Walker discusses his career and behind-the-scenes happenings during his stint on Good Times and shares what it’s like to be known for the popular catchphrase—and the title of his memoir—Dy-no-mite.
Comedian-actor Jimmie Walker
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Jimmie Walker to this program. The popular comedian and author is out with a revealing new book about his life and career called, as you might expect, “Dy-No-Mite: Good Times, Bad Times, Our Times – A Memoir.” Jimmie Walker, good to have you on this program, sir.
Jimmie Walker: Good to be here.
Tavis: I was so tempted to go full bore with that dy-no-mite, (laughter) just to lay on you my best Jimmie Walker impress, my best J.J. impression, but I didn’t want to do that in front of you. I suspect, though, you must get that all the time.
Walker: That’s, the, like the fifth question we get.
Walker: The first question we get is “Where’s the cast?” That is the most important question that people ask.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: But that must warm your heart, though, for people to be interested.
Walker: It’s interesting that people are still interested in the situation. Doing this as long as I have been doing it and getting the heat that you get all the time, it’s good that anybody remember anything you’ve done in a positive light.
Tavis: Yeah. Let me just jump – I want to read something from the book that really sums up what “Good Times” was. There’s other things I want to talk to you beyond just that particular sitcom, although it became an iconic series, obviously. But just off the break here, do you regret, have any regrets about having done that show?
Walker: No, I think it’s a good thing to do. I think it’s a good base to come from. I think it helped me learn how to work harder, because when I came from New York and I worked with Brendon and Robert Klein, I thought I worked hard. Then I saw the way Norman worked, and I said, “I’m not working hard enough.”
Tavis: Norman Lear, of course.
Walker: Yeah, Norman Lear, yeah. So I think Norman taught me that part, and then my other guys who were on the show, writers, they taught me how to work harder, so that helped.
Tavis: The only reason why I ask that question, whether or not you have regrets about it, is because you intimated a moment ago about the typecasting, and after all these years, people still want to ask about the cast, you still here “dy-no-mite” 10,000 times a day.
Walker: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Whether or not there are regrets around that.
Walker: I think the thing that summed it up to me was Rob Reiner. Rob Reiner won an Academy Award for something that he did, and he was living in New York, walking out of a building, and somebody yelled, “Hey, Meathead.” “I just won an Academy Award, man. Come on.” (Laughter)
So I think that, as my friend Steve Prince would say, when I die, the obituary will say “Today the dy-no-mite fizzled.” That’s just part of it, man. Get over it. I’m like a home for all people. Dustin Diamond, who plays Screech, he comes to me all the time.
I get guys all the time going, “Oh, man, I don’t want.” You just have to accept it, go with it, and show people what you do.
Tavis: All right. I think this piece in the book might sum up best what “Good Times” was for a lot of people, including yours truly, because I still watch it every day on reruns. But this is a piece written by John Jay O’Connor, the esteemed TV critic at “The New York Times,” and I read what he had to write back in the day. This is February 2nd, 1975, to be exact.
“Black viewers are being afforded material that provides immediate, personal and psychic identification. Whites are being glimpses of Black life that, however simplified, can’t help but weaken artificial racial barriers. When an ordinary Black family becomes a mass public favorite, at least one change is no longer in the wind. It’s here, right in front of our eyes.
“The Evanses of ‘Good Times’ are, in style and personality, considerably more than whites in blackface. It is their struggle for economic and social survival that provides the common denominator for a mass audience. The dividing line between us and them becomes less racial, more socioeconomic. Never underestimate the power of being silly on television.”
Powerful words from Mr. O’Connor. Can one show do all that?
Walker: I think it can be a harvest to doing that. Not the main thing, but part of the harvest of doing that. I think the silliness that he talks about in that particular piece, that’s the thing that I think left us, in terms of TV sitcoms. No more of that is allowed, especially for minorities.
You will see that when our show was finished, under the haze of whatever, there were no more Black sitcoms because the network just stopped doing them, because they said – the networks’ goal is to make money, so the least problems you have, the better off you are.
So they didn’t want any more problems, so not until 10 years later did “The Cosby Show” come on, and “The Cosby Show” received heat on the converse of what we did. We were poor and people said, “We don’t want to see poor Black people.” Then “Cosby” came on and they said, “There’s no Black people like that. That’s impossible. How did that happen?
Then it leads to today, where except for Tyler Perry’s shows there’s no Black anything on or minority anything on, and that’s why you are not going to develop any Black star people anymore. Because in order to be that way, you have to be able to, as I say, take the pie. Somebody’s got to be that wacky, zany, kooky guy. If you look at any Black person that’s on or minority person that’s on now, they’re the head of the hospital, they’re the head of the FBI, they’re the president.
