There are few comedians who can keep a catchphrase fresh for more than a few months, let alone decades.
Jackie Gleason had, “Pow, right in the kisser!” from The Honeymooners. Rodney Dangerfield was famous for saying, “I don’t get no respect!” And then there’s Jimmie “J.J.” Walker who made the phrase “Dy-no-mite!” a household expression.
Walker has been entertaining audiences since the late 1960s, starting off as a stand-up comedian in his hometown of New York City and later moving on to television on the popular ’70s sitcom Good Times where he played the character J.J. His role landed him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, and he was the first recipient of the NAACP Image Award.
His diverse entertainment career has taken Walker everywhere from regular appearances on late-night television (he maintains a friendly relationship with David Letterman, who used to be a joke writer for Walker) to hosting numerous radio shows.
But Walker’s first love remains stand-up comedy, where he still performs live shows 48 weeks a year. Walker comes to Lancaster this weekend for several performances at Stitches Comedy Club.
We caught up with Walker as he was traveling around the country and got his opinion on many controversial and not-so-controversial topics, including the news of Bill Cosby, the changing of the guard of late-night TV and what it’s like to be a clean comic in an impure world.
Michael Yoder: What keeps you motivated doing stand-up comedy?
Jimmie Walker: It’s what I do for a living. I’ve been doing this since ’67 or ’68.
MY: What was it about stand-up comedy that was so appealing to you?
JW: I think once we got to the Improv with all the other guys – [David] Brenner and [Robert] Klein and Bette [Miller] and everybody like that. You’re not really thinking about [stand-up] that way; you’re just kind of doing it. And then one day you realize you’ve been at it 10 years, one day you realize you’ve been at it 20 years, then 30, then 40, and that’s what you do. It just kind of happens.
MY: Do you feel like there was a golden age of comedy at any point?
JW: Well, I think everybody will argue their age or whatever they feel. My age with Brenner and Richard Lewis and Steve Landesberg and Bette and Pat Benetar and Woody [Allen] say that’s the thing. I think the Seinfeld people, whether they would admit it, would say their age was the age. So everybody’s going to say their age whenever they were around.
MY: What do you see as the state of stand-up comedy is today?
JW: It’s a tough racked because of the economy – things are tough. It’s no longer universal like it used to be. We have an age problem, we have a race problem, we have a language problem. It’s a whole different deal now.
MY: Can you feel those differences when you’re performing to audiences around the country?
JW: Well, there’s a lot of problems. America has major problems, and comedy reflects it. It’s reflective of America, and we lead the way. Turn on the news for five minutes – major problems. And comedy reflects that in terms of racial issues, in terms of violence, in terms of language. We didn’t have that in my era. We had The Ed Sullivan Show, and it was a happy time. But I’m not in a happy time?
MY: Does that make the comedy harder or edgier today?
JW: Well, it makes it comedy for those who are in to it. Most people don’t have time for it – like you’re busy with your deal. That wouldn’t happen in the old days. I was talking with people the other day about Lily Tomlin, and there were people who didn’t know who she was. We were not that way. We knew who W.C. Fields was. It’s just a different era and a different time. It’s like life – people move on. Jim Brown was probably the greatest running back of all time, and a lot of people don’t know who Jim Brown is. You guys down there in Philly – Chuck Bednarik, the last two-way player [in the NFL], they don’t know that. Even with all the computers people have, we were still more aware than the kids are now of anything. No one cares [laughs]. People have their own lives and are in their own world – whatever their deal is.
MY: What ways have you seen technology influence comedy today?
JW: You can go on YouTube and see a lot of people – even though people don’t. People do know people from YouTube, so that’s a big deal. I’ve never posted anything to YouTube, and I’m up there like 6,000 times. There’s always somebody with a camera somewhere. You can see that with this situation in France. Even though people were getting killed, there were still people with their phones out taking pictures and video.
MY: Would you say it’s a bad thing to have all those cameras around?
JW: I’d say it’s a different thing. It just is different. The problem that Cosby had is that [comedian] Hannibal Buress got up and said whatever he said. A thousand years ago, nobody would have known what Hannibal Buress said because nobody would have seen Hannibal Buress. But somebody was taping it, and they posted it. I think about the time Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle had a fight at the Copacabana like 60 years ago. Now, no one saw it – except for the people who were there. It was in the newspapers a couple times. But nowadays, oh my God! They would have had angles and cameras and everything. They would have had the whole thing, and they would have been suspended. They would have been gone, and it would have been craziness. That didn’t happen in those days. Nowadays, gollee.
