The Comedy Couch

 JIMMIE WALKER - May 18, 2001

GUY MACPHERSON: I appreciate you doing this. I
understand you don't always like to talk to us media.
Is that true?
JIMMIE WALKER: Well I'm here now. That's the bottom
line.

GM: OK. I've seen you on TV, I've seen you for years
and years. I guess the last thing I saw you on was
Politically Incorrect. You're not afraid to give your
opinion.
JW: No, that's what the show's about.

GM: Yeah, but some people, I'm surprised, don't know
that and they don't give an opinion.
JW: Well, then they shouldn't be on.

GM: I was at your website today and enjoyed it.
JW: Thank-you.

GM: I think I disagree with everything you say
politically.
JW: Hey, this is North America, you can tell whatever
you need to tell.

GM: Exactly. And I appreciate people who have a strong
opinion and have a passion for something. You've been
doing comedy for over thirty years now, which is
amazing because it doesn't look like you've aged any,
but have you always been political? Or is this
something that is more recent?
JW: No, I've been political, oh heck darnit, for years
and years. Probably since the late sixties, I'd say,
during my Black Panther youth.

GM: Were you a Black Panther youth?
JW: Yes. I actually was, the exact title was Official
Comedian for the Black Panthers in the East. Because
they had different factions. I was the official one
for the east. I didn't know anybody else had a title,
but I knew I had one. I worked with them for a long
time in the cultural part of the movement, as they
say.

GM: And did your comedy reflect that?
JW: Yeah, very much so. Very much so.

GM: How?
JW: Our stuff was very related to the black experience
from a very negative white side, I guess. (laughs) I
don't know if we were Maoist, but I guess we were
Maoist and some form of Communism. Stokely Carmichael
was a big guy in there and he was pan-African. He was
really back-to-Africa. Bobby Rush, who's out of
Chicago now, was one of the guys in politics -- he'd
be like prime minister or MPs in Canada, a member of
parliament. He'd be one of those guys. He's that now.
But he was very active in those days. We'd go from
probably New York to Baltimore or Washington, DC, and
do tons of colleges. It was a very preachy part of our
thing. So a lot of philosophies were doled out in
those days.

GM: Was this before the time you were on Jack Paar?
JW: Yes, before. Much before that?

GM: I read where David Brenner, Bette Midler, and I
forget the third, were going to be on the show and
they said, "We're not going to be on unless Jimmie's
on."
JW: Yeah.

GM: Do you think they didn't want you because you were
a black panther comedian?
JW: No, no, no, no, no, no! I don't think they were
thinking that. Just people don't think you're funny.
And they didn't think I was funny. That happens, you
know? Comedy is so subjective, you know. Whoever your
favourite is, somebody will go, "Oh, no, no, no. He
stinks. Or she stinks." It's very, very subjective.

GM: But then you went on were a huge hit.
JW: It worked out. It was a good thing. The lovely Tom
O'Malley, who was the talent coordinator, he was the
guy that just... I mean, it's always that way. That's
the way it is in the business. People, whoever it is,
whether it be Jim Carrey or Howie Mandel or Mike Myers,
even though they are technically stars, people will
go, "Oh God, no." (laughs)

GM: All three of those are Canadians. Is that why you
mentioned them?
JW: Yes.

GM: Oh, OK. Good. So we can relate. Good. I thought
that was just a coincidence. Now, did you have to
necessarily much change of your act once you hit
national TV and became a star?
JW: Yeah. Sure. You get a little more commercial. It
depends, though. There's guys we have around us -- the
late Bill Hicks, there's Paul Mooney. There's guys
like that who are guys who just aren't for everybody.
(laughs) And those guys and girls -- Janeane Garofalo
I guess is in that category -- are just going to do
that thing. They're going to have a more fanatical
audience, but a much smaller audience because not
everybody's going to be into it. And that's the way it
works sometimes, you know? Everybody can't be like
Leno. Leno is trying for the masses of people that he
can get.

GM: So you realized that and you toned your act down?
Is that what you're saying?
JW: Yeah. David Brenner was influential in that. He
said, "You got to tone it down." We did.

GM: I trust your politics have changed since then,
quite considerably.
JW: I think, you know, yeah, I guess it changed, but
not that much really, because I was in radio before
that. And being in talk radio, which I've been in for
years and years and hundreds of years before it was in
to be in talk, you hear such a diversity of ideas
because you sit there all day for, when I was just
behind the scenes, for eight hours, and then when I
was actually on the air, for three hours. And you hear
everything. And you kind of make your choices from
there.

GM: So over the years you'd hear something and go,
"That sounds like a good idea."
JW: I guess you've got to consolidate ideas with ideas
and then come up with your own brand of whatever you
think is right. People do that. That's their thing.
I've said it a thousand times, people are very
apolitical. People don't care anymore. I grew up in a
time when everybody did have some thought. There's no
thoughts now. But in the Viet Nam thing, yeah,
everybody had a very strong opinion one way or
another.

