Jimmie Walker’s memoir paints him as a comedy Zelig

Jimmie Walker’s memoir paints him as a comedy Zelig

A few years back, I had the “honor” of appearing on a singularly god-awful Canadian basic-cable panel show called Switched, which covered the campiest recesses of television’s past and featured living exemplars of that cornball history like Erik Estrada and Jimmie Walker. Estrada wasted no time making his presence felt. I was only on set for a few minutes when, apropos of nothing, he grabbed me (we still hadn’t been formally introduced), wiggled his hair as if it were a toupee (a party trick he seemed inordinately fond of), and quipped to a crew member, “Hey man, I’ve had a toupee for 20 years now, but I’m still trying to convince my buddy over here [pointing to me, a mere human prop] to take the plunge.”

Then I met the show’s producer, who asked me if I’d met Estrada. “Oh yeah, he’s a real character.” I replied diplomatically. 

“Yeah, he’s really proud of his affiliation with the police,” the producer said. 

“I suppose C.H.I.P.s is what everybody knows him from,” I said. 

“No, he’s proud of his affiliation with the actual police. I guess he was on a realityshow where they trained celebrities to be police officers, and he loved it so much, he stayed on as an officer in Virginia. I’m sure he’ll tell you all about it.” That he did. Within 20 minutes of a proper introduction, Estrada was crowing about how he now worked in the cyber-sex-crime division of Virginia law enforcement, chasing down deviants who began innocently enough with Playboy magazine, then barreled down a sinister path that ended with them raping preschoolers. Estrada even crudely pantomimed that child-rape, while I looked on in open-mouthed disbelief.

For the next eight hours, Estrada never stopped talking about himself or his career. If I went to craft services and got a Hawaiian Punch, he’d share an elaborate anecdote about how his guest appearance on Hawaii 5-0 catapulted the show to prominence. He was such an overwhelming presence that he’d find a way to sneak into my stray thoughts. If I thought about what I might be having for dinner that night, for example, he’d suddenly pop up in my psyche like a cartoon character inside a thought balloon, to brag about, say, being the top-paid Hispanic television actor of all time during his Jimmy Carter-era prime. 

Walker struck a much different, much more melancholy figure. He didn’t try to overwhelm us with his star-power or his past. Instead, he just sat there quietly and even a little morosely until someone asked him a question about, say, having both David Letterman and Jay Leno on his payroll as in-house joke-writers when Good Times made Walker an unlikely teen idol, and one of the most beloved, controversial wisenheimers on television. At that point, Walker came alive. Any vestige of shyness and self-consciousness dissipated as he unearthed killer anecdotes polished and perfected from decades of telling and re-telling. 

Where Estrada seemed desperate to remind everyone within a three-block radius of his achievements, Walker appeared content to let his accomplishments speak for themselves. He seemed like a man with the perspective and life experiences to write, if not a great book, then at least a fairly entertaining book. Several years later, that fairly entertaining book has arrived in the form of Dyn-O-Mite!: Good Times, Bad Times, Our Times, an agreeable ramble through Walker’s back pages, co-written with ghostwriter Sal Manna.

Dyn-O-Mite! posits its author as a stand-up-comedy Zelig, a comedian and actor of modest talent who consistently wound up in historic places surrounded by the greatest entertainers of our time. When The Last Poets were laying down the foundation for political hip-hop with incendiary proto-rap spoken-word albums, Walker was on hand as a pal and opening act. When Motown’s biggest names stormed the country, delighting audiences and terrifying parents, Walker was onboard as the host. Walker sharpened his act as host of the notoriously demanding Showtime At The Apollo talent show; opened for Miles Davis and Bob Marley, among countless other luminaries; and, early in his career, was the official stand-up comedian for the Black Panther Party.

This last position provides my favorite passage in the book, a wonderfully telling exchange between a wisecracking young Walker and Black Nationalist icon Stokely Carmichael: 

Stokely started out believing in integration, but by the time we crossed paths he was into his “Back to Africa” phase.

“You know, Stokely,” I told him with a straight face. “There are a lot of white people who would love to see this ‘Back to Africa’ thing happen.”

He did not find that amusing. He got pissed and said, “Walker, maybe you are not relevant to the revolution.” He was probably right. 

Oh, but Carmichael had no idea just how non-relevant to the revolution Walker truly was! Walker and Manna pepper Dyn-O-Mite! with italicized excerpts from Walker’s act through the years that were questionable at the time and have aged like an egg-salad sandwich left out in the sun, like this one from 1975:

I think pretty soon there is going to be a black president. Inaugural theme be playing “Theme From Shaft.” Prez pulls up—white El Dorado, white bucket seats, bubble top. Prez get out, tilts his beaver-skin cap to the side, braids flowing down his shoulders, looks at the crowd, and says, “Ladies and gentleman, brothers and sisters, I am very happy to be elected president of these great United States. But moreover, I am happy to be elected the first black president of these great United States. Right now, I’d like to give you the Inaugural Address, but first…the number for today: 7-5-6. You got it? Then you the vice president!” 

And:

Lots of new thangs coming out about black history. Found out there were black cavemen. They dug up a three-million-year-old Cadillac…two payments still due.

Just about every bit Walker lovingly, inexplicably commemorates for posterity here registers as a variation on the old, “White folks do this, black folks do that” chestnuts. For all his talk of exploding the laughter-killing piety and skittishness of what is nebulously dubbed “political correctness,” Walker exploits and tenderly recycles stereotypes rather than subverting, critiquing, or commenting on them. He prioritizes laughter above all else: His job is to make people laugh. Everything else is secondary, if not downright irrelevant.

