British syndication rights. The word 'Wacky' in the title tipped me off that this series was likely not nearly so funny as it fancied itself.
The opening credit sequence was promising, featuring some attractive animation. A cartoon version of Jonathan Winters walked into a cartoon junkyard and made some Svengali-style hypnotic passes at various pieces of junk. The pieces of junk promptly anthropomorphised (don'tcha hate it when that happens?), sprouting arms and legs and smiling faces. Then all the smiling pieces of junk fell into step and followed Jonathan Winters down the street to his house. All through this, the soundtrack played the show's theme music: a bright cheerful tune that was performed by a whistler, rather than a singer, and which didn't seem to have a lyric.
The animated junk follows the animated Winters to his house, where he opens a door and smilingly beckons the junk to enter. At this point, suddenly all the pieces of junk react in horror. Then a reverse angle shows us that this room is Winters's attic. Why would pieces of junk be frightened of getting put into Jonathan Winters's attic? It can't be any worse than rusting at the junkyard!
From here, the animation segued into live action with the real Jonathan Winters ... and from this point it was all downhill. Directors and scriptwriters have never known what to do with Winters, an extremely improvisatory comedian. There's always been a tendency to offer Winters as some sort of freak, a multiple-personality disorder who starts a new riff every few seconds.
This series, unfortunately, was long on improvisation and short on planning. After the animation, each episode began with Winters on a claustrophobic set that was meant to be his cluttered attic, but which was obviously a television soundstage stocked with some very unlikely props. He would wander through his 'attic' and grab some random piece of rubbish, which was meant to trigger a brilliant riff of improv. The problem with this conceit is that we know that the show was filmed in advance, so there's no certainty that any of this 'improv' is genuinely ad-libbed. And, frankly, the fact that so much of this material was unfunny made things even worse: since Winters *did* have time to prepare his material, it should have been funnier than this.
A couple of attractive actresses interacted with Winters, but this whole sorry series was done on a very low budget with poor production values. Jonathan Winters is too special a talent for the routine of weekly television, and has always been more effective as a guest-star on someone else's show. But I did enjoy that very cheerful bouncy theme tune during the opening credits, and I wish I knew who whistled it. I also wish I knew who did the animation sequence.