GM: I guess you have shifted from probably Democrat to
Republican.
JW: I was never a Democrat. I was always kind of
independent. And more, for a while, technically I
guess a Libertarian. And then before the lovely and
wonderful Pat Buchanan got into it, I was a Reform for
that year or so. I like a lot of things Pat Buchanan
says. I don't think he's all wrong about everything.
He says a lot of good things.

GM: So you were being facetious when you said lovely
and wonderful.
JW: Always. That's Pat. A lot of people don't like
Pat. He has very strong opinions about things. Some
people don't like those opinions.

GM: But you do.
JW: Most of what he says. I agree with, I'd say, about
75 percent of what he says.

GM: Does this make you alone in your community of your
old friends?
JW: I don't think that the old friends are political
anyway. (laughs) Both countries. Whether you get
Chretien or you go to Landry over in the east. People
don't even know. (laughs) You could trot out to Dundas
over there and say, "Who is Sheila Copps?" and people
go, "Huh?" Or in the east if you went, "How about Mike
Harris?" they'd go, "Oh. Really?" So people just don't
care. They just go on about their lives.

GM: But among black and entertainment and comedy, you
have all these things that most people would think,
"He must be a liberal."
JW: Yeah, well people make assumptions. That's what
people do. Not everybody's that way. Everybody makes
assumptions. So you just go with that. You can
compartmentalize. If you're working, you're working
from more of a commercial bent. And then if you're
hanging out with your whatevers, your peeps, you are
who you are. So that's that.

GM: Is your standup now more political?
JW: It's more political than any other comics around
(laughs). You gotta remember, most comics, they've had
their acts for a while and whatever works, in terms
of, in your turf, probably Tim Horton's and that kind
of stuff, they stick with it. It works. And you can
hang out afterwards and get girls. Life is good.
(laughs) You know? So I don't think that anybody makes
much of an effort to write too much nowadays. If you
can get twenty minutes and get on, in your country,
the Yuks tour, you're there.

GM: By being political, you have to constantly write.
JW: Right. And I don't think people want to do that.

GM: How much do you keep if something really works?
JW: Oh, heck darnit, we've had stuff for years and
years, and we've had totally new stuff. When we were
on the other side of your turf, we were doing stuff on
Roots airline. We had stuff there. It's that close.
Whatever it is. It depends.

GM: Are you just a news junkie?
JW: Yes, very much so.

GM: To know about Sheila Copps and Mike Harris, like
you said, most Canadians wouldn't know about them, and
neither would most Americans.
JW: Americans wouldn't know anything about that. They
don't know even their turf. They wouldn't know if they
lived in Seattle who Gary Locke was or anything like
that. They don't know. They don't care. (laughs)

GM: I know that you and Letterman have a connection.
You're on the show quite frequently. What was that?
JW: He was a writer with me, along with a whole bunch
of people, and still people now. You have to have the
written word down. I don't think it's that important
any more, that's just the way I was raised in terms of
comedy. But David Letterman, Leno, Odenkirk, all those
people like that, and Jack Handy, who does Quiet
Thoughts or Silent Thoughts or whatever it is for
Saturday Night Live, all those guys started with me.
Most people when they get off the bus, I'm the first
guy they see. And then they move on. But Dave was with
me for a very long time. Him and Leno. Actually, Leno
was with me longer.

GM: You're really critical of Leno on your website.
JW: I'm not critical of Leno. I know what Leno's
doing. Leno's fine. I mean, Leno will do anything to
be successful. There's nothing wrong with that. He may
have sold some of his old friends down the drain, but
that's Leno. That's what he wants. And Leno's making
17 million a year American, so, you know, here we are
in Vancouver and Leno's sitting in Beverly Hills. So
good for Leno. He's in. It's the old saying, those who
die with the most toys win. And Leno wins, you know?
He doesn't have to go on the road. He doesn't do that.
He sits in his big house and he--

GM: But he DOES go on the road.
JW: He does go on the road in terms of corporates. And
he's going on good gigs. He's got the NBC plane. He's
not going commuter like the rest of us. Leno's on the
road probably three days a week, but he goes in and
out. He does it because he wants to do it, but Dave
doesn't do it.

GM: Dave doesn't do anything.
JW: No. I know Dave very well. Dave doesn't talk to
anybody.

GM: He talks to you, though, doesn't he?
JW: Yes. Yes.

GM: He is very loyal, wouldn't you say?
JW: Uh, yes. (laughs) Needless to say!

GM: Why do you say it like that?
JW: Well, some people aren't loyal, or aren't your
friend when they succeed. And Dave -- the little group
of us that go on the show all the time -- he doesn't
need us. But he is still very fierce in his loyalty.

