The death last week of legendary comedian and actor Jonathan Winters invoked a plethora of admirable responses. Many contemporary comic figures, such as Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, spoke fondly of a man who inspired them in their own careers. But, amidst the accolades came another type of acknowledgement: that Winters suffered from depression and alcoholism. I never knew that – and I really didn’t care to hear about it. It’s become inevitable though in recent decades, especially here in the U.S.; that when someone dies, or announces their run for public office, the media tries to learn what bad stuff lurks in their backgrounds.
It seems to be a uniquely American trend; one I still insist began with Watergate. When the American populace first heard some of the secret tapes Richard Nixon recorded, most were shocked at the level of foul verbiage that spewed from the mouth of the president. It may be naïve in retrospect, but at the time, I suppose most people assumed someone at that level of power would speak more maturely and professionally.
But, I remember my mother saying how surprised she was to learn, years earlier, that actress Carolyn Jones wasn’t the angelic figure she often personified herself to be. That’s the thing with people in the entertainment community, though; they create a universe for themselves and expect the public to believe it’s true. Pretty much the same can be said about politics. There’s a certain sense of egotism one must possess to succeed in either venture. Yet, is really necessary to point out the bad things people have done?
Almost as soon as the local ABC news channel announced Winters’ death, they just as quickly pointed out that he’d battled depression and alcohol. In fact, that took up half of their brief piece on him. Here was one of the most talented and ingenious comedians the U.S. has ever produced, and the goddamn news has to highlight the fact he was a recovering alcoholic!
I know what it’s like to suffer from depression and alcoholism. The two are almost symbiotic; conjoined twins of human psychosis. Growing up shy and an only child – as I’ve mentioned here before – plunged me into severe states of depression while enduring the tough times of childhood and my teen years. When I discovered alcohol, it only numbed the pain, but it didn’t make it any better. It never does.
I’m not proud of those struggles – except to say I got through them – but I certainly don’t want to be remembered for it. However my epitaph reads, I’d hate to think whatever demons lumbered around in my mind take up much of the dialogue. We Americans love a good success story, but it seems we also love to see people humiliated in public. We like to see that proverbial dirty laundry flapping in the winds of fame and fortune. Or, some do.
I don’t know what it is that compels this society to do that to people. Are we so enamored with our own potential that we have to snuff out our competition at any costs? Or, are we just that psychology twisted? Regardless, it’s immature at best; cruel and destructive at worst.
We all want to have people think the very best of us. So, as I contemplate Jonathan Winters, here’s what comes to my mind: hysterically funny, innovate, creative, impressive; a man with no equal; a damn good comedian; someone who made me laugh every time.