Michael Winslow is best known for making a wide range of sound effects with his voice, a talent that led him to star in all seven Police Academy movies (and each of its two television series it spawned) from 1984 to 1994 as Sgt Larvell Jones, often delivering the biggest laughs. For better or worse, the series became a part of American culture during the ’80s heyday of National Lampoon, Mel Brooks, Porky’s, and the subsequent ‘slob’ genre. These comedies were simple, juvenile, and crude. But most importantly, they were fun.
This formula, derided by critics, was a big hit with audiences. The inevitable saturation of the genre made it hard to know where and when lightning would strike. Police Academy struck big and became a low-brow comedy success story. Growing up, I enjoyed the series’ stooge-like, raunchy antics. Winslow had an undeniable comic presence. And his brief part as a nameless radar operator in Spaceballs (1987) is one of the film’s many highlights, where he did all the sound effects himself.
And to be referenced in an episode of The Simpsons some years later is no small feat either. The seventh season Christmas-themed episode “Marge Be Not Proud” (1995) saw Bart struggling to regain Marge’s trust after he stole a video game, which led to one of Homer’s best rants; Homer: “STEALING! How could you? We live in a society of laws. Why do you think I took in all those Police Academy movies? FOR FUN? Well, I didn’t hear anybody laughing. DID YOU? Except at that guy who made sound effects [makes noises and starts giggling]. Where was I? Oh yeah, stay outta my booze!”
Winslow has performed live shows for decades. He’s also an accomplished beatboxer. I witnessed this firsthand at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, where Winslow delivered a two-hour set of comedy and music to troops abroad. In doing so, he made us all feel at home. I recently arrived in Kuwait as part of a nine-month Army deployment. Arifjan is a big base with lots of military personnel. Armed Forces Entertainment is a morale-based organization that sponsors and coordinates entertainment for service members.
I saw posters of Winslow’s upcoming performance and knew I had to go. Billed as ‘Michael Winslow and His Band of Armed Forces,’ the show was one of eight appearances at deployed locations throughout January. From what I saw, Winslow did not disappoint.
Josh Firestone, stand-up comic and former Army Ranger, had the thankless job of warming up the stone-cold sober crowd on a Tuesday night. He delivered several funny bits about military/post-military life, parenting, and other humorous topics. The initially subdued audience made me wonder how many were even familiar with Michael Winslow. Seeing someone I had admired from childhood was exciting. Maybe like me, they didn’t know what to expect.
Winslow then took the stage to hearty applause. Microphone in hand, he stood behind a dizzying array of electronics. This included a laptop, mixing board, vocal effects pedal, and cables running everywhere. His natural speaking voice was instantly recognizable. Drummer Bryan Lash provided some extra kick to the one-man show. The rest of the band, Winslow explained, couldn’t afford the airfare. It might have been a joke or an excuse to provide all the sounds of the instruments himself.
He belted out multiple genres of music with comedy bits in between. A few awkward pauses followed some technical difficulties, but Winslow effortlessly pushed on with energy, talent, and passion. Plus, the man can sing. Winslow joked about an ongoing bingo event next door by imitating the jittering ball sounds and the announcers blaring voice over the microphone. He then gave us all the sounds you’d expect from a supermarket check-out line. His Eddie Murphy and Chris Tucker impressions, among others, were spot on. There seemed no sound or voice he couldn’t imitate. Most of the show, however, was dedicated to music.
Utilizing vocal loops and effects, Winslow provided the tempo, bass line, guitar, and synthesizers for several familiar songs. He belted out Bob Marley, James Brown, Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, Prince, the Beverly Hills Cop theme, George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone,” country, bluegrass, jazz, and some freestyle jams. His energetic, multilayered performance was a sight to see.
“This is what I do,” Winslow repeatedly said. “I make noises.”
He encouraged us to make our own around the base. “But remember, if you get in trouble, my name is Kevin Hart.” Winslow must have been exhausted by the show’s end, but it didn’t show. He stuck around to get pictures with every service member who wanted one. I thanked him for coming, and he told me, “Remember, you can make noises too.”It was a bit of inspiration from the self-proclaimed “man of ten-thousand sound effects.” Strangely enough, I heard he lives in Winter Springs, Florida like me. If true, that makes us neighbors on the other side of the world.
I’m always grateful when performers/celebrities come out to see us. I’ll never forget meeting Robin Williams during my 2004 Afghanistan deployment. Like Williams, Winslow was gracious and kind. I hope he enjoyed performing for us as much as we enjoyed having him.