I can remember the time when two new television shows first hit the screens in Australia. They had similar names, so I wasn’t sure which was which, and they were both on at the same time, on different stations. One was called Happy Days and the other was called Good Times. After a while, one of them must have been moved to a different timeslot, because I know we watched both: one was a nostalgic look at 50s middle class America in Milwaukee, the other, a gritty look at contemporary working class American life in Chicago’s black ‘projects’. Both offered the comic relief of a main character with a catch-phrase: Fonzie’s ‘Aaaaaaeeeeeeeeeeh’, compared to JJ’s ‘DYNE-O-MITE’.
Both shows changed their focus after a few seasons, when the comic relief and the associated catch-phrase became more popular than the family that was originally central to the show. Fonzie was essentially adopted by the Cunningham family, moving into their attic, while JJ’s father James Evans Snr died in an accident when John Amos decided to leave the show (to star in the miniseries Roots ). His departure allowed for about the best screen reaction to death ever depicted: Florida Evans (played by Esther Rolle) smashes a serving dish, uttering the words “DAMN! DAMN! DAMN!”. (Actually, more like “Day-um! Day-um! Day-um!”) Esther Rolle later left the series also, allowing JJ to become the central character. By this stage, a very young, very adorable Janet Jackson started appearing on the show as the adopted daughter of another character. Jimmie Walker assured me that this was not her first role; she had been ‘discovered’ doing a Mae West impression on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. (As Sonny would have said, since it was his catch-phrase before Donny Osmond pinched it for The Donny & Marie Show, “Cute. Real cute.”)
Although you wouldn’t expect it from his sitcom background, and none of the local Australian press which dutifully filed stories on him came close to betraying this fact, Jimmie Walker is actually a great stand-up comic. Sure, the flyers and his website all tell you that he’s been on Letterman twenty-five times, and Time Magazine named him ‘Comedian of the Decade’ (back in in the 70s, when Good Times was at its height. But the fact is Walker is a funny dude. He was an established stand-up comic before he won the role of JJ, training at the Improvisation, a comedy venue on West 44th Street in New York. The one line I take away with me from his performance is his dismissal fo Britney Spears’s proposed autobiography; after all, being so young, what sort of events can she write about? “I was born, I had my period. The end.”
The only drawback of the night was the lack of audience – comedy always plays better to fuller rooms and bigger audiences. However, the people who were there were for the most part, fans, and Jimmie Walker happily fielded questions at the end – he hadn’d visited Australia before, so he was happy to answer any queries long-term fans had been cultivating since the 70s. But he would not give us a ‘DYN-O-MITE’ claiming that that sort of material had to be paid for: he just might do it at Vegas, but certainly not at the Harbord Diggers.
In addition to being genuinely funny, Jimmie Walker is also a dude; I first interviewed him on Thursday 29 April, before attending a Gud gig. I didn’t discover until midday the following day, when I was about to head in to edit the interview, that my minidisc recorder had somehow malfunctioned, and I’d failed to record the interview. At the last gig of his Australian tour, Jimmie was happy to let me interview him again.
The interview was broadcast Saturday 8 May. Here’s an MP3 version if you want to listen.
Music: Theme from Good Times
Good times –
Any time you meet a payment.
Good times –
Any time you need a friend.
Good times –
Any time you’re out from under.
Not getting hassled,
Not getting hustled.
Keepin’ your head above water,
Making a wave when you can…
Demetrius Romeo: Jimmie, I understand you were a stand-up comic before you landed the role in Good Times.
JIMMIE WALKER: Yeah, I was a stand-up for about ten years before that, working in New York and part of the Improvisation graduating class that was there in the early 70s and late 60s which included Bette Midler, Al Jarreau, David Brenner, Liza Minelli and many, many others that were around at the time.
Demetrius Romeo: Was it common for stand-up comics to land roles in sitcoms at the time?
JIMMIE WALKER: At the time, no. It was a whole different thing. The first three, besides Bill Cosby of course on I Spy, were me, Gabe Kaplan and Freddie Prinze Senior. Now a lot of people obviously know Freddie Prinze Junior but Freddie Prinze’s dad was on a show called Chico and the Man, Gabe Kaplan was in Welcome Back, Kotter and I was in Good Times.
Demetrius Romeo: Did you use much of your pre-existing stand-up persona in the role of JJ on Good Times?
JIMMIE WALKER: No, not really. I made a character out of the whole thing, a combination of all the people I’d known who did that. My comic timing, from being a comedian, obviously was involved on the show, but not from the ‘JJ’ character; that was a hole bunch of characters that I put together.
