Jimmie Walker doesn’t live in some fantasy universe. He lives in this world. While other performers of a certain era achieved a very quick overnight sensation level of fame may be hanging on for dear life to it, you don’t really get that sense with Jimmie Walker. He’s not going up onstage to tell you all about Good Times. Jimmie Walker goes up on stage and tells you all about these times.
Onstage, he doesn’t skew controversial. Instead, the main thing he wants to do is make you laugh. That’s it. His political views are left at home. While you’re with Jimmie Walker, you’re supposed to forget about that stuff. That’s what he does. And that’s probably for the best, given everything that is going on in the world right now. All you have to do is relax.
Jimmie Walker’s new special, We Are Still Here, in which he co- headlines with Michael Winslow of Police Academy fame, is available today via Comedy Dynamics on Amazon, iTunes, and various other avenues on the internet. We recently spoke to Jimmie about the special, his early days of comedy, his views on I’m Dying Up Here, his thoughts on comedy today, and of course, Good Times.
To start, let’s talk a bit about how the special came together.
Well you know, Jimmie Walker’s not one of these guys that everybody’s hankering to get. It’s one of these things where Brian Volk-Weiss [CEO Comedy Dynamics]… We had pitched ourselves probably 7 or 8 years ago when they were starting to do these things. And him and this other guy Scott Montoya were very not interested whatsoever. And so as the years have gone by, almost 45 years, we constantly are writing. We are constantly putting stuff together. It’s a constant, constant process. We work all the littlest clubs, we’re not one of the main Bill Burr, Dave Chapelle guys. So as we go on, Brian Volk-Weiss continues to build his business and catalog and backlog a lot of comedians. They wanted to do 10 or so comedians at one time. They have other people in there to do it, to do the special. What happened is people dropped out. They finally got down to me and Michael. And this was a new venue for them, this theater that they were doing it at. They hadn’t shot anything there before. So they wanted to say “Look. We need to get some guys in here so we can test the space, see where the camera angles are and stuff like that. These are the guys that are the least on our totem pole. We’re not going to lose any money if we tape it there, so let’s do that before we get to our main guys.” And so that’s really what happened.
They’ve got a backlog of a lot of guys. Neither one of us are even doing an hour. We’re doing 26 minutes. But that’s what they gave us, hence the name We’re Still Here. We’re not the youngest guys, but I think we’re in fine shape. Not speaking for Michael. I think I’m still relevant for what I do and I think I’m still there in terms of being KIND OF funny, I think. And clean and topical, which I don’t think is being done at all anymore. We’ll see if that style ever comes back and we gain an audience.
Oh yeah. And it seems like the crowd you guys had was really into it and right there with you.
Yeah. I was very impressed with them, they were very nice. This is material that I’d been working on for a while. Because I go back to the old Johnny Carson days where you had to have new material every 2-3 months. Nowadays you don’t have to do that because you don’t have that break out show that they had. In those days you had a breakout show where you did it and then you heard people talk about it all the time whether it was Seinfeld to Tim Allen to Roseanne. I’m writing a book about it now. I’m looking for a writer to write it with me, because I have an outline of the whole thing. It’s about how comedy has changed racially, how comedy has changed television wise. And I have it all outlined. It has some hard hitting things where everyone who’s read it goes “You know, I’ve never thought about it this way. This really is an interesting take. I’ve never thought about it like this.” But I’ve been in the game 50 years and I know what has changed over the years.
Right. And also you’re not someone going out there talking about the way it was. You’re still so current. And I’m curious what your thoughts are on the current state of the stand-up special and how it has evolved with Netflix and Comedy Dynamics. It’s not anything like it was before.
Well I think we have changed a lot. Netflix has obviously just taken over the league in this category. Sometimes when you do stuff like that, it’s tough for people to surface. There’s a lot of comedy on Netflix. So it’s tough to differentiate the different kinds of people on there. Again, it’s all in my [forthcoming] book. What used to happen is you had one shot, people saw the shot and they dug it, and you had to come up with something new. What happened eventually was we stopped doing comedy on network TV, so the impact of it was not as great. What’s happened now is racially we’ve totally changed. Mel Brooks said “Comedy. If it’s funny, it’s funny.” No longer the case. Jim Gaffigan funny is much different than Katt Williams funny. And what’s happening is comedy has begun very racialized, very segregated, If you go to a Jim Gaffigan concert, you won’t see any minorities there. If you go to a Katt Williams concert, you’ll see no white people there. Black guys get along with much more than white guys can. You say “How uncle Jim?” You look at HBO, Showtime, Netflix, it’ll be like “This is black night. Get down. Get ready. This is el coco loco night. This is you Hispanic brother right there.” So it’s aimed and focused at that one crowd. They don’t care, they don’t want you. Katt Williams, no whites. He doesn’t want you in his crowd. Jim Gaffigan, you know, if there’s no black people there, not a big deal. This is the difference. You’ll meet every black comic who has a special on HBO, Netflix, or whatever the hell it is. They’ll go “You know, I hate white people.” And there will be a big laugh there. They’ll say “White people have better credit or this or that” or whatever the joke is. Now, let’s say Jeff Foxworthy got up and said, “You know something. I hate black people.” What do you think would happen to Jeff Foxworthy and his private planes and his private school for his 3 daughters? Now, every black comic you’ve heard has said something like that, and they can get away with it.
It’s a different time and the comedy is aimed at one crowd, one thing, that’s it. This has been the big divide in America. That’s why I think the country is so segregated. I blame it on comedy. That’s the theme of my new book. I think that right now, if you look at what’s happening comedy, there’s no universal comic. Look around. Who’s the most universal comic around? Maybe Sinbad. Maybe a little bit of Dave Chappelle, maybe a little bit of Chris Rock. But it’s not aimed at certain people. It’s just aimed at that crowd. That’s it. So I think comedy has really changed in a lot of ways.