GM: You talk about you and who? George Miller?
JW: George Miller, Jeff Altman, probably Johnny
Witherspoon. Those four and maybe even once in a while
a guy named Bob Sarlott, who does the show. (laughs)
You know, Bob Sarlott can't even get road gigs, but
he's a friend of Dave's so he gets on.

GM: There's that picture of you guys on the basketball
team. Now I remember you were... what's the name of
that movie where you played basketball?
JW: Yes, yeah. That was The Greatest Thing That Almost
Happened.

GM: So you really did play?
JW: Oh yeah! Definitely.

GM: Were you the best player on that Comedy Store
basketball team?
JW: No, no, no, no, no, no. No, no. People that were
not known were the best players. So nobody of any note
that you would know.

GM: So Letterman was any good?
JW: No.

GM: Tim Reid?
JW: No. God, no.

GM: Dreesan? Bobby Kelton?
JW: Dreesan actually wasn't a bad player. Dreesan's
not a terrible player. The best players were probably
Johnny Witherspoon and the Mooney twins. Nobody knows
who the Mooney twins are, but the two guys who look
alike because they're twins.

GM: Not Paul.
JW: No,no. God, not Paul. His sons were on that team.

GM: You were named Time magazine comedian of the
decade!
JW: I don't know what happened there.

GM: That must have been a heady, heady time. I mean,
starting out, what, '67?
JW: Yeah.

GM: And five years later--
JW: I was a little stunned. Meg Fonin(?), who writes
for them -- or used to, I don't know where she's at
now -- she used to come in all the time and she would
see whoever. All the guys, from Robert Klein to David
Brenner to Freddie Prinze. And I don't know. (laughs)
I had won a thing in the Village the year after
Richard won. It's just random shots. They just send
people down. And Richard had won the Best Comedian in
the Village, or whatever.

GM: Richard Pryor?
JW: Yeah. And I don't know what year who won what, but
somebody won something. And I was talking to Richard
and he says, "Well, it don't get you any cash, and it
don't get you this" and I said, oh, OK. And then one
of the guys and the girls came in one night and said,
We're going to make you, like the Village Voice, or
whatever it is, the comedian of Greenwich Village, or
whatever. And I went, "Holy doo-doo... Okay." And then
that's when Time magazine, they weren't looking at me,
but they knew that I had won, though. So luckily a
couple laughs came out that night.

GM: Were you on the cover?
JW: No, I was inside the magazine. I was a little
stunned, but the great Bud Friedman hung it up on the
wall.

GM: Was it tough to keep your head after that?
JW: Oh yeah. (laughs) No, I mean, you don't get crazy.
God no. There were too many people around. Too many
guys keeping us very level. Brenner was like our
godfather. It was no big deal. And I was not any big
shakes at the time. I mean, you win these things but
people don't know. You'd like people to go, "Oh God,
let's all go see him!" But it's more like the guy who
wins the San Francisco laugh-off every year. Nobody
knows who that is, but that's like a big award in the
industry. Or the guy who wins the Aspen thing.

GM: Were the other comedians going, "Oh, the comedian
of the decade."
JW: No. No. Not at all. I don't think anybody actually
paid any attention to it at all. (laughs) It's just
like, "Oh, okay." We had a lot of guys win things and
nobody really whatever. You know, I think Bette won
something as cabaret singer in New York and nobody
really paid much attention (laughs). But obviously
she's gone on. And she won that, like, two years in a
row. So she got that but in the first year, she was
still like a waitress. So you can win but it don't
mean anything.

GM: By that time had you devoted yourself completely
to comedy?
JW: Yeah, I was out of radio biz for a while and I was
a full-time comic working the Cellar Door in
Washington, DC, opening for Miles Davis for a while.

GM: What you're most famous for, obviously, is Good
Times.
JW: Uh-huh.

GM: Now am I sensing you don't like that period, or
talking about it? Do you wish it would go away?
JW: People enjoy it so good for them.

GM: But the answer to your frequently asked questions,
Will there be a reunion: No!
JW: (laughs) I don't know what else to say!

GM: So you don't regret that time? It was a great time
for you.
JW: Well, you know, it was actually the time of
Richard Pryor. And working at the Comedy Store, the
guys like you would come in there all the time and
always ask about Richard! (laughs) So it was a good
time to create because nobody really watched anybody
but Richard at that time. Everybody would be saying,
"God, it must be great because you know Richard and
he's a genius, it must be great being around a genius
all the time, huh? Watch how he develops material.
Richard's incredible!" (laughs) And you go, "...Yeah.
Okay."

