You might not have realized it, but this year was comic actor Jimmie Walker’s 50th year as a stand-up.
After half a decade of making people laugh, whether it’s on a stage of his own or through screens – the now 70-year-old comic known best for the '70s sitcom that gave birth to his free-wheeling James Evans Jr. is still keeping things fresh and most importantly… “funny!”
“There’s always some stuff going on,” the now-lower voiced Walker states. “50 years ago, we had I think Lyndon Johnson, then later Bush won and so there’s a lot of things that change. "You know, we didn’t have computers or cell phones. Things change! There’s a lot of stand-ups around, so you watch [other] guys to see what’s new.”
Despite his seniority in the stand-up biz, the material promises to be fresh, Walker hints. Fans new and old can decide for themselves as the comic spends two nights at the Joke Joint Comedy Showcase, and three days as the uber nerd at the Comic Con of the Southwest, Comicpalooza for all the meet-and-greet, autographic signing and picture snapping one could ever ask for. “I’m at both places, so this is an all-day Jimmy Walker week!”
From 1974 to 1979, Walker’s unique brand of high energy wit was zapped into home across America on Good Times, but despite his certified status as a break out star, Walker recalls the experience as the ultimate triumph of another.
“We were just a part of the whole Norman Lear thing,” he says, referring to the now-95- year-old creative mogul who developed Good Times as a spin-off of his own All in the Family. “Nobody will ever do what Norman has done, 11 hit shows on the air and being actively involved in each one. It’s a very tough situation to have, and that is not to take anything away from Ms. [Shonda] Rhimes or Mr. Chuck Lorre. Those guys are doing what they do, but I even think they will say… it’s hard to be on a level like that. And [Norman’s] always trying something – and he’s still upset that doesn't have certain shows on that he wants on. He’s got a least 5 shows that he wants on now, besides the two shows that he does have right now. So he’s always trying to get something on. Obviously, he’s very creative and obviously very talented and so obviously, he’s a legend, an icon.”
Ironically, the legend himself might have cut one of Walker’s largest contributions to the world of the sitcom – JJ’s iconic catchphrase DYN-O-MITE! Walker claims to have created the buzzy delivery we all remember, while one of their directors, John Rich championed the gag. “But Norman hated it, absolutely hated it,” Walker laughs. “He thought it was horrible, ‘cause Norman isn’t like that. Norman likes to get laughs out of characters, he doesn’t like to do blatant jokes. He’s not a joke guy. You know, he wrote for Martin and Lewis, and he wrote jokes for them. But Norman is different, he would rather give up a joke and make a point.
But John Rich, who is obviously a legendary producer/director himself – doing The Honeymooners and MacGyver and directing most of the All in the Familys, that palatial set. John really fought for it - he BELIEVED in it. When I first did it, he loved it. And this isn’t a funny story, people hate when I do it – but I said, ‘John, I’m not sure people are gonna go for somebody just standing in the middle of a room and saying DYN-O-MITE. I don’t think people are that stupid! And John says, ‘YES THEY ARE. And then the next week, people will still be idiots and you’ll still be doing it. So you just go do it.’ And what happened was, John said, ‘I have four or five daughters – and on the strength of that, I want to put them through college.’ Obviously, he had much more money than that. And I saw Jon about 10 or 12 years ago, before he passed away unfortunately – he said, ‘My last daughter just graduated Brown University.’”
While many stand-ups are pigeonholed while coasting on their sitcom glory (remember: there was a time when Robin Williams couldn’t go to the club without people screaming "Do Mork From Ork," Walker considers himself lucky that people didn’t just see him as J.J. from Good Times during his nightclub rendezvous.
“I think there are a percentage of people that just like the DYN-O-MITE, but thankfully during that time… you probably are too young to remember, but there were a ton of stand-up shows, just a ton. Besides Carson, who was a major deal, and you know all the shows that were on – like Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin and Dinah Shore and David Frost and Dick Cavett and I did every one of them,. And there were all the HBO and Showtime, what I call “gang bang” shows – where they’d bring on 20-30 comics. Rodney had a thing, but I was never on Rodney’s but Andrew and Louie and Jim Carrey but also – luckily I was at the [Comedy] Store and the Store changes things because I was never involved as a sitcom guy because there were so many stand-ups, as they do now. Good stand-ups, from Pryor to Carlin, Steve Martin, Dave Kaplan, Freddie Prinze, Bette Midler – so a sitcom was never a deal at that time.”
Beyond Good Times, Walker made memorable appearances in big screen comedies Airport ' 79: The Concord, Rabbit Test (a footnote that remains comedy legend Joan Rivers’ single directing credit), bonafide classic Airplane! and Let’s Do It Again, a 1975 boxing comedy directed and co-starring Sidney Poitier and an on-the-rise Bill Cosby.
On the topic of the embittered Cosby, who was formally charged with three accounts of aggravated assault on April 26, 2018, Walker was candid: “Well, I opened for Cosby and I know whatever is going on now is going on… which I actually thought everybody knew about! But I guess they didn’t. I actually don’t see the story. Cos’ is a genius – you can see with his words and everything he’s done and unfortunately, this will be it for Cos. This situation he came upon at a bad time.”
Less controversially, Walker recalls working for Poitier as a challenge because of external circumstances. “Sidney was upset because during that era, Clint Eastwood was just making his entree into directing. And Sidney has obviously had an incredible, unbelievable career like you can’t even imagine all the stuff he’s done, but Sidney wanted to direct. And they wouldn’t let him direct because he’s black. And he was upset. So he took films like this, to show people he could direct. And in the meanwhile, Clint Eastwood went on to – not to say Clint Eastwood is bad or anything – but to use a term, he was at least as good as Clint Eastwood, and so he deserved at least as much of a chance as Clint Eastwood. In fact, he won Academy Awards and Clint was going spaghetti westerns. And it really didn’t work, he wouldn’t take any roles basically after that. He took Mandela and a couple other things, but he just said I’m not working until I can do what I want to do. That’s what I want. And he was very intense as a director, even though it was a comedy. Very intense, very focused. I don’t think people realize how hard Sidney worked even on acting roles. He works hard so there’s no time for tomfoolery or any of that. He’s an intense guy.”
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As the on-screen work has faded over the years, stand-up remains a sanctuary for a man who keeps his skills sharp. If you like his spot at the Joke Joint, keep an eye out for an upcoming special from Comedy Dynamics entitled We Are Still Here – which find Walker alongside another familiar face, Michael Winslow – perhaps best remembered for his indelible sounds across all seven Police Academy movies. “That’s our special. I did a special by myself and Michael Winslow did too. We did it in two days, and it’s a stand-up thing. That’s what we do. And those who don’t know that we do stand up, they’ll see it there. Comedy Dynamics took a shot on us, and I think turned out a good product. Something that I’m proud of. It’s what we do.”
Jimmie Walker will be performing at the Joke Joint Comedy Showcase at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 25 and 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Saturday, May 26 at 11460 Fuqua. Walker will also be appearing at Comicpalooza from May 25-27 at 1001 Avendia De Las Americas. For more information on the show, visit jokejointcomedyshowcase.com or call 281-481-1188. $20-25.