There was not a lot of stuff that my father and I could agree on when I was growing up, but on the matter of Jonathan Winters (and Diana Rigg) we were in firm agreement. We both thought he was hysterical. To this day I have Winters’ zany flights of verbal fancy etched in my memory from listening to his comedy albums over and over again.
Today most people will remember Jonathan Winters from films like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Loved One (which he is amazing in) and The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. Or his TV roles as “Mearth,” the alien son of Mork & Mindy and for his memorable appearances on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
The thing that virtually all of Winters’ TV and film appearances have in common is how OUT THERE and free-form his comedy was. Jonathan Winters, even into old age, was been known for his manic energy and indefatigable improvisational genius. You never, ever saw him in a quiet, contemplative mood, but for 30 minutes here, in this 1973 program from public television called Day at Night, you get to see a very different side of the comic genius. The host is public television pioneer James Day.
I’m not going to go into the whole song and dance about how Playboy provided a forum for some of the most progressive thinkers and artists on the planet including Lenny Bruce, Robert Anton Wilson, Paul Krassner, Timothy Leary, Joan Baez, R. Buckminster Fuller, Jane Fonda, Muhammad Ali and many more. I’m not gonna tell you how I bought the magazine to read the interviews and fine fiction from writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, Gabriel García Márquez, Joseph Heller, Margaret Atwood, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut. No, I’m not gonna tell you all about that because it won’t make any difference in anyone’s opinion of Playboy magazine. You’ve got your opinion, I’ve got mine.
Playboy and its creator Hugh Hefner have been polarizing people for the past half century. I happen to like Hefner and his magazine, though the nude spreads have rarely featured much that floated my boat. My taste in women rarely coincided with the picture perfect All-American, mostly white, women of Playboy. I was also never into the “Playboy philosophy” when it came to stuff like cars, fashion and cocktail culture. I never wore an ascot or cufflinks and I wouldn’t know the difference between a Cuban cigar and a dog turd or good champagne from Everclear and 7-Up.
What I dug about about Playboy is that it introduced my young Catholic-corrupted brain to the idea that sex could be fun and intelligence could be sexy. In retrospect, the nudity objectified women, but at the time, for me, it opened up a world in which women’s bodies were wondrous and beautiful. I may be one of the only teenage boys of the Sixties that didn’t use Playboy as jerk-off fodder. I gazed upon the full-bodied Playmates during breaks in reading the genuinely mind-opening interviews with some of my counter-culture heroes. There literally was nowhere else to get some of the insights that Playboy published (I wasn’t reading Evergreen or Paris Review yet). Between bouts of being battered mentally and physically at school by malevolent Nuns, it was liberating to come home, lock my bedroom door, and read about psychedelics, beatnik culture and the pleasures of the flesh in a girlie magazine. And the nudes did steer my thinking away from perceiving the human body as a vessel of sin and shame toward an appreciation of it as something delightful and fulfilling.
Here’s an interview with Hefner from the mid-1970s that was conducted for City University of New York TV show Day At Night hosted by James Day. I like Hefner’s belief in the liberating power of a healthy sex life. And I bet the Bunnies did too. I can’t recall any of Playboy’s models ever complaining about their jobs and several books have been written about and by them.
As we once again enter an era of prudishness, over-zealous political correctness and sexual repression, some of what Hefner has to say sounds as relevant as it did 40 years ago. While the bunny costumes may seem silly and dated, the truth is always hip.