MY: What’s been your impression of the Cosby situation?
JW: Well, the Cosby thing is a very sad thing. I mean, the man’s a living legend. He’s from your turf out there. The problem is, it was a different era. Again, eras are different. In those days, maybe it was a little more acceptable to do things like that. You know, with Cosby, I don’t think there’s anyone who didn’t know what was happening. I think it was just a different era, and Cosby may be the last man standing from that era, and it came to a head. Sinatra and all those guys – they did the same thing, but they’re dead. So nobody’s left from that era. Even the women, there are books published. The Plaster Caster Women – they had penis sizes on Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and all that. You can’t do that now. It was just a different era, and Cosby’s the last guy standing from that era. So it’s unfortunate, because they’re not going to look at all of Cosby’s work. And the man is a genius – I love bill Cosby, I’m a huge fan. And it’s one of those horrible things that happens. He’ll never work again, and that’s sad because he’s so good.
MY: Is there anything in comedy that you believe should be off limits?
JW: For other people, there’s nothing. You look at what happened in France with the Muslims. You look at Fox News when they talk about Benghazi. People don’t understand that to them – not to us – making fun of Mohammed or the prophet, that’s serious business. In this country, we got the Pope sleeping with Mother Theresa. We don’t care. We’ve got Obama sleeping with whomever. It’s just a different deal. But to them – and that’s how Benghazi started, which Fox doesn’t want to see the deal with that when they look at it now – maybe they’ll understand for these people, not for us, this is a big deal. You can see that some of those cartoons came out five years ago, and they’re still mad. So it’s a different deal.
MY: Have you ever shied away from telling a joke?
JW: Well, I don’t think that way. I leave those kinds of things to the Kat Williams and the Michael Epps and the Kevin Harts. Those kinds of guys, they do that. I don’t do that. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong what they do. It’s just different ways to skin a cat. There’s probably about 25 of us left that are clean out of the 5,000 comics in America, but that’s the way I grew up. I’ve said it a thousand times that America is very hypocritical when they say that we’re clean-cut, God-fearing people. We’re not. We’re as low and as sleazy as the next guy, and that’s why they laugh at all the dirt. We’re the last of the clean shows left; that’s why people should come out [laughs].
MY: Do you think it’s harder to be a “clean” comic?
JW: I don’t think it’s even a thought nowadays. It’s not what they do. A lot of it changed because of [Johnny] Carson. When Carson was in charge of comedy, comedy had to be clean. People would have said that it was dictatorial what Carson did, but the reality is he made comedy better. But now when Leno got in and hurt comedy – destroyed what we did – it’s a Wild Wild West now.
MY: What’s your thought on the changing of the guard on late-night TV right now?
JW: Oh, things happen. It’s like you look at the Philadelphia Eagles. New quarterback – it’s over. It was Michael Vick, and that’s it. Next man up. That’s the way it goes. You keep getting younger and younger and younger, and you keep going.
MY: Is it going to be sad for you to see Dave Letterman go off the air this year?
JW: For me, Dave was a big deal because I do a lot of Dave’s shows. And that will be the end of my late-night career after starting in 1974 or ’75. So 40 years, that’s the end for me. So, yeah, sure. That’s the way it goes. Change is something that happens all the time in this racket. You don’t have to like it, but that’s the way it is. For me, I’m done. It will be a whole different thing. Jimmy Fallon’s brought a new thing and is very good at what he does. It doesn’t include what I do, but he’s excellent at what he does.
MY: Where do you see comedy going in the next decade?
JW: I think comedy’s going where it’s going right now. I think it’s very segregated and reflects society, and that’s the way it is. So get in your group. The interesting thing about comedy is no matter who you like or who you think is your favorite comedian, it’s different than singers. You can say Kelly Clarkson, Willie Nelson, Jason Aldean – not for me, but they’re good singers. But in comedy, there’s no such thing as that. You’ll say whomever you like, and somebody will go, “Oh my God! He sucks! I hate him!” You got that way with the late-night show war with people who liked Leno and the people who liked Letterman, and people would go with whomever they liked. People would go, “Fuck Leno. He sucks. He’s no good.” Or they’d say, “Forget about Letterman. He’s horrible He’s mean.” Comedy’s so subjective; it’s who you like.