RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Just like in the theme song, Jimmie Walker is scratchin' and survivin'. At 65, "Kid Dyn-o-Mite!" is a senior citizen, and his comedy career has come full circle.
Raised in the projects of the South Bronx, Walker got his start opening community rallies for the militant Black Panthers, then playing the clubs around New York. His big break came in 1973, with his first national TV appearance, on ABC's "Jack Paar Tonight."
"I'm from the ghetto," he joked. "I'm here on the exchange program. You can imagine what they sent back there."
His star turn as James "J.J." Evans Jr. on the hit television series "Good Times" made him a household name, and his catch phrase part of the lexicon. At the end of the 1970s, Time magazine dubbed him "Comedian of the Decade."
But when the show ended in 1979, after six seasons, Walker faded largely into the background.
These days, Walker is on the road doing his standup routine about 45 weeks out of the year. He's also promoting his just-released book, "DYN-O-MITE!: Good Times, Bad Times, Our Times — A Memoir," co-written with Sal Manna.
In it, he writes of going from being "too black for TV" to later being accused of "cooning it up." He also dishes on "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno, who actually wrote jokes for Walker during the latter's heyday.
"Show business is like a greased pole — even if you have climbed to the top, sooner or later you are going to slide back down. I still climb the pole every day," he writes. "I may not reach the top again, but at least my butt is off the ground!"
In the foreword, comedian David Brenner says he's tired of hearing other black comics "make fun of Jimmie, referring to him as a Stepin Fetchit type."
"What they should acknowledge," he says, "is that if it weren't for Jimmie Walker busting through, thanks to 'Good Times,' TV's white, glass ceiling, they would still be black, but they wouldn't be comedians."
Walker — his head shaved, and no longer string-bean thin — recently appeared at Raleigh's Goodnights comedy club. In an interview with The Associated Press, he talks about his book, Leno and life on the road.
AP: Obviously, when you started out, there weren't that many black comedians out there. How has the landscape changed?
Walker: I think the black comedy, because of Pryor, has changed. Everybody wants to be Richard and, you know, it's the old Lloyd Bentsen line: I KNEW Richard Pryor. And you're no Richard Pryor. There's ONE Richard Pryor. It's DONE. It's over. Time for people to move in a different direction. And the language has gotten a little dirty. I think it hurts us, in terms of bookings. Because most comedy clubs think that black comics are going to be dirty. And that's a bad thing for us. We don't need that.
AP: Do you miss being on TV on a regular basis?
Walker: Well, it's always good being on a TV show. Because what it does is, it exposes you to a lot of people. People see you constantly if you're on all the time. ... You can kid yourself and say, 'No, I'm better than that.' Television is the way to go. Better than movies. Better than anything else. ...
AP: I realized the other day, Kid Dyn-o-mite, you're 65 year old, right? I mean, you're a senior citizen.
Walker: Yes, I can get free food at Denny's now. Half price. ...
AP: So, are you in AARP?
Walker: You get it automatically. They cannot, they send it to you. Whenever I get something from them or anybody else, Social Security, you go, "I guess they must have seen the act. It's all over. Get out."
AP: Is this you kind of being funny or you being serious about yourself?
Walker: It's the reality of life. I'm a reality-ist — if there's such a word as that. I didn't go to college, so I don't know if there's such a word. But reality-ist — I'm THAT guy.
AP: What is your reality?
Walker: The reality is you're a road comic. You're out here trying to get a laugh. You're trying to put tushies in the seats. You hope the majority of people that see you like you. If you come back again you hope they come back to see you. And that's the reality. You go from town to town, doing your little jokes. And that's the deal.
AP: Do you ever get tired of "dyn-o-mite?"
Walker: It's good that people like ANYTHING that you do. Because enough people think you SUCK, believe me. Enough people hate you. Enough people go, "He's horrible. I will KILL him if I ever see him." So if you get a majority of people that go, "I LIKE that." You go, "Wow! OK! Somebody likes SOMETHING." No, I don't do it. But it isn't like an insult, because people remember something that you did. That's a GOOD thing.
AP: What do you see your future as?
Walker: Road comic. That's it. Just a road guy 'til I drop, which may be tomorrow. ... Unless somebody, a friend of mine, gets a TV show and says, "Hey. This is my friend. Put him on." That's the only way THAT'LL happen. ... Nobody's looking for Jimmie Walker. (Laughs). No GOOD people, anyway. ... (Steven) Spielberg's not saying, "Boy. If we could get Jimmie Walker, that's going to make this project happen." ... I have no problem being an uncle, a whacky uncle, a kooky neighbor — whatever they want to do. ... No starring role needed. Secondary's fine.
AP: I understand you have some things to say about Leno (in the book).
Walker: Leno has not done well by the comedy community. Because he has not ... let people on the show to do what was done for him. ... I think that in his 30 years, he hasn't broken one comic. And that's a sad record. He needs to do better than that. And I'm not happy with that situation. I think that Leno has let us all down — in that area. ...
AP: Has Leno responded?
Walker: He's not worried about a low-life road comic who's out on the road, struggling to make whatever he makes ... Leno doesn't care about me or anybody — unless you've got a hit movie. You know, if it's Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks, THEN he's concerned. But Jimmie Walker, playing Giggles, Riddles, whatever it is, Goodnights? Psh. Please.
AP: What is success for you now?
Walker: Well, success. I'm not sure that's available to Jimmie Walker. I think just making a living is what we're fighting for now. That's all we do. That's all we've ever done. That's the end of it. And it is not anything major, or anything like that. Go out and get your laughs, try to do the best you can. Hopefully, the audience responds. And that's it. There's no major thing that, BANG, that Jimmie Walker's going to be this Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, you know, Daniel Tosh guy. NOT gonna happen. Just a road guy.
Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at features(at)ap.org.
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