Morgan Freeman has been God I think four times now. (Laughter) So I think that’s where we’re going. So then now that you’re going to develop any Black, wacky, kooky stars, stop complaining, because that’s what you asked for. You got what you asked for. There will no longer be the wacky, kooky guy.
Tavis: So what’s the danger in us not having those J.J.s, those Urkels? What’s the danger if (unintelligible)?
Walker: You’re not going to have a Black personality anymore. You’re not going to have a Black person or a minority person with that cloud. Tyler Perry is self-doing his thing, but everybody else, to walk in and take over a project, no, you’re not going to have that.
Not an Eddie Murphy, not a Bill Cosby. You don’t have that kind of stuff. You have white cats who can walk in and say, “I want this now,” and people humble. You’re not going to have that because there’s nobody that wants to take the pie.
Tavis: I see, and I might take exception with you on this, I see a bunch of silliness in the Black sitcoms that are out there, but “Good Times,” to my mind, found a way to enlighten people, to empower people, to educate people, all while it was entertaining people.
There’s more commentary, more socioeconomic, more political, more cultural commentary, just the paintings on your set.
Walker: Ernie Barnes.
Tavis: Ernie Barnes, of course. But there’s more commentary in “Good Times” than in all the Black stuff that’s out there today combined, but y’all were able to do that while being entertaining.
Walker: We had top leadership, which is Norman Lear. That was a whole different thing. You cannot do that today. You could never do what we did because Norman got away with some stuff on all of his shows. Not just us – “Maude,” “All in the Family.” You could not do those shows.
Tavis: What, too politically incorrect?
Walker: Too politically incorrect, and I’ll give you a perfect example. It’s in the book, but I’ll give you a perfect example. When “Cosby” came on, the people at Fox, who were just coming out then, said this is horse doodie. We need something to counter-piece “The Cosby Show.” It’s too sweet, too saccharine.
So they got Michael Moore, who’s a great writer. He happens to be Black, but he’s a great writer for anything – Martian, Plutonian, whatever. (Laughter) He’s a great writer. They said, “Write us a counter-piece to ‘The Cosby Show.’” He wrote -
Tavis: Ed Bundy.
Walker: Yeah, and they said, “We can’t do this.” They waited until people got fired, this and that, and the last people said, “We’re doing it.” They go, “Well, we can’t do it as Black people.” They said, “Let’s do it as white people,” and it was “Married with Children.”
If you had done “Married with Children” as Black people, we would still be hiding in the bunker here where we are now from the heat that Black people (laughter) would have laid out.
Tavis: So what’s the takeaway from that?
Walker: The takeaway from that is you’re not going to get any more shows, so stop complaining. We lost a lot of – even the silliest thing that people complain about. In the ’70s, when they were doing Black exploitation movies and stuff like that, there was a lot of Black criminals and craziness on TV, people with pimp hats.
Black people said, “Well, we don’t want any pimp hats. We don’t want any of that anymore.” So they took all that out. Now there’s no Black criminals on TV. We lost jobs. As strange as it sounds, you lose jobs. That’s the way it goes.
Tavis: What’s wrong, though, for those who may take a different view on this, what’s wrong with Black folk in the business wanting to – what’s wrong with Black folk wanting to see themselves upwardly mobile in this (unintelligible) of Hollywood?
Walker: You are seeing yourself upwardly mobile now.
Walker: But you’re not going to be a star being upwardly mobile. You have to bring some -
Tavis: Hold up. So what you just said – (unintelligible) I heard you right. What you just said is the only way a Negro can be a star is to be a clown or to be that zany character, or be – you can’t be a star no other way?
Walker: If you look at the guys that have been on TV and you – look at what’s happened with “Friends” and you look at what happened with Lisa Kudrow’s character. If that had been a Black girl – out. Completely out. Kramer’s character, Michael Richards. If that had been a Black guy – out.
Tavis: We agree.
Walker: So that’s what I’m talking about. Those guys all basically had jobs, they worked, they functioned, but they have to bring something to the table that makes them memorable. Other than that, you’re not going to get there. That’s just the reality of it all.
People gravitate to those kind of characters. They want the guy – and this is the key word, and I say this all the time (unintelligible) – they want, when you’re sitting in a room and the people who are starring in the show go, “Well, nobody would be that crazy to do that. Who would we get for that?” Then the guy walks in, “Hey, gang.” Boom, that’s your guy. That’s the guy. (Laughter)
Tavis: Okay. We could debate that, but I’m going to let that go for a second. Since I raised it, and since the name of the book is called “Dy-No-Mite -” and I know you’ve been asked this a thousand times, but not by me – where did that come from?
