Two days later, he cooked up one of his most famous characters: the hard-drinking, dirty old woman Maude Frickert, modeled in part on his own mother and an aunt.
Appearances on Paar's show and others followed and Winters soon had a following. And before long, he was struggling with depression and drinking.
"I became a robot," Winters told TV critics in 2000. "I almost lost my sense of humor ... I had a breakdown and I turned myself in (to a mental hospital). It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do."
Winters was hospitalized for eight months in the early 1960s. It's a topic he rarely addressed and never dwelled on.
"If you make a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year and you're talking to the blue-collar guy who's a farmer 200 miles south of Topeka, he's looking up and saying, 'That bastard makes (all that money) and he's crying about being a manic depressive?'" Winters said.
When he got out, there was a role as a slow-witted character waiting in the 1963 ensemble film "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."
"I finally opened up and realized I was in charge," Winters told PBS interviewers for 2000's "Jonathan Winters: On the Loose." ''Improvisation is about taking chances, and I was ready to take chances."
Roles in other movies followed, as did TV shows, including his own.
While show business kept Winters busy, the former art school student was also a painter and writer.
"I find painting a much slower process than comedy, where you can go a mile a minute verbally and hope to God that some of the people out there understand you," he told U.S. News and World Report in 1988. "I don't paint every day. I'm not that motivated. I don't do anything the same every day. Discipline is tough for a guy who is a rebel."