I was mildly disheartened by the experience of introducing Jonathan Winters to my students today, but only mildly, and certainly not disparagingly. They’re all great students and amazing people… but they demonstrate some of the inappropriate sensitivity that has been innocently driven into our culture and their generation in particular. It’s something I understand, often agree with, but as is the case with any movement or successful amount of social progress, there is often a reactionary element that obscures the deeper truths and comes across as excessive. One thing I have a huge beef with is that cartoon images of races that are not “white” are automatically dismissed as “racist.” Yep, some are, but most are not. Cartoonists exaggerate. Winters was a cartoonist, but rather than draw, he performed.
Again, cartoonists exaggerate, that’s what they do, in fact, it’s about all they have. Take away a cartoonist’s right to exaggerate and they’ve nothing left but soft doughy drawings of soft doughy white guys (never women, as those cartoons are now “sexist”). If an art form (cartooning) is the art of exaggeration, then by today’s standards, cartooning is dead. Certainly cartoonists (humorists) have in the past poked fun at racial, cultural, and gender stereotypes… but does that make them racist or mean-spirited? No, many people I know from all walks of life, genders, and races certainly act in stereotypical ways, and we seem to have reached a point of over-sensitivity in which playing with these stereotypes is no longer allowed. Of course I also recognize from painful personal experience that cartoons, songs, and routines of that nature can hurt, so there is a paradox and conflict even in myself about all this. But let’s just stick with my point rather than delving into the inner conflict any sensitive or intelligent person must recognize when talking about this stuff. One of the best points I can make in regard to my original argument has to do with Speedy Gonzalez, from Warner Brothers cartoon fame. At some point people (probably over-sensitive white folks) decided that Speedy Gonzalez cartoons were racist, so they were essentially pulled or banned. Here’s the catch, no one thought to ask the Mexicans. They LOVED Speedy and wondered why their favorite character was no longer on TV. Similarly when I watch Rochester on the Jack Benny show I understand why some people might find it offensive, but I think that shows a certain knee-jerkiness and ignorance. Look closer: Jack worked with a “black” actor for years, loyally, and though Rochester was in the servile role officially, he gave Rochester the best lines, always had him come out on top (even on top of the star… Jack Benny himself), and was portrayed as not only intelligent, but popular and extremely quick-witted. To me, the issue is not so clear as many might believe, and if anything shows that Jack Benny was a very forward thinking man, especially for the time. Indeed, even the “offensive” Amos and Andy, if you watch it, portrays those characters in what to my eyes is a far less degrading way than Def Comedy Jam. I simply think these issues are more complicated than they seem.
Similarly with Jonathan Winters. Though my students were hip enough to laugh, to get it, I heard the words “creepy” and heard him described as “vaguely racist.” And while I admire the sensitivity, it comes from a point of view that is distinctly modern. Keep in mind, like any cartoonist, Jonathan Winters exaggerated, and he did so inclusively in an egalitarian way. All of his characters, be they black, white, women, Chinese, children, or Ohio hicks, were treated with the same amount (or lack of) dignity. There was no cynicism, no hate, not even any ignorance. He painted them all with the same beautifully broad brushstrokes as would have any cartoonist or comedian. He played with stereotypes and broadly humorous affectations. No one was singled out as being more or less human. In his eyes, anyone was potential material for comedy… not just any race, but any species–he did great dogs and cats, too. Sad to think that were he still out there working he would ONLY be allowed to perform as white male characters, no women, no blacks, no Chinese, nothing. Nowadays he would have to censor himself to the point of being stale and stagnant, stiff and inoffensive. Boring.
Let’s keep in mind, also, that when Jonathan Winters appeared on the Rosey Grier show his portrayal of a black man on that show was brave, bold, and politically significant not only to both men, but to the country. This was black and white meeting, laughing together on national television that went into the homes of people of all races. This was not racist, this was a victory of the melting pot and a much needed release of pressure during racially tense times. This was not primitive or racist, this was groundbreaking. And as you watch it you can see Mr. Grier laughing as he recognized Mr. Winters playing up stereotypical behaviors and attitudes he was no doubt familiar with the very same way I laugh out loud when he plays up stereotypical behaviors and attitudes of the Ohio hicks and hillbillies I knew, loved, and grew up with. Are we to believe now that Jonathan Winters should have ONLY played up the silliness and stereotypes present in white America? How boring, how deeply racist, and what a shame to rob him of such a wealth of material.
Besides all this there is a personality trait, or aesthetic, that many of us have (and I am assuming that Jonathan Winters was “one of us”) in that many of us love characters. We love people with character, people who are characters, characters, and people with great characteristic features. This is lost in the modern aesthetic. Character actors are all but gone, eccentricity is no longer celebrated in the same way. Watching older films we (those of us who are part of The Cult Of Character) enjoy that there are so many great faces with so many distinctive traits, not like in modern films where a certain even tone seems to dominate the appearance of most actors. We love people who are different, eccentric, and want to celebrate, imitate, and enjoy such natural individuality. We miss Paul Lynde, Fred Gwynne, Ernie Anderson, Minnie Pearl, and other people/actors whose schtick involved characters with distinctive and excessive personality traits. Guys like Jonathan Winters celebrated that world of human experience. And he didn’t just celebrate famous characters, but the characters that populated his daily life, and he did so with joyous affection.
I say there was nothing racist about his routines, nothing even remotely offensive, or creepy, no, with Jonathan there was nothing but good-hearted pure egalitarian joy! And as for me, I’d love to see a lot more of that on TV nowadays.