Soundbite: ‘Autographs’ - Jimmie Walker, from the album Dyn-O-Mite
You know, people get carried away. People say ridiculous things. Like, I'm flying on the airplane, little stewardess – caucasian lady – walks up to me and says, “excuse me, Sir, may I have your autograph? It’s not for me, it’s for my friend. She’s black.” I said, “all right then, I’ll print.”
Demetrius Romeo: How about after you did the show – did the role of ‘JJ’ effect the way you did stand-up comedy?
JIMMIE WALKER: It never effected the way I did stand-up comedy, but it effected the way people perceived me. Because, when you work clubs, not everybody sees you but when you’re on national TV, a lot of people see you. So a lot of people thought, “Gee, this is JJ, he’s gonna come out…” They didn’t know that I was a stand-up, so definitely, it effected the way they looked at me in terms of my comedic presence, because I was dealing with more mature subjects, and they didn’t plan on getting that from JJ. So, it definitely changed a lot of stuff in terms of acting, not to say that I’m an actor, but people don’t see you; you get typecast. Those sort of things do happen.
Soundbite: ‘S-Cool Daze’ - Jimmie Walker, from the album Dyn-O-Mite
“If Farmer Jones had a fifty acre farm that he had to mow, it would take Farmer Jones Twelve hours with a team of horses, but it would only take him six with a tractor.
“One day while mowing the lawn the tractor broke down, so Farmer Jones had to go to the horses. But he decided to use his son who, by hisself could mow a lawn in fourteen hours.
“Now, although his son, mowing a fifty acre lawn in Colorado on a sunny day with Farmer Brown passing by and a team of mules, taking all the rationals into rationalisation, using only [unintelligible mathematics examination jargon] and showing all work on a separate piece of paper, how long did it take them to mow the lawn? Give your answer in feet.”
Demetrius Romeo: Before you made it in showbusiness, you educated yourself. Did any of that effect the show in which you were the son of a family struggling in the projects?
JIMMIE WALKER: I think it did, because I actually came from that kind of family, except that we didn’t have a dad. We had a dad in our show, but we didn’t have a dad in real life. So I think it does affect you in that you have a lot of characters that you have in the projects, and like I said before, it was the kind of thing where a lot of the project characters were incorporated in what I did on the show, because obviously there’s a malaise, a whole bunch of people that you see that you just put all those characters together.
Soundbite: ‘The Black Prince Has Arrived’ - Jimmie Walker, from the album Dyn-O-Mite
So I went into the record store and I saw this album sitting there, and I saw this sharp looking dude on the cover and I say,
Is that him? The black prince?
Could I be right?
Could that be kid
Demetrius Romeo: Part of your persona on Good Times involved a catchphrase ‘dynamite’, which became part of everyday parlance and lived beyond the show. How does that effect you when part of your television shtick becomes part of everyday life?
JIMMIE WALKER: Well, definitely, here we are thirty, thirty-five years later, and people are still screaming it, yelling it, the whole deal. It is part of the fabric, literally, of the world, I would imagine. And as my late friend Steve Krantz – a writer – said, he said, “when you die, the obit’s going to say, ‘today, the dynamite fizzled’”. So that’s definitely going to happen. I’m very aware of that, I’m very aware that that’s what people know, that’s what they’re aware of, and you have to be very honest about that.
Demetrius Romeo: Do you still give a bit of a ‘Dyn-o-mite’ in your performance?
JIMMIE WALKER: [Lauging] Never! See, I’ve never done it in my show, ever, ever really done it in my show. But I know there is a percentage of the crowd who come to see that, they enjoy that, they’re into that, and I’m very aware of that.
Demetrius Romeo: But your website is called dynomitejj.com, you’ve got CDs that are called Dyn-O-Mite. How do you justify that?
JIMMIE WALKER: Purely marketing and mercenary conception. You know, it’s worked out well because people do look for me under that label – you’ve got to be honest about that.
Demetrius Romeo: So what about the people who come to the show expecting to thinking that they’re seeing JJ and not Jimmie Walker?
JIMMIE WALKER: You try to win them over, you try to prove to them that you are funny, kind of stuff like that. You know, you’re not going to get everybody but you hopefully can get a large percentage.
Demetrius Romeo: Is it working?
JIMMIE WALKER: I think we’re doing okay. I think it’s fine. I think people are enjoying what they see. Maybe, maybe not; but I hope they are.
Demetrius Romeo: Fantastic. Jimmie, it’s been a pleasure.
JIMMIE WALKER: Thank you. As usual, always sensational being on a big show, love it!
Music: Theme from Good Times
Easy credit rip-offs –
Scratchin’ and survivin’
Hangin’ in a chow line –
Ain’t we lucky we got ’em?