Before he became known as artist and semi-ladies’ man J.J. Evans on the ’70s sitcom “Good Times,” Jimmie Walker was a struggling comic from New York City who would emcee at the Apollo and make appearances at any event that would have him. Since then, the comic has propelled himself into a career spanning more than 40 years: He has worked in television, movies, radio and, most notably, standup comedy, which he still does regularly. In his new memoir “Dyn-O-Mite!” the 65-year old recounts growing up in Queens, N.Y., working with comics like Freddie Prinze and Jay Leno, and the downfall of “Good Times.” The RootDC talked with Walker, who now resides in Las Vegas, about his comedic beginnings, what he learned as an emcee on the chitlin circuit and the secret to his longevity.
That’s exactly what it was, not a major deal. When I was in my SEEK program, I was kind of pushed into it a little bit by my teacher. It just kind of kept going. Once I started and started working with people, you realize the dedication and work that had to be put into the business of it.
You have to get a little bit of confidence in yourself and you have to be ready for extreme rejection. It’s a tough racket. So, here we are, 40-something years later still slugging it out, just being the road comic that I am.
One moment that stood out to me was when you were working at the Apollo as a host, and, one evening after you did your bit and introduced Wilson Pickett, he brought you backstage and chastised you for not playing up his intro more.
I’ve worked with him many times since, but the thing is that he had his way of being brought on; he didn’t care what I was doing at all. I thought maybe, “Oh, he saw some of my stuff, he wanted to compliment me on my stuff,” and that was not the case. [That experience] also helped me in terms of learning how to be an emcee. Even working in D.C. at the old Howard Theatre, you learn how to be an emcee. And it’s interesting because there are shows that I do now that they really don’t care what I do onstatge — long as I bring them on in their unique style, that’s all they care about.
No matter what you do — you think, “Oh, they know me from my stuff,” — I don’t think half the people on those shows know exactly what it is that I do. They just go, “Get me on, and make the audience jump up and down,” and that’s it.
So you also emceed at the Howard Theatre as well?
Yeah, [when] we were on the “chitlin circuit” — which was the Apollo, the Howard, the Regal in Chicago, the Peacock in New Orleans, Denver, the Uptown in Philly ... in my mind I was working, but in terms of “getting better ...” and in comedy, you think of yourself as getting better, but comedy is so subjective. I always say this: “No matter who your favorite comic is, somebody will tell you that person sucks.”
It isn’t like music — I always use the Obama inauguration as an example: They had Itzhak Perlman there, and he played his violin and people politely applauded. You’ll never hear that about a comic. [People] will go, “That person stinks. They’re terrible!” Or they’ll go, “I absolutely love that person.” There’s never an all-right comic.
The game show stuff was my thing. I did “Hollywood Squares” and “Match Game,” and a ton of other stuff, but your goal as a comic in those days was to be on Johnny Carson. Even somebody who was out of the box like Richard Pryor took it very seriously. There was a show called “Tattle Tales.” One person goes backstage, and they ask you questions about each other, and then the other person has to match the answer.
We only met when I called her and said, “Jere, they want to shoot the show; do you want to pick up some scale money?” and she said “You bet your bippie!” and she’d show up with her five different outfits, and we went on like we loved each other, and we did five different shows and people went, “What a great couple!” and we had no problems or anything, but we never really spoke. We worked on the show in terms of sitting and watching maybe 14 hours of the show to get our answers together, and we probably did the show 4 or 5 times. If Jere walked into my room right now, I wouldn’t know who she was.
I know that you and Jay Leno developed a very close friendship during the early days of your comedy career, and I was surprised to find out that you two, after several years, are no longer in contact. Do you miss him?
I am extremely happy for his success. I believed in Jay Leno. I believe that Jay Leno, at one time, was one of the best comics, if not the best in America. And I made no bones about that when I would talk to Norman Lear or talk to anybody from the networks.
But his image has always been of this outgoing, great guy. Now his friends are Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks, these kinds of guys, but they weren’t with him when we were driving to Claremont or San Diego — five people in a car going to do a comedy club — they weren’t there. So it’s very disappointing that he has kind of shunned us. I don’t think he even knows our names now.
Since [“Good Times”], you have still continued to tour and do standup, make guest appearances on shows. Do you have any plans to retire soon?
Well, this is the kind of business [where] they involuntarily retire you. You take whatever you can get. I’m just a road guy. I just go on the road and do my thing. There’s people who don’t like you and there’s people who are fans of yours.
You also said in your memoir that you were never opposed to learning something new. Do you think that’s been one of the secrets to your longevity?
I think just willpower has been the secret — just not giving up in terms of the face of ultimate attacks. People just don’t like you, you just keep fighting it. I always say, “It only takes one,” and if somebody will hire you, it only takes that one person, because the majority of people are going to be against you for numerous reasons, whether it’s to save their behind or to make them look good or whatever it is. So it takes one person to say, “Hey, I’m going.”
It’s the kind of thing — even when I did the show, Norman Lear had the power to say, “I don’t care what anybody says, I’m going,” and he went with whoever he went with, whether it was Esther [Rolle] or John [Amos], or Bern Nadette [Stanis] or whoever else was in the cast. You need that one person. In terms of my alleged career, it only takes one person to say, “We will hire Jimmie Walker,” so when that happens, great.
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