Dyn-O-Mite! Comedian Jimmie Walker Talks Showbiz

Comedian Jimmie Walker is best known for his Good Times sitcom character J.J. Evans. But there's more to Walker than just laughs. For Tell Me More's Wisdom Watch series, host Michel Martin talks with Walker about his long career in showbiz, detailed in his memoir, Dyn-O-Mite: Good Times, Bad Times, Our Times.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee, sitting in for Michel Martin, who's under the weather. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch. That's the part of the program where we talk with people who've made an impact over a lifetime.

Today, our guest is a man who can boast a very rare achievement: keeping an entertainment career going for more than 30 years. As a young comedian, this man charmed audiences, beginning with a stint as the youngest emcee at the famed Apollo Theater. He opened for the likes of Bob Marley and Miles Davis, and he helped some of the biggest names in comedy sharpen their craft. But he's still best known for the television role that made him a household name back in 1974.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD TIMES")

JIMMIE WALKER: She has a figure that makes the number eight feel like the number one, and a smile that lights up the night. And it all belongs to kid dyn-o-mite.

HEADLEE: That's comedian Jimmie Walker as J.J. Evans in the classic sitcom, "Good Times." The show was produced by Norman Lear. It made the Evans family the most famous black television family, until the Cosbys took the crown a decade later. It also turned Jimmie Walker into a star. He's been working in show business ever since, and he recently sat down with Michel Martin to talk about his new memoir, called "Dyn-O-Mite: Good Times, Bad Times, Our Times."

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

WALKER: Always nice to be on NPR, the fun station of all terrestrial radio.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. So, given the title of the book, you're obviously not running away from that time in your life. How much of that is because you don't want to? How much of that is because you can't?

WALKER: I think it's a combination of both. You know, in this business - and especially doing radio as I have for the last 30 years, also, and doing talk radio - there's enough people that dislike you, that when somebody likes you for anything, you take it.

MARTIN: You know, speaking of that, there are always - it seems to me, looking back on it - two schools of thought about "Good Times." On the one hand, a lot of people appreciated and talked about the fact that it was groundbreaking in the sense that it was a portrait of a black family that was loving, supportive of each other, functional. The other view of "Good Times" was that it trafficked in stereotypes about black people that would endure well past their shelf-life, especially your character as a jive-talking, you know, whatever. And so what was your view of it then, and what is it now?

WALKER: I think it was a very fun situation in terms of my show, my character. In terms of the show, I think we did a lot of very meaningful issues. We dealt with senior citizens. We dealt with welfare. We dealt with abortion. We dealt with sexual diseases. I think the only issue we did not deal with at that time was AIDS, and it wasn't an issue at the time. So I think that our show was very relevant, and I was the comedic relief. And I think on any "sitcom" - and I put that in quotation marks - you need some comic relief, since you are a sitcom.

MARTIN: Did people ever confront you when you were out and about, you know, at the time, to say, we don't like your portrayal? Did that ever happen?

WALKER: I think now that the Internet is out, there's always going to be people who don't like you. And I think what happens is it also is reflective in black TV shows and movies that you're not going to get any more of those because of the constant complaining and moaning and groaning, as you know, in the commercial television and radio industry. The point is to make money, and therefore, the networks themselves have stopped doing any ethnic shows because they don't want the aggravation.

MARTIN: Interesting.

WALKER: So I don't think...

MARTIN: So you think, in a perverse way, it actually inhibits more diverse content because people don't want the headache?

WALKER: Without a doubt. You'll see - because what'll happen is any minority character you see on a show now is always the police commissioner, the head of the hospital, the school superintendent. Those kind of people, they don't invoke followings. The people that are going to get attention are the wacky guys, the Cramers, the Charlie Sheens of the world. Those are the people that are going to get that sort of attention and eventually become stars. You'll never see a black Will Ferrell. You'll never see a black Adam Sandler, because black people aren't allowed to play those kind of roles.

I always say you have to be the person who takes the pie. If you're not willing to take the pie, you're not going to be noticed.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, our guest for this Wisdom Watch conversation is comedian and writer Jimmie Walker. One of the other things that I found interesting that I learned from your book: You talk about the way people in comedy can support each other, or not. "Good Times" brought you fame - a lot of fame, obviously. You were in a position to hire several writers for your comedy act. Then two of them went on to some success, late-night hosts David Letterman and Jay Leno. But you'd also talked about how some of the other comedians supported you in kind of giving you opportunities. But then it wasn't always returned, right? So...

WALKER: That happens a lot in this business. You'll see a guy like Adam Sandler. I mean, if it wasn't for Adam Sandler, there would be no Rob Schneider. I mean Rob Schneider has said that himself, he'd be gone. Whitney Cummings, Chelsea Handler made Whitney Cummings. You have to have that kind of thing. Jay Leno, who I think till this day, a lot of people haven't seen his real standup, one of the best comics in America, has really let the comedy community down in terms of what he's done with his late-night show by being on I guess close to 30 years and not developing one act, not giving one comic a chance to be on his show in terms of new comics.

MARTIN: Tell me about that. Tell me, because he does have people on. Like he has Chelsea Handler on a lot, he has Wanda Sykes on a lot. What are you saying? Are you saying...

WALKER: You must remember Wanda Sykes was already established. She had been on two or three shows. D.L. Hugley, who does his show occasionally, was already successful from "Def Jam," his show and the Original Kings of Comedy. He has brought on no new comic, giving that person four or five shots...

MARTIN: To get good.

WALKER: ...and that person has broken out.

MARTIN: If I were to ask him about this what do you think he would say?

