“Why do there always have to be two sides to a story?” — Charlie Brown

December 4, 2009


On a “Seinfeld” episode re-run last night, Jerry Seinfeld says Elaine Benes’s complaint about a clothing store mannequin that looks like her might have a legal precedent: “Winchell versus Mahoney.” That was coincidence for me, because I had just been discussing Winchell with some of my students — who had never heard of him and didn’t know what a ventriloquist was.
We were discussing in class the idea of irony as an unexpected outcome from known circumstances. I used Winchell as an illustration because he was most widely known for his comedy act with dummies Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff, among others.  Winchell also had a long career as a voice actor, meaning that he provided the voices for animated characters, not the least of which were Sam-I-Am and Tigger.


The unexpected outcome from those circumstances was that Winchell was awarded the first patent for an artificial heart designed to be implanted in a human being. To what extent his model played a part in the later practical application of such devices seems to be a matter of dispute, but that doesn’t reduce at all what Winchell achieved while he was fully occupied with an unrelated career.
After our classroom conversation, I decided to poke around the Internet to read more about “Mr. Winkle,” as Jerry Mahoney called him. I was sorry I did. While, on the one hand, he was a kind of renaissance man with a wide variety of interests and a humanitarian bent, his life had a very dark side that resulted in discord and estrangement in his family – so much so that one of his daughters described him after his death as “a very troubled and unhappy man.”
Since I was around for the heyday of television variety shows, I have vivid memories of Paul Winchell, and they are, of course, of a lighthearted and creative artist whose goal in life seemed to be to make people laugh. I would rather have died with that fantasy.



2 Responses to ““Why do there always have to be two sides to a story?” — Charlie Brown”

  1. R P Lee Says:

    Mortimer Snerd was a dummy of Edgar Bergen. The dummy that Paul Winchell has was named Knucklehead Smiff.

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