Stephen with his former boss, May 2015
You may not know Stephen Winer’s name but you definitely know some of the people (and shows) he’s written for. Winer was a writer for David Letterman, Dick Van Dyke, The New Mickey Mouse Club, and stand-up comedian, Robert Klein, among others.
Winer (along with Karl Tiedemann) co-wrote and directed the cult classic short film, King of The Zs, which is a hilarious look at a fictional movie studio of the 1930s and 1940s that made the worst B pictures in history. This film has been a favorite at film festivals for years (particularly the Telluride festival). If you haven’t seen this comedy gem I urge you to seek it out. It can be seen on YouTube. King of The Zs, is the film that led to Winer getting the job writing for Letterman.
Lately, Winer has been involved with a variety of projects, but the one that caught my attention was his serious writing for the Criterion Collection website. (Criterion releases classic films on DVD.) It turns out that Winer’s serious writing is as good as his comedy work. Not only does Winer have an encyclopedic (or Wikipedic) knowledge of film, but he also has plenty of behind the scenes stories and great insights. I was particularly taken with his article on Charlie Chaplin’s metamorphosis from a slapstick clown to a fully realized comedic and dramatic actor. In another piece, Winer makes some excellent observations on another silent comedian, the legendary Harold Lloyd. At one time Lloyd was as popular and successful as Chaplin, yet today is largely forgotten. Never the less, Lloyd’s great silent films, such as Speedy and The Freshman, still have the power to thrill, entertain and yes, make audiences laugh almost a hundred years after their completion. I’ve watched these wonderful films with contemporary audiences, many of whom had never seen any silent films, and heard the very real laughter that they engendered. Winer’s analysis of Llyod’s work is nothing short of scholarly, yet written in a very a breezy, accessible style. Also check out the article he wrote on the classic Frank Capra film that created and defined the screwball comedy, It Happened One Night; and his love letter to another comedy classic of a later era, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad World. (Did I leave out a “Mad?” Or put in one too many?)
If you go to the Criterion Collection website be sure to read the piece Winer wrote about his late father, playwright and television writer, Elihu Winer. This is a wonderful and touching essay about Elihu’s friendship, (mostly through letters) with fellow writer, John D.Voelker. Voelker was an author whose most well-known novel became the basis for the film, Anatomy of a Murder. Subsequent to the film, Elihu collaborated with Voekler to write the script for the play. Winer’s essay is about the friendship of these two excellent writers. In one of the letters, Elihu mentions a TV play he wrote that featured an amiable actor named Ronald Reagan. Elihu liked this actor and found him easy to work with, though Elihu had some difficulty adjusting, some years later, when the man got into a different line of work. A smart publisher ought to collect all these articles by Winer (and others he has no doubt yet to post) and publish them in a book. As the kids today put it, “I’m just saying.”