In his autobiography, Dyn-o-mite!, Jimmie Walker details the life of a comic who experienced everything the profession had to offer in his era. Walker came up in a vibrant New York City scene in the late Sixties and early Seventies. He moved to Los Angeles in time to watch The Improv and The Comedy Store duke it out with each other (and with the comics). He fought for possible career-making shots on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and felt the disappointment of being relegated to spots with guest hosts. And, of course, he became a bona fide comedy star thanks to Norman Lear’s groundbreaking sitcom, Good Times, the show that became Walker’s blessing and curse.
Walker’s story is full of contradictions. He was a big name standup in the swinging Seventies (a contemporary of Freddie Prinze and Richard Pryor), but never got into drinking or drugs. He calls himself “a black sheep among black people” for holding such conservative beliefs as supporting the death penalty and thinking affirmative action has outlived its usefulness, but he also supports Planned Parenthood. And he was the Black Panthers’ comedian of choice before he became a symbol for racial stereotypes on Good Times.
Walker is mostly okay with all of it. He knows it’s coming when someone shouts the catchphrase at him, and he is grateful for the break and admires what Lear did with the show, putting a black family facing real problems in America’s living rooms every week. But he has to correct people when they call him “J.J.” and not Jimmie, and he writes that he never said “Dyn-o-mite” in his act. When he recorded his 1975 stand-up album, he didn’t want to name it Dyn-o-mite, but that’s what it wound up being called, and it was a compromise that he appeared on the cover with a wick on his finger instead of clutching sticks of explosives.
It’s obvious that the Good Times criticism still stings, but it also seems inevitable. As a stand-up comic, Walker revels in the corny. He blasts Andy Kaufman for not having real jokes and tries to shame modern comics, almost all of whom he believes rely on profanity in lieu of punchlines. But he has his own crutches. He plays it broad; he overacts and shouts. He even shouts in his prose, frequently using exclamation points. That’s just his style.
Walker was cast as J.J. without an audition based on his act. Esther Rolle and John Amos were accomplished actors; Walker had the big laugh lines and played them like he would in a club, something he fought for. “Other cast members wanted acting ‘moments,’” he writes. “That was fine with me. Just give me the jokes!” That helped him become the breakout star, which didn’t please Rolle. She criticized the character, saying, “They have made him more stupid and enlarged the role.”
In the press, Walker was accused of, as he put it, “cooning it up.” He notes that while he’s still signing memorabilia from the show, his reputation was also seriously damaged in the fallout. He defends J.J. and his performance, writing that he modeled the character after Art Carney’s portrayal of Ed Norton on The Honeymooners. He just wanted to be the guy who took the pie in the face, and that’s what he got. He was the clown on a show that was heralded for its realism, and that friction both helped and hurt his career.
Walker peaked with Good Times, but he makes a case for his legacy. While the show was on the air, he kept working as a standup, which necessitated a team of writers. Over the years, that team included Byron Allen and Robert Schimmel, as well as writers for Laverne & Shirley, Chico and the Man, Happy Days and more. The two biggest names were Jay Leno and David Letterman. He doesn’t take credit for their success, merely detailing how he helped and encouraged them.
Walker gives his front-seat account of the Leno-Letterman battle for The Tonight Show, coming down solidly in Letterman’s corner. He has plenty of praise for both as comedians, though he once thought Letterman wasn’t cut out for the stand-up stage. (Walker admits, amusingly, he once tried to convince Steve Martin of the same.) But he has particular scorn for Leno, whom he thought treated his compatriots shabbily, especially one of Walker’s other writers, Steve Crantz, whom Leno hired and then fired.
Walker is a strange character to parse. He sometimes seems to inflate his own importance or overplay his plight. But he was huge in his day, and he took a lot of criticism. Without a healthy dose of humility, he couldn’t draw such a painfully honest portrait of life as a comic on the road. Whatever his reputation, he has persevered, and his story is thought-provoking and well worth the read.