Walker: That came from me. I did it in a little, tiny little dy-no-mite, and John Rich, our director, said, “I love that.” I went, “Love what?” and he said, “the dy-no-mite thing.” So he gave me an iso camera, he showed me how to do it because he did it, a little fat white guy did it, and he said – I said, “John, come on, man. You mean somebody’s just going to stand there in the middle of a show and say, “Dy-no-mite” out of context?
He said, “Yeah.” I said, “People will not be that stupid.” (Laughter) He says, “Yes, they will,” and here we are, 45 years later. He’s the guy who said, “No matter what -” because he had done “The Honeymooners,” he had done the old “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and he created “MacGyver.”
He said, “I know TV, and people buy these stupid catchphrases, and they’re going to buy this.” Norman Lear hated it, and he’ll say in his interviews now, “We just got dy-no-mited out. I had to give up.” Norman left – that was one of the reasons he was out. He just said, “I can’t. It’s overtaken me.”
Because his idea of the show was Ralph, or my brother, to give knowledge to people and bring up stuff as a militant midget, and it kind of evolved into whatever it evolved into.
Tavis: This is, as you said earlier, the only show that I can think of that Norman Lear actually walked away from.
Tavis: That he absolutely, that he created, and that makes a statement in and of itself. But you talk also in the book about the personality conflicts. We all know that John Amos only stayed on for a season or so, and then he was gone. Topline for me how the cast, since you mentioned the cast, got along in this show.
Walker: Well, people think we had a problem. Whenever had a problem, because none of us – we didn’t talk to each other, so was no discussion, so there was never any heat -
Tavis: Wait, what do you mean, you didn’t talk to each other?
Walker: We just never spoke. That was it. Everybody -
Tavis: You came on the set for your scenes -
Tavis: – and you just dipped and left?
Walker: Everybody had a corner, and you went to your corner, almost like a boxer. You went to your corner and then the director would say, “Okay, everybody, let’s meet up in the middle here,” and then he would say whatever he had to say about the show. He’d say, “Okay, let’s rehearse it,” and we’d do it and that was it.
Tavis: Does that sound crazy to you? It sounds crazy to me. Again, I know you discuss it in the text, but it sounds crazy, because if there’s anything we love about the Evanses is that y’all were a family. (Laughter)
Walker: I don’t think there was hostility. I just think we just never spoke. There was no – people always ask me about Janet Jackson. I never spoke to Janet Jackson. Never said a word to Janet Jackson the whole time she was there.
Tavis: How could you do Penny that way? (Laughter)
Walker: I never said a word to Janet Jackson. Bernadette I talked to, but she was going through some changes because she had some divorce problems.
Walker: Ralph I didn’t talk to that much, even though I liked Ralph, but he was – being a kid, you have all these breaks and welfare things and this and you can’t come on the set and you have to have a special mental whatever. So kids, only on the set for a minute. John and Esther, I’ve been here, I think, for five minutes – I think I’ve spoken to you longer than I’ve ever spoken to them. I couldn’t say anything bad or good about them, because I don’t know them.
Tavis: You’re breaking my heart, man. (Laughter) Not the Evans, man.
Walker: There was no rumble, but it’s just we just never spoke. There was just -
Tavis: So let me ask the inverse, then, of what I asked a moment ago – how, then, could you be that disparate in terms of the way you interacted and yet create that kind of magic when the green – the red – whatever color the light is – when the light came on?
Walker: I think that it came from Norman, it came from our directors, it came from the top with the writing, and in the end of it all, everybody was professional and everybody just did their thing, and everybody went about their business.
I really don’t know what they said about anything. At that time and especially now, I couldn’t give you their telephone numbers, I couldn’t tell you what kind of car they drove, I couldn’t tell you anything about them.
So now, as the years go on, I know even less about them. So what you find in this business is that people will tell you stuff. You’ll get a call and they’ll go, “Hey, did you hear what this guy said?” “No, I didn’t hear.” “Let me tell you.” Then you go, “Don’t tell me, man.” “You’ve got to hear this.” You just go, “Oh, don’t tell me anything.”
Or people will walk up to you in the street, people will say, “You never watched the show, you never watched this.” People will tell you about the show. They’ll come up and just start talking to you.
Tavis: Do you watch the show?
Walker: No. I’ve never seen the show.
Tavis: Come on, man.
Walker: (Laughs) I’ve never seen the show, never watched one episode, never watched one minute of it.