WALKER: He would say this: My show is to bring on the most talented people that are known, even though he was brought on when he was unknown. He would say Jimmie Walker, Tom Dreesen, Kelly Monteith, George Wallace, Johnny Witherspoon, are very old, very washed up and the network would be very unhappy to have those people on with the demographic, and the majority of America upon seeing these people would tune them out.

MARTIN: Why is this the time that you've chosen to kind of come out with your feelings? Is there something? I mean, the memoir, just...

WALKER: Well, I've always felt this way, just nobody was listening.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. But you well, this isn't the only area in which you've been kind of outspoken about your views. I just want to play a short clip from an interview you did with Bill O'Reilly on Fox back in July. You were talking about why you don't think that President Obama deserved a second term. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR")

WALKER: I don't think he's a bad guy. I don't think he's a good guy for the job we have to do.

BILL O'REILLY: When you say that other African-Americans are, you know, hey, come on.

WALKER: You just can't blindly vote for somebody just because they are your - sometimes even a brother, you have to let him go, and he's not doing the gig.

O'REILLY: Did you vote for him first time around?

WALKER: I never voted for him.

MARTIN: I am interested to know whether are you a registered Republican? Is this a big part of your identity and...

WALKER: I'm a registered Independent.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

WALKER: And I'm a registered Independent and I didn't vote for Obama this time either. I am very proud that he has won. I'm very proud as an African-American that he's won. I'm very proud of him. I think he has a lot to bring, but this job is not the job. It would be like if you were doing "Othello" on Broadway and they said well, who should we get? And somebody said lets get Jimmie J.J. Walker. Not the right move. Doesn't mean I'm a bad guy, it just means that I'm not right for this gig.

MARTIN: You're not a Republican. You're not a Democrat. You're a political Independent, I guess in terms of registration. But do I have it right that you see yourself as conservative? Because conservatives like Kelsey Grammer, for example, he feels that he is sometimes isolated or shunned because of his politics in Hollywood. I just wondered if you felt that way.

WALKER: Oh, I disagree with Kelsey Grammer because he has had a very, very strong career - much stronger than my little alleged stand-up comedy career.

MARTIN: Which was my other question, is that given that you have played such a pivotal role in the lives of a number of people who have gone on to great success, do you feel - oh, you're also very successful. I mean let's not forget.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But I'm just saying...

WALKER: I'll let you know - I'll call you when I'm successful.

MARTIN: Well, that's kind of where I'm going with this. Do you not feel that you are?

WALKER: No. Not, I mean, you know, you could be doing much worse but you could be doing much better too. And things are not always as bright as they seem, even though I'm lucky enough to work a lot. But I'm just a humble road comic and I work road gigs and I'm not anything major, nothing like that. I'm not Chris Rock. I'm not Kevin Hart. I'm not anything on that level. I'm the lower grade and I'm the guy that you get, as I always say, I'm the least expensive celebrity you're going to get.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well...

WALKER: Next stop, Todd Bridges.

MARTIN: Oh, no.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, are you OK with that or do you feel some chagrin, or do you feel that you've missed something?

WALKER: No, you try to be the best you can at the level that you're at. And the people that still are nice enough to support you in terms of coming out to see you, you do the doggone best job you can for them because even people who come out to see the people at the lower level like me because it's inexpensive, they deserve to be entertained also, and right now that's me.

MARTIN: Before I let you go though, I've got to ask that speaking of the black president situation, you talked about this back in 1975.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I don't know if you were predicting or, let's play from your piece about the first black president. This is from 1975. Here it is.

WALKER: Wow.

I think pretty soon there is going to be a black president. And I noticed the crowd stopped laughing.

(LAUGHTER)

WALKER: I think basically there is going to be a black president and I can imagine on the inaugal(sp) speech.

(LAUGHTER)

WALKER: Inaugal. That's right. When the revolution comes, we're taking our words with us.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's right.

MARTIN: What you got to say now?

(LAUGHTER)

WALKER: He's here. And he's root my black president piece. But I still have enough Barack Obama stuff to survive and have a good...

MARTIN: Do you really? I mean you don't have any talk about putting fringe in the White House on the curtain or putting plastic covers on the sofas?

(LAUGHTER)

WALKER: Pulling up in the hopped-up Cadillac.

MARTIN: Pulling up in the hopped-up Cadillac. OK. Get it out of your system. Go ahead. Get it out.

(LAUGHTER)

WALKER: All those jokes are being done every night, some were on stage.

MARTIN: Well, what's next for you?

WALKER: I'm doing a Showtime special called "It's Not All Dynamite." I record it in a little while and it will be recorded in Raleigh, North Carolina. And I'm very proud - well, I haven't seen it but I imagine since I was in it, it's pretty good.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. Well, you notice we call this conversation a Wisdom Watch that where we like to ask people if they have some wisdom to share. So you've been doing that all along in one way or another, but I just want to ask you formally, do you have some wisdom that you would like to share?

WALKER: I never give universality because everybody's reality is different. I need not tell you that. Your reality is much different from mine. Mine is much different than Kevin Hart. And Kevin Hart's is much different than Bill Cosby. So...

MARTIN: OK. Well, how about if you were speaking to a younger you, what would you say?

WALKER: I would say watch your money. That's the first thing. And I would say make sure you go the best to get good management in the business and get somebody that believes in you. That's really important.

MARTIN: Jimmie Walker is a comedian and an author. His recent memoir is titled, "Dyn-O-Mite: Good Times, Bad Times, Our Times." And he joined us from member station KNPR in Las Vegas.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

WALKER: Thank you guys for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF "GOOD TIMES" THEME SONG)

JIM GILSTRAP AND BLINKY WILLIAMS: (Singing) Good Times. Ain't we lucky we got 'em. Good Times. Yeah.

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