Walker brought that attitude to his signature role as a smartass teenager from the Chicago projects on Norman Lear’s Good Times. The show was supposed to be a soulful examination of the plight of the working black underclass, rich in both comedy and drama, but Walker altered the show’s core dynamic the first time he uttered “Dyn-o-mite!” to the explosive delight of the Good Times studio audience. His catchphrase swept the nation, becoming an albatross for him. Lear and his collaborators hoped to shed a light on society’s have-nots with Good Times. Instead, audiences tuned in to see the skinny kid with the goofy hat shout his catchphrase every episode. 

Good Times was a runaway hit. Walker wasn’t just a star, he was a pop-culture phenomenon. He was huge, but his success came at a steep cost. Walker’s costars John Amos and Esther Rolle, classically trained theater actors of some renown, did little to hide their discomfort as Good Times became Walker’s show. Rolle was particularly scathing in her public comments about Walker, the character he helped transform into a pop-culture icon, and the direction the show took after Walker instantly emerged as its breakout star. 

Walker and his professional adversaries on Good Times were operating at cross purposes. As always, Walker felt his job—no, his solemn obligation—was to kill, to leave the studio audience gasping for air every time he opened his mouth. He was not an actor or a team player. If a good sitcom cast is a musical group where everyone plays a pre-determined role, Walker was the hotshot throwing off everyone’s rhythms with a 10-minute solo. To his credit, Walker never professed to be an actor or a team player. Amos and Rolle, by sharp contrast, were old-school thespians. They saw in Good Times an opportunity to tell an important story about proud working-class African-Americans trying to claw their way out of poverty while maintaining their dignity. Walker saw an opportunity to build up his stand-up career and slay studio audiences whose laughter could be heard around the world, not just in whatever nightclub Walker happened to be playing.

Walker was so intent on destroying audiences with laughter that he hired a group of his broke comedian friends to work on his stand-up act. Los Angeles was crawling with brilliant-but-undiscovered comedians at the time, so Walker was able to cherry-pick talent, hiring as his ghostwriters then-struggling comics like David Letterman, Jay Leno, Paul Mooney, Jack Handey, Richard Jeni, and Robert Schimmel.

The most compelling passages in Dyn-O-Mite! focus on the alternating currents of competition and collaboration that characterized Walker’s obscenely talented writing staff. They weren’t just a group of hungry up-and-comers angling for a big break. They were a close-knit community. It’s hard to imagine that in 1974, a once-in-a-lifetime brain trust of brilliant comic minds were brought together solely for the purpose of elevating a journeyman comedian’s act from “pandering and mediocre” to “not bad, all things considered.”

When Walker started a management company to help out his friends, Leno and Letterman were two of the first acts he signed, though he was short-sighted enough to sell his share of the company for a pittance before either act could blow up. Walker’s long, involved history with Letterman and Leno gives him a unique perspective on their long public feud. Like all good people, Walker is a Letterman partisan. Walker movingly writes about how when Letterman couldn’t find a company willing to bankroll and promote a stand-up tour featuring Letterman’s dying best friend George Miller and other Letterman favorites like Walker, Letterman paid for the entire tour himself without letting Miller know. Leno, by sharp contrast, comes off as a paranoid, small-minded, petty soul who callously shunned old friends and collaborators, and selfishly refused to cede the spotlight.

In spite of his Black Nationalist past, Walker grew up to be an anti-affirmative-action conservative. In Dyn-O-Mite!, he writes that if he’s walking down the street and sees an older white woman clutching her purse nervously, he instinctively crosses the street to make her feel more comfortable. He blames the woman’s fear that he might rob her not on white racism, but on black criminality.

Walker takes a dim view of most black comedians, but he makes an exception for Chris Rock, writing, in a fit of unearned self-congratulation: 

The black comic today who most reminds me of me is Chris Rock—his frequent use of the n-word aside. He works hard, is aware of all aspects of life, and knows not only comedy but also the history of comedy (which is why I think he cast me in his Everybody Hates Chris sitcom as his character’s grandfather). Sometimes if you close your eyes and just listen to him perform, he has the same rhythm of joke telling that I do. More importantly, we both want to appeal to everyone, we strive for universality.

Rock may share Walker’s aggressive, staccato rhythms, but their material is vastly different: Rock is an artist and social satirist who addresses race directly. Walker tried to transcend race in his comedy and his career (in a guideline sheet he wrote for prospective writers during the Good Times years, he states, “NO ethnic humor (especially NO black humor)” as well as “NO ghetto humor”), yet his entire act is defined by a pervasive reliance on racial stereotypes. Walker might have set out to write a colorblind book, but Dyn-O-Mite! is obsessed with race to an almost monomaniacal degree. 

In spite of its faults, terrible jokes, and questionable opinions, Dyn-O-Mite is nevertheless a compelling, readable exploration of the complicated intersection of ego, race, fame, and stand-up. It’s of special interest to students of comedy, especially the Los Angeles scene in the 1970s. So no, Jimmie “J.J.” Walker ultimately did not prove relevant to the revolution. He was not, and is not, the Huey Newton of stand-up. But he nevertheless emerged from his travails with a story compelling enough to overcome the rather pedestrian manner in which it is written, as well as its author’s lack of genuine comic talent. Therein lies the book’s irony: for Walker, it’s all about laughs, but Dyn-O-Mite! is consistently engaging without ever being particularly funny.

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