Tavis: Why not?
Walker: It came at a bad time for me because I was working, I had my staff, had all my guys on the staff, and I was busy dealing with the staff and stuff like that, and it just never came up. It just never was one of those things.
Tavis: So at some point, do you ever think you will sit down like the rest of us and, like, watch it in reruns or get the boxed set, and -
Walker: No, no, no, no, no, no. There will be no boxed set; there’ll be no watching it in reruns. I’ve heard the theme of it six billion times, because everybody thinks it’s like a cool thing to play the theme when I come on on stage or if I come on on a show. (Makes noise) I’ve heard it, thanks.
Tavis: Well, I’m glad we didn’t play the music when you walked on the set today. Good Lord. (Laughter) You mentioned Ralph a moment ago, the character Ralph on the show.
Tavis: A lot of folk don’t know this. There’s a lot of trivia in this book, what turns out to be trivia. So there’s another young kid up for that role who went on to become a star in his own right, and we might not have known -
Walker: Well, the story is when Ralph was in – he was in a Broadway play, so Norman loved him, so he really wanted to get him out of the play. He could not get him out of the play. So he had to have somebody do the part until then, so we got a guy. The guy came in, he was fine, no problem at all, but he said, “Look, we’re going to try and get Ralph Carter, so don’t -”
Tavis: So you might not be Michael.
Walker: You may not be Michael, so don’t take any – but then the last day came before we were supposed to shoot. Not the guy thinks he’s got it. It’s the last day. Six hours before the thing starts, Ralph comes in and he’s ready to roll. Lawrence Fishburne was the guy who came in, and he was crushed.
We had a lot of situations like that because of when John was doing what he was doing and he didn’t show whatever the story was, we had to get somebody to take those parts and do those things, and we had an understudy for John, and he came in probably once a month or whatever and did parts and stuff on our show – Lou Gossett. Lou Gossett was the guy.
Tavis: Oh, Lou was on a number of episodes.
Walker: Yeah, he was on a number of episodes, and he was filling in. When John left, Lou, I think, thought he was going to get that role of Moses Gunn, and whatever, whatever, but it didn’t work out, whatever happened.
Tavis: That’s why it was (unintelligible) for me looking at these old episodes now and seeing the folk who were guest stars. A lot of them.
Walker: We had a lot. We had Robert Guillaume, we had Ron Glass, we had Irene Cara, which upset me, because I used to work a place called The African Room, which is a showcase club, and Irene Cara used to come in with her mother, and she was like five years old, and she was doing “The Good Ship Lollypop” and put sand on the stage, which everybody hated.
She was like five, (singing) “On the good ship Lollypop,” (makes noise) yeah. (Laughter) So now she comes on the show and she’s a woman, and I go, “Oh my God, I remember her when she was like five.” (Makes noise) I couldn’t even talk to her because I was so embarrassed that I’m an old, lecherous guy looking at her. (Laughter) There she is, five years old – oh, my – heck darn it, that’s not good.
Tavis: How were you managing your standup while you were doing the show?
Walker: I had a huge staff, as I say in the book. I had 31 guys.
Tavis: You represented a bunch of other comedians.
Walker: Yeah. I had Letterman, I had Leno, I had Steve (unintelligible) from “Ace Ventura,” I had Jack Handy from “Saturday Night Live,” I had Louis Andersen, I had Robert Schimmel, I had Richard Jeni. The list goes on.
Tavis: So at one point you repped Leno and Letterman.
Walker: Yes, both at the same time. (Laughter) At the same time, had them both, along with Elayne Boosler, Shirley Hempfill, all these people. So that was kind of my full-time gig, because when you have a staff – and you have a staff here – people are always complaining.
People are always – there’s always a problem, and everybody (laughter) – so you hear people say, “I need more money, I need my jokes done, I need, I’ve got to go here, I need this, I need that, I’m mad because this guy is there.” So you’re always dealing with complaints. Any staff, everybody should be – when I had my top three guys, which was, like, Leno and Mr. Jeno and Wayne Klein, they said, “Why am I not one of the top three guys? I’m better than those guys.”
Then when I could get people on the comedy show, they’d go, “Why can’t you get me on? You got Jimmy Brogan on, you got Jay Leno on, you got David Letterman.” I’m trying to get you on and work – “Why can’t you get me the job?” So there’s always – and “My wife needs this, and she wants tickets to the Dodger game and I know you got tickets.”
And you go, “Oh, my heck darn it. So it’s always something. Everybody, every day, people are calling on the line, and Mr. Jeno’s my right-hand man. He’ll bring me in, like, a stack of stuff. “Hey, Jeff needs this.”
