Today is the birthday of Jonathan Winters (b. 1925). No one ever calls it this because he came along too late, but Winters had what they called in variety and vaudeville a Protean act, a comedian or actor who shape-shifts, doing a succession of wildly different characters. There is also a long, time-honored tradition of comedy drag in vaudeville. Winters’ most famous character, the old lady Maude Frickert is absolutely in that tradition. Winters’ career made a natural progression from radio, to tv, to films. His period as a bankable movie star (1963-1970) coincides almost exactly with that of “wacky sixties comedies”: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963); The Loved One (1965); The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming (1966); Penelope (1966); Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad (1967); Eight on the Lam (one of Bob Hope’s last movies, 1967); Now, You See it, Now You Don’t (1968); and Viva Max (1969).
And then he did this kid’s tv show, and this is probably where I first saw him. It’s also where I undoubtedly first saw Woody Allen and JoAnne Worley. Hot Dog (1970-1971) was a show wherein these three comedians would be asked to explain how something gets made (e.g. a cardboard box, a penny). They would give their funny answers (the only one I’ve always remembered since I was five years old: when asked what sound a giraffe makes, Woody Allen answered that they just whisper, “Giraffe, giraffe!”) Then after the jokes, documentary crews would show how things are really manufactured. The show was created by a man named Frank Buxton; because this is the 21st century he even has a website. Here is the credit sequence and some wraparounds for Hot Dog:
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.