Fans of this influential comic take notice: Judge Bill Gibron believes you'll improvise all manner of ugly epithets once you view this vile, unfunny DVD rip-off.
This is some horrible stuff…HON-EY!
Jonathan Winters is considered a comic genius. Robin Williams swears by his wildly improvisational style, and championed the troubled talent whenever he got the chance. Anyone who remembers the dorky Mork and Mindy will vaguely recall Mearth, the elderly love child of the couple's earthling/extraterrestrial union. In his previous prime, he appeared in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World, The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming and The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh and has recently found a niche doing cartoon voiceover work. His off-camera life contained bouts with mental illness (he had famous nervous breakdowns in 1959 and 1961, which he later incorporated into his act) and authored a book of short stories called Winters Tales. To many, Jonathan Winters will always represent the ultimate freewheeling ad-lib anarchist, while others will just have hazy memories of that doughy guy in all those Hefty trash bag commercials.
Too bad, then, that the bottom feeders of public domain drivel, Passport Video, have decided to dump all over this well-considered wit's already tenuous reputation with the terrible title, Jonathan Winters: Rare and Riotous. Nothing will confuse the non-committed or the curious quicker than substandard clips from long-forgotten TV shows, haphazardly tossed on aluminum and plastic in crappy, kinescope versions. Offering about 34 minutes from a one-hour special called Jonathan Winters: A Wild Winters Night, as well as a 15-minute snippet from an old Chevy Show starring Andy Williams, and a quirky 10-minute public service announcement (PSA), there is nothing here to warrant Winters' quasi-legendary status. The material is mild and incredibly uninspired, the audience reacts like crazed cackling hyenas, laughing at even the lamest attempts at humor, and, in one instance, a celebrated co-star actually steals the limelight away from the stammering, making-it-up-as-he-goes-along center of attention.
You can instantly tell where this DVD production stands in the star's lexicon when you read the following notice plastered across the front of the case:
This DVD is neither endorsed nor authorized by Jonathan Winters
Goody! This means that Passport understands that the comic would instantly condemn this product had they tried to pawn it off as something genuine or seminal. Instead, this is just remnants from a rotten refuse pile, awful offerings that could be cheaply chopped up and slapped onto the digital domain without concern for entertainment value or commercial viability. With Winters still with us, one can't accuse Passport of posthumous money grabbing or after-the-fact video grave robbing. But aside from a quick cash grab in redolent ruse form, it is hard to fathom why they would release this horrible collection of terrible tripe. The Wild Winters Night show is just appalling. The comedian is never funny, his solo moments are more manic than amusing, and co-star Art Carney literally steals the entire enterprise out from under Winters. Watching the legendary sidekick without his Ed Norton safety net is inspiring, since we usually associate the actor with his Honeymooners sewer worker. Here, he is quick, clever, and filled with fresh invention. Winters just looks worried.
Andy Williams was apparently a huge champion of Winters, and offered him several chances to work his weird muse on the singer's specials and series. The brief bit here is rather anti-climactic. After a somewhat lengthy setup about how every town has a few strange characters, Williams introduces Winters. The improv "pro" then gives us a few of his most "famous" faces, including the fey, lisping sports coach, the ridiculously rednecked city official, and that lecherous old lady herself, Maude Frickert. Anyone familiar with Bob Cresse's turn as the matronly owner of The House on Bare Mountain will instantly recognize this babbling old biddy's shrill shtick. Williams himself is about as artificial as a mannequin, all blazing white teeth and blank as a fart stare. His weak interactions with Winters prove that not everyone could handle a interpersonal pow-wow with big Jon's shapeless joking. Doled out in small, simplistic segments, Winters is still unable to generate a healthy set of belly blasts here. Instead, he looks tired and irritable.
Interestingly, the "Pitch In" public service announcement is the best, most consistently clever element of the DVD. Since there has to be a message to his madness, Winters is forced to keep his ramblings focused. This lends a sense of context to his work that actually brings out the inherent humor. Even if some of the material is aimed at the wee ones (kids are prominent in this piece), it shows that when given a premise to work from, Winters can actually craft some comic gold. But if you've always wondered why stand-ups—like the dick-obsessed hirsuted hyperactive one—swear by JW and his ad-lib madness, you'll be hard-pressed to pony up an answer here. Jonathan Winters: Rare and Riotous may be a glimpse into a troubled and talented mind, but you'll never learn where such a legendary status actually stems from.
As for the tech specs, Passport delivers what can best be described as barely decipherable digital diarrhea. The cribbed-from-kinescope image is awful, blurry and washed out in its 1.33:1 full-screen sloppiness. There is no definition, very little detail and a complete lack of complimentary contrasts. Only the PSA plays fair with the visual variables of the medium, but it's still a non-color-corrected crock. The sound is equally irritating. The mix is muffled, the distortion deafening and the overall thinness of the ambience renders most of the conversations unintelligible. As a sole saving grace, Passport fails to deliver a single DVD extra. With the miserable manure they've put on the disc to begin with, one can only imagine how hideous their helping of bonus features would be.
Jonathan Winters will, perhaps, always be a nightclub comedy enigma. During his heyday, rumor has it that he broke new ground and redefined the concept of stand-up. His highly improvised style definitely inspired a future generation of jokesters. But you'd never know it from the paltry, pathetic offerings on this disc.
Rare and riotous? More like rotten and repellant.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Passport Video
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