Tavis: A stack of problems.
Walker: So you go, “Oh, yeah, right.” “Why didn’t you do the joke about the frog?” “Well, I’m going to get to the joke. I just had too many jokes. I didn’t have,” “Well, he wants the joke done.” “You’re doing the Carson show, he wants his joke about the beaver skin on that joke, he wants the bagel joke.” You go oh, my – just wait a minute. (Laughter)
Tavis: So you sold the company.
Walker: I didn’t sell the company; I was bought out of the company.
Tavis: Yeah, I was being nice.
Walker: It was – Helen Kushnick. (Laughter)
Tavis: Enough said.
Walker: Helen Kushnick came into the whole situation later, and she – all the people she repped, and she did it – actually, she did a very Nazi-like good job getting them work. She was animalistic. What happened was she said, “Look, Ebony Genius,” which was the name of my company, “That’s not a good name for a management company. You’ve got to get, like, a regular name, and we’ve got to have people who are, like, legit.
“You can’t just be a guy standing there with a dy-no-mite hat and you’re representing people. Let us handle this, and you go do your comedy thing.” So for like, I guess, 10,000 bucks she paid me, and I let Leno and all those guys, except for Letterman – Letterman left and it pissed me off because I told Letterman if he ever leaves, she’s never going to pay any money.
He went to (sounds like) Rolls and Joffe and they paid us 25 grand to let him out. Then we had Boosler, we had to get money to let her out. So it was that kind of stuff. We had a lot of people that were leaving, a lot because of Helen, because she’s tough to deal with.
So then I find out years later when they got the deal at NBC, I got $10,000, they only got $7 million to sell out. I go, “Oh. I think I got screwed.” (Laughter) So that was a bad thing. It was that kind of stuff. Then Leno, who was one of my good friends, I lost Leno’s friendship because of that, which upsets me.
Because I love Leno. He’s done a bad job on the show of not bringing on any new talent, which I’m very upset about and I’m surprised that Leno’s doing that.
Tavis: Which Carson did all the time.
Walker: Carson brought on new people. You’ll hear Leno say, “Well, the network, they don’t want any new people, and you guys are too old. (Unintelligible) bring on only Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks. It’s an entertainment show. We’re not bringing new (unintelligible), no, no, no.”
Okay, Leno. I always say to Leno do what was done for you, and Leno used to be on every show all the time. Leno will tell you when he did the show in 1977, he did fine. Carson did not like him. That’s just Carson. You can’t do anything. Leno was looked upon as being one of the brightest, strongest comics around.
He complained every day. “How come I’m not in the show?” He’d have his pipe and his hat. “How come I’m not on the show? I’m supposed to be one of the top comics around.”
I said, “Leno, I don’t know why you’re not on the show.” “Well, tell Brenner,” he would say tell – Brenner was doing his show then – “Get me on the show,” and I’d say, “I can’t.” I’m trying to get on the show. I can’t bring the whole thing to Brenner. Whatever, I got to get on the show first.
So finally, David Letterman, whose show was owned by Carson, went to Carson and begged for Jay Leno, begged. He didn’t ask, he begged. He came from New York, flew out to the Vatican, as we called it, which is in Malibu, Johnny’s house, and begged for Jay Leno.
He finally got Jay Leno a shot on the show. Jay did fine. Jay’s a great comic; I make no bones about that. But then, when Jay finally got the show, and that was because of David Letterman, Letterman said to Leno, “Why don’t you come on my show and announce that you are going to be the permanent host of ‘The Tonight Show.’” Helen picked up the phone and said, “Absolutely not. We’re going to do it on “The Johnny Carson Show.” We don’t need David Letterman anymore. That’s when the manure begun. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, I saw that “Late Shift” movie. “The Late Shift,” yeah.
Walker: Well let me tell you something. If you saw “The Late Shift” movie, you saw the way Kathy Bates played Helen? That was understated. (Laughter)
Tavis: Okay, then. On that note, sadly, my time is up, and I have not even begun – I promise you, I have not begun to scratch the surface on all that you will find in this book called “Dy-No-Mite: Good Times, Bad Times, Our Times – A Memoir.”
You will be entertained and you will learn stuff that you didn’t know. As I said, a lot of good trivia stuff in this book, some of which you heard to night. But it’s a good read and I think you’ll want to check it out. Jimmie Walker, good to have you on this program, man.
Walker: Thank you, thank you.
Tavis: Thank you for coming on.
Walker: No problem.
Tavis: An honor to have you here. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
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