GM: "What about me?"
JW: And then when he worked at the Store, it was such
a big deal. I guess we sat 600 and there would always
be like 750 people in there. It was a couple years of
Richard. He did a three or four albums and he was on
the ground floor of those HBO things and those
pay-per-view specials, or whatever those things were,
so he was always getting ready for those kind of
things and he would do long times on stage. Like three
hours. So it was that time. That was it.

GM: Who were your favourite comedians or people that
influenced you?
JW: Nobody that nobody knows. You gotta remember that
I was in the Richard Pryor time, and you would see
probably 90 percent of the comics would say they loved
Richard. I mean, that would be the guy they would most
go with.

GM: Including you?
JW: My guys would be probably people that nobody that
people would hear of: Godfrey Cambridge and Dick
Gregory. But nobody knows who they are.

GM: He's political, too.
JW: He's political, but most people don't know that he
actually was a standup. He was very good. People have
no idea.

GM: And now are there any comedians that you
particularly like?
JW: Well, I'm not one of these guys who says, "Gee,
every comedian stinks. They're all terrible." I don't
believe that. I think there's a lot of good guys. But
I think the problem is that I've seen so many. So it
just doesn't hit me anymore. I've seen a billion of
them.

GM: All variations on a theme.
JW: Oh, yeah. I was up in your turf for the last few
weeks and saw a lot of your guys. And the Canadian
guys are the Canadian guys. They do what they do.

GM: I couldn't help but notice on your website:
Favorite Cities: San Diego and Vancouver.
JW: Vancouver's one of my favourite cities. I love it.

GM: Why's that?
JW: The weather's good. Actually, every time I've
worked there, there's been no media pressure, which I
always hate. You just kind of quietly go in. I was
married to a girl from Vancouver. That was good. It's
always fun in Vancouver for me because it's real quiet
and people don't bother you there.

GM: What do you mean media pressure? Like this?
JW: Yes.

GM: Thank you. Well, so much for that. You're going to
have to knock Vancouver off the list.
JW: No, no.

GM: You mean radio stuff?
JW: I don't know what's going to go on. The stuff I do
on media stuff when I go to Canada is very relaxing.
Yuks knows how to use me. They use me mainly on talk
things. We don't do that much of it, but the stuff I
do is fun. They don't do that much of it so it's
great.

GM: I gotcha. You also said one of your goals is to be
a political columnist in a magazine.
JW: Right, right. Because I did that when I wrote for
Talkers. Of course, I had my own [radio] show for two
years and I'm doing fill-ins now. It's just the matter
of getting the time to do it and getting the right
place to do it at. When I was in Omaha for two years,
I loved it. It was fabulous.

GM: Was that a daily show?
JW: Yeah. And we talked issues. What talk is going to
be, we don't know. This weekend, actually, there's a
big talk convention in New York with all the guys.
Michael Harris and all those guys will all be there.
Usually I go to that, but this time I'm working so I
can't make it. But it's a matter of finding out what
talk is going to be. We know it's not Rush Limbaugh
from the standpoint of it is too hard-hitting for
people. And it can't possibly be Howard Stern. They
don't want that. So somewhere in between, which is a
wide variance. We must find out what it's going to be
like.

GM: When you do that, or if you're a writer, then
you're on our side.
JW: No. When I wrote for Talkers, I was like George
Will. I just said "here's what I think" and then I
left. And the people that are involved in the comedy
scene are not involved in the political scene. It's
just a difference of people. It's like in rock'n'roll
when you open for people. I opened for Miles Davis for
a long time and the jazz people are different than the
comedy people and they're different than the regular
press people. So everybody's different. And athletes,
they're different than everybody. So it's that kind of
deal. Everybody has their clique, very
compartmentalized.

GM: You're also a huge sports fan.
JW: Yes.

GM: What's your favourite?
JW: Well, baskets are my favourite. But I'm aware of
everything.

GM: So do you throw that into your act as well?
JW: Yeah, but it has to be commercial. The key is you
have to make it so everybody gets it. Because there
are things that I am very interested in that nobody
else would care about whatsoever. So you have to
appeal to people on that level. It's very important to
get people to unite.

GM: What can people here in Vancouver look forward to?
JW: Hopefully something funny.

GM: Yeah, that would be good.
JW: That would be the good thing. So we'll be blasting
up there. I've worked there a billion times down in
the Gas district.

GM: At Punchlines?
JW: Yeah and a lot of corporate shows, which is always
great. And of course, there's a lot of television
stuff that I've done up there. It's always been fun.
They're great, and just big drinkers. You've got to be
careful about that. A little heavy on the drinking.

GM: Especially those second Friday shows.
JW: Oh Lord, it's horrid. I guess Steve Martin said
that's why he got out of comedy, the second show
Friday night.

GM: I look forward to seeing your show. And I won't
come the second show Friday night.
JW: No, please, it's always hard, always terrible.


 
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