Quick: name three leading conservative figures who share the last name Walker.
Okay. Scott Walker, Governor of Wisconsin. That’s one.
Russ Walker, head honcho of the conservative Super PAC FreedomWorks. That’s two.
And then there’s standup comic, radio talk show host, and, back in the ’70s, the breakout star of the Norman Lear sitcom Good Times-Jimmy Walker.
Jimmy Walker? Really?
Yup. Jimmy has just published his memoirs, titled, unsurprisingly, Dyn-o-mite!-Good Times, Bad Times, Our Times (Da Capo Press, 264 pages), and it is much funnier than Scott Walker and Russ Walker combined.
Actually, it’s an amazing book. Honest, heartfelt, outrageously funny, and passionate about not just comedy but issues of economics and race.
Jimmy Walker never set out to be a TV star. He set out to be a stand-up comic after a speech he gave in a classroom convulsed his fellow students with laughter. He says essentially that comedy is a positive addiction, and he’s been chasing that high ever since, with enormous success.
On Barack Obama: Now the country is 14 trillion dollars in debt.
I’m happy about that, to tell you the truth. Glad to see a black man can finally get credit.
Walker talks about the domestic abuse he witnessed growing up in the Bronx. He got drunk exactly once, and when he saw what alcohol did to him-not to mention what alcohol and drugs did to his peers-he swore it off and has not had a sip since. Instead, he devoted his life from a very young age to his art, honing his talents in the late 1960s with a militant, Black Panthers-connected poetry-performing group, and then under the wing of then-aspiring comic David Brenner.
His mates at the time, in early 1970s’ New York comedy clubs, read like a who’s who of the biggest names in show business. Jerry Seinfeld. Jay Leno. David Letterman. Elayne Boosler. Andy Kaufman. Richard Pryor. Freddie Prinze. Among the waitresses: Bette Midler. The backup piano player: Barry Manilow.
Walker writes movingly of the bonds among comedians, who would have each other’s back while at the same time tearing each other’s routines apart to rebuild them stronger than ever.
Walker was performing in Fargo, North Dakota, when he got a call from CBS. Why weren’t you at the airport in L.A.? We sent you a ticket.
Walker had no idea that he had actually been selected to perform in a sitcom, originally entitled Black People and ultimately known as Good Times. The angry Puerto Rican who handled everybody’s mail at The Comedy Store in New York had simply neglected to tell him. So he got on a plane from Fargo to L.A., and the rest is show business history.
Jimmy Walker had never taken an acting class and had no aspirations for any stage other than that of a comedy club. His presence, and then his success, were deeply resented by the stars of the show, Esther Rolle and John Amos, both accomplished and admired actors. They wanted the show to send a message; Walker’s retort was the classic comic’s answer-If you want to send a message, call Western Union.
The dyn-o-mite line only came into the show a few episodes into the first season. Walker ad-libbed the line “dyn-o-mite” in a rehearsal, and it stayed in over Lear’s objection. The director stopped everything to tell Walker, “This line is going to make you famous. A year from now, people are going to be yelling ‘dyn-o-mite’ out of cars, on the street, and wherever they see you.” And within just months, that’s exactly what happened.
I meet some strange girls. I asked a girl out the other night and she asked if she could bring a friend. I said, “Sure.” She brought her probation officer.
Walker comes across as an exceptionally balanced individual who never wanted to marry or have children after the experiences he saw in his own home. Instead, he describes himself as a road comic, although one who has spent most of his adult life straying off the reservation of African-American liberalism. And this is where the book gets really interesting.
He writes of his “belief in smaller government, personal responsibility, free-enterprise capitalism, and America in general…I said that instead of our obsession with racism blacks should focus on economic development. I said that the War on Poverty did little for the poor precisely because the bloated federal government was in charge. I slammed Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and every other black leader who picked up a protest sign at the drop of the hat if it would get them on TV. Like me, many conservatives also emphasize the need for education and were tough on crime. I wasn’t afraid to say, even though I was a black man, that I agreed with them.”
It’s not every day that you read a memoir of a comedian talking about his strong belief in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, with the caveat that these need to be read as living documents. “I am not a strict Constructionist,” Walker writes. “I know this may come as a shock to some of my conservative friends, but the world has changed since the 18th century. Once upon a time, blacks were declared to be three-fifths of a human being and women could not vote. America changes.”
After Good Times, Walker’s life changed as well. He found some success in Hollywood, but he never made the full-time transition to the large screen, perhaps because that just simply wasn’t in his sights. The larger question his memoir raises is this: Could his success have been limited because of his political views? If he had been a little more politically correct over the years, would that have made him more palatable to the movers and shakers in Hollywood?
If so, it’s not really an issue that seems to bother Walker all that much. His base may be Los Angeles, but his home is the road. And the road he has taken will inspire readers to follow their own dreams…and make up their minds for themselves, too.