Jonathan Winters is the depraved, roly-poly elder of classic comedy whose avuncular jowls trick us into trusting his wickedly toothy, self-amused grin. Like Lenny Bruce, Winters eschews conventional punch lines for cascading rhythms of humor, often delivered while in the throes of character-driven, trance-like improvisations. Unlike his more culturally intrepid predecessor, Winters isn’t afraid of easy gags, but his fart jokes and off-color insinuations are like welcome, familiar textures within the context of his intricately surreal homespun and sci-fi bits. I remember watching, as a preteen barely aware of the extent of human perversity, one of his Granny Frickert monologues on a PBS special. By the routine’s manic close he had invited the audience into his fictional Southern crone’s most twisted fantasies and schemes, many involving violence and incest. Experiencing for the first time the exhilarating alchemy between amusement and shock that would prove essential to my own sense of humor, I caught on to Winters’s subversive genius immediately. “The only reason he’s getting away with this,” I thought, “is that he’s convinced us all he’s a harmless madman.”
At first, Jim Pasternak’s quasi-documentary Certifiably Jonathan promises to dissect this persona with unprecedented candor, if not, thankfully, sentiment. Winters speaks obliquely of his still-morphing sexuality at 85; he now keeps a separate bedroom from his wife, which he decorates with guns and presidential portraits. And he imparts the details of his bipolar condition with nearly off-putting sincerity, though he admirably admits that the disease has been a career hindrance rather than a byproduct of his gift. Coaxing us into these quietly revealing moments, Pasternak skips the obligatory biographical thumbnail, instead offering a solid half-hour of Winters simply meandering in his southern California neighborhood, riffing with the on-screen director and displaying his naïve-style paintings in a local gallery. These scenes, despite bearing all the cinematographic elegance of a cellphone codec, are like a friendly postcard to Winters’s fans bearing ample proof of his intact faculties. If anything, the vintage comedian’s simply grown more macabrely self-aware in his senescence; at one point he describes himself as a “survivor of crib death,” and when Pasternak asks him before an interview if he’s nervous, he curtly replies, “Nope. No money.”
The peripatetic pleasure of this opening reverberates through the remainder of Certifiably Jonathan, but the faux-plot around which Pasternak situates the film’s second half is aggressively uninteresting when it isn’t disrespectful to his aging subject. While completing new canvases for a MoMA exhibit, Winters’s favorite artwork is purloined, and the resulting despondency strikes him with painter’s block. He enlists the help of a platoon of stylistic descendents to help him out of the funk, resulting in extemporaneous, Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque sequences with, among others, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Howie Mandel, and Sarah Silverman, but as Winters mostly feigns gloominess while others uneasily take the improv lead, the scenes feel like egregiously missed opportunities. Still, the range of guests suggests the pervasiveness of Winters’s influence in modern-day television, which often emulates the organic cadence of his whirlwind adlibbing even when carefully scripted (cf. Arrested Development).
Rising above this generic silliness, however, is a sophisticated appreciation of Winters as an unsung multi-talent. The fictional art critic Nicholas DeBoor (Dominic Keating) moronically compares his totemic paintings to Míro and Dali, but they’re more an apotheosis of the sinisterly all-American aesthetic that informs his stand-up material. His obsessions with zealotry and perversion are crystallized in richly meditative canvases bearing symmetrical images of broken crucifixes and neophyte Klansmen standing against brightly planate landscapes. Winters has always focused on the profound confusion of outsiders in his work, but several of these pieces can almost be taken as clandestine career statements. The hilariously comic strip-y “New Member” features several white KKK hoods poking over a picket fence and one gray hood, trailing; has Winters ever filled the gap between disgust and sympathy with surprised laughter so tidily? And we smile when learning that a fiery, abstract piece has been titled “Crazy Old Lady at the Beach with Sunburned Boobs.” Winters doesn’t slink away from the messiness of the human mind; he simply dares to give its darkest components a big, dumb name and a wide, dopey smile. I take comfort in that, and have ever since spit-taking over Granny Frickert’s inappropriately ragged breathing. Sometimes an inner demon can be silenced with a single dirty joke.