So, having said all of that, you being someone who is from that old school mentality, what are your audiences like on the road these days? Do you feel like your crowd is still so divided?
Oh, without a doubt. I have an older, white crowd. That’s my crowd. I don’t have a young crowd. My crowd is coming to see our show and they’re a little more liberal, they’re in the middle, a little more right-leaning, right of center. And they come to our show and they watch. And the people that are like that, these are people that haven’t seen Saturday Night Live since John Belushi was on it. So it’s that kind of crowd. A different thing. Somebody like a Michelle Wolf is going to have like young, singing, anti-Trump, not even trying to appeal to the other side, doesn’t want to see the other side. You look at Stephen Colbert. He’s not even trying to appeal to the other side, not even making an effort. Alan King, Flip Wilson, Freddie Roman. They wanted everybody. And I think I’m in that bag, too. Because that’s where I came from.
Speaking of Michelle Wolf and Stephen Colbert, are you someone that feels like comedy has gotten TOO political?
No, not at all. I think people are doing comedy… There’s a lot of comics that don’t do political because they can’t write it and it’s something that’s always changing. In my days, when you did Carson, people saw you. So you’re next shot had to be different. Nowadays, you don’t have to change anything, because there’s so many comics on people don’t even know who the hell is what. A show like, and I love Jeffery Ross and his show which is fabulous, but when we had roasts, they were much sweeter, much nicer. The old Dean Martin roasts. Much softer, much crazier. But these are, when I look at them… Like Pete Davidson’s dad died in 9/11 and they’re doing Pete Davidson dad jokes. The guy died in 9/11. Come on! Easy! So I think when we did the Dean Martin roasts, they were nothing like this. This is rough.
You were someone that came out of that infamous comedy boom of the 1970s. It’s something that’s been so romanticized, that whole era. And now do you feel like it was as glamorous as people make it out to be or is it something that’s just all been heightened?
Well, there’s a show out called I’m Dying Up Here. And that show, I’m very happy that all of those people are working. Dom Irrea is a friend of mine, Brad Garrett is an acquaintance of mine, Kathy Ladman is a friend of mine. I want everyone to be working. But I think it has nothing to do with our era. We were all friends, no one hated each other, and there was NONE of that hatred at all. And that hurts me to see that on that show. It’s just visceral hate of the other guys. And we never, ever hated anybody like that. Mitzy from the [Comedy] Store just passed away. And at the memorial was Budd Friedman from the Improv, Jamie Masada from The Laugh Factory, Bob Fisher from The Ice House, and a couple more club owners flew in for the day. Never, ever was there hatred. Was there drugs and stuff? Yes. I will not say that there wasn’t. There was never, ever that kind of hatred. So that offends me.
And in the midst of the comedy boom, you were one of the first big breakout stars of that era when you landed Good Times. Now, 44 years later, what is your relationship with the character JJ today? A lot of people look back on what they did and don’t really want to talk about it. Did you ever have that resentment towards that character?
No. My relationship with that character is what you saw in my special. That’s it. I mean my thing is I always wanted people who came to see me go “Well, this guy’s a real comedian”. There’s people that only know you from that and have no idea what you do. And I would say if you get a crowd of 100, you’ll get maybe 10 people who say “We only know him from the show. That’s it. That’s all he does.” And those people, well, too bad. But then there’s people that know you from stand-up. And those are the people that you really care about. That really know what you do and you feel “I’ve got to get better.” And I really feel that way. You’ve got to get stronger, you’ve got to get better, you’ve got to make sure your material is good, and I would never just get up and go “Hey, I’m on a show. Check me out. You remember me.” I think my material stands up for myself. I think.
And I love that you’re not one of those “Where Are they Now?” guys onstage. But what is your experience with the fans like when you go to do the conventions?
The conventions are the place where it is that era. There’s no doubt about it. I mean I cannot tell a lie, those are the people that go “We love the show.” And there’s certain people who love anything you do. But that’s realistically sometimes a money-grabber. I’m the first one to say it publicly. “Hey, let’s get a couple of dollars in the kettle here.” You don’t have to reminisce, even, because they do it for you. People will remember that line or the way you walked. And that’s nice. But I don’t do those all the time. My big thing is stand-up.
Good Times has always been labeled as a groundbreaking show. Can you see the influence in modern day entertainment?
I see it in movies, I see it in TV shows, I see it all the time. I see it in Blackish and when Cosby was on. Because there’s three generations of black shows. Our show obviously was first and everybody bitched about our show for this or that or this. So from that standpoint, there was not another all-black cast for 10 years. And that was The Cosby Show.
This is something that I always ask and am fascinated by. What do you want your legacy to be?
Oh God. I don’t think there will ever be a Jimmie Walker legacy. The reality of it all is, here’s what will happen when I die. They’re going to be going through the news, ready to wrap up their day. “Oh, you know who died today?” “No, who?” “Jimmie J.J. Walker.” “Oh! That’s the Dynomite guy? I used to love it when he’d wear that little hat that’d say “Dy-No-Mite”. Okay, well we’ll be back after this. See you guys in a minute.” That will be my legacy. Just a little f*cking 10 second clip. That’s just the reality. Of course you’d like to be on [the retrospectives]. Of course you think you’ve done a little something. I’m not like an asshole jumping up and down “Why am I not on the show?” Jack Benny said to Rodney Dangerfield when he first saw him do “I get no respect”. He said “That is the greatest hook in the world. Because everybody will relate to it.” And it’s exactly right.