Thursday, June 8, 2017

Jonathan Winters on Lord Buckley: "We were all out of the same magical pot..."

Jonathan Winters started the conversation by telling of first meeting Lord Buckley in Las Vegas in the 1950s. Winters introduced himself and Buckley immediately began addressing him as "Prince Jon."
Why can't it be Lord John? I asked. 

"Because, my dear man," he said, "I am Lord, Lord Buckley." 

And I said, "Yeah, I remember you in the forest. You were against the Black Knight and he all but dismembered you with some kind of medieval hand ax." 

"Yes, my friend, thank you for remembering," Buckley replied. 

And we just started laughing. Later we went out in the country where he had the Mattress Farm. And everybody sat on those things and he kind of held court, you know. And started doing numbers and bits. I thought he was one of the funniest guys I'd ever met, and I still do. Of course his classic was the Nazz. We that did know him, guys like Lenny [Bruce], we were all kind of out of the same magical pot, as it were. I just thought he was one of the most gifted performers. I think that a lot of people thought that he was black, because he gave that impression in his dialogue. He'd obviously hung around a lot of black people -- musicians and performers. If anybody could do that voice -- a certain kind of black person -- my god, he had it down.
Calling him a comedian almost doesn't really do him justice.
No, I think he was more of a satirist, a humorist.

What was happening then that affected people like Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and, of course, Buckley? It seems that there was change in the nature of stage performance.

Well, I don't know about the others. One thing I've fought against myself was jokes. I'm still fighting against those.
The whole punchline thing?
Yeah. I grew up improvising and coming out of movies, you know, pretending I was Bogart or Gary Cooper [does Cooper voice]: "Don't draw your guns here, I'm a biblical student."

Do you think that Buckley influenced your work?

Not so much influenced. I think he rubbed off on all of us that knew him. I wouldn't go so far as to say influenced me. That's a step away from copying and I've never purposely copied anybody. I loved his material -- "God's Own Drunk" and "The Nazz." He was a far out dude ...

He had an extraordinary point of view.

 Oh yeah, and his Nazz thing. If you were any kind of a religious person at all you'd say, "Geez, that's kind of heavy, he's kind of putting Jesus down? But he wasn't! He'd written him as a -- which it should be -- as a hip guy, and you could see those people. He painted such great verbal portraits, which I've always tried to do. And you could see the Nazz coming down the stone path, you know [affects Buckley voice], "We saw this guy as a carpenter kitty. A little dude, kinda bent out, looked like his mental didn't fit him right -- crinkled or something. He say, 'Hey Nazz, look at my eyes man. Lay somethin' on me 'cause I can't see. My dog is blind too, hit both of us. And next the Nazz say, 'Yeah, baby, cool it. Come over here under this shade … Where is the shade? You'll know when you get to it.

He had a real love of language.

 I loved his stuff. Oh, I've had people sit down and I've said, "If you haven't heard this dude, please, listen to him now."

Do you think that if he would have lived into the '60s he would have had a bigger following?

 I absolutely do. I can't speak for the younger generation, or for the older generation, for that matter. But if you're a fan, you're a fan for life. I've never been able to single that many people out who really put me on the floor -- this guy was one of 'em. I've always been a Laurel and Hardy fan, and W.C. Fields. There are a lot of them out there. Lenny, though his language left a little bit to be desired; of course, he'd be like a pussycat today. I mean, compared to what they're doing today. You know I've gone from Gable saying, "Well personally, my dear, I don't give a damn" to "Go fuck yourself, Charlie. Tell that cocksucker to get back in the Plymouth." Wow.

 And that's the family show.

That's right. Exactly. That's 6:30. But I feel that, yes, his stuff is going to last forever. And I don't picture anybody "doing" him. I think that's a mistake. Sandy Baron obviously wanted to take on Lenny Bruce. Wrong. Lenny was unique. And you take on a unique guy ... It's like a Jim Brolin -- God bless him -- taking on Clark Gable. Look out. It doesn't work.

 So after meeting him in Vegas, then he moved out here [to the West Coast], did you see him on a social basis?

On occasion. I'm kind of a loner myself, not that I'm a recluse or anything. But I love antiques and I collect toys, that's a big hobby with me. When I came home after three years in the Marines, I said to my mother, "Where are my toys?" and she said "You've got chores to do, clown. You're 20 years old. What do you mean toys? I gave them away to the mission." And I said, "Why? Why didn't you let me know. There were some things I wanted to save." (I salvaged a baseball glove and a .22 rifle). And she said, "How did we know you were going to survive?" I said, "You should have put the star in the window right away, and had some friends over for lemonade or something." But that was my mother. She had this black humor. You know -- "You don't look well. Maybe you’re dying of something other than a flesh wound. "Thank you, Mother, thank you. Why don't you have some more sauce and sit down. It's a little past 9 a.m. -- I'm surprised at you." But, really, she didn't drink during the day, in deference to her. My dad called me the dumbest white kid he'd ever met. Because I didn't get math. I hate math. I got as far as plane geometry and then I knew it was over. I walked in -- "I will never use this shit" -- trigonometry, calculus, all bullshit. And Latin! What the hell … I go down the street: "Ego amutay." "Yeah, you faggot. Cut it out." "Ucabom, u cabos, u cabat." "What are you talking about?" "I'm studying to be a pharmacist. I'm studying law." "Yeah, sure you are." Who uses a dead language? You know, "Weenie weenie weekie," and point to the head, ya know, over there.

Did you ever go up to the Crackerbox Palace?

No. I would see him from time to time. Of course, those were my days of boozing, guess he'd have a little bit of sauce too.

He'd have drink or two now and then.

Yeah, I was in a lot of pubs and I'd bump into him. My big moment was, a whole day and an evening with that mattress meeting out there in the desert outside of Las Vegas.

He kind of landscaped the place with mattresses?

Yeah, it was funny. I wish I had more to tell you. But I wouldn't make up something. Not about somebody the caliber of this guy. I'm just sorry I didn't know him longer. I've got everything he's done. On rainy days and chilly nights, summertime or whenever, I pull it out and listen to it. I think kids are going to rediscover this guy. And I think that's true at the colleges especially. I see somebody, not so much doing him, I hope they don't for their sake, because it's a very difficult to step into his moccasins. But I would picture an evening of kind of an hour of listening to Buckley. And maybe a guy introducing him -- I don't know how it could be presented. I mean there'd have to be a performer there. Maybe Lady Buckley. Oh, I think that would be great. And I think there's a place on radio for this kind of thing. How about devoting something on one of the FM stations and playing his stuff. Well, I wish you luck with the article. Please send me a copy.

I'll do that.

All right, my friend. Thank you. 

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