Winters was born on November 11, 1925, in Dayton, Ohio. His mother was a radio personality, his father an alcoholic who had trouble holding a job. They separated when he was seven. “Mother and dad didn’t understand me; I didn’t understand them,” said Winters. As a result he spent a lot of time alone in his room, where he would create characters and interview himself. Throughout school, Winters continued talking to himself and developed a repertoire of strange sound effects. He often entertained his high-school friends by imitating a race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
He married his wife Eileen in 1948. Shortly after their marriage, Winters lost his wristwatch; the newlyweds couldn’t afford to buy another one. Eileen read about a talent contest in which the first prize was a wristwatch. She convinced Jonathan to “go down and win it,” certain that if he entered the contest he would win it. He did. And his performance led to a job as a disc jockey, introducing songs and announcing the temperature. Gradually his spontaneous comedy took over the show.
After a few stints on local radio and TV in Dayton, he and Eileen decided he should try for something bigger. So with $56.46 in his pocket, he moved to New York City, promising to return to Dayton if he did not make it in a year. He began doing stand-up routines in New York nightclubs, and in 1954 scored a national television appearance on the DuMont Network.
His big break came with regular appearances on Alistair Cooke’s Sunday morning CBS television show Omnibus. He became a favorite on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show and, during the same period, recorded many classic comedy albums for the Verve Records label. He and Eileen did not return to Dayton.
Winters died in 2013 after a radio, television, recording , movie career spanning 60 years (Eileen died in 2009). Said Jack Paar, “If you were to ask me the funniest 25 people I’ve ever known, I’d say, ‘Here they are—Jonathan Winters.'”