"It was a good time to create because nobody really watched anybody but Richard Pryor 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!' And you go, '...Yeah. Okay.'"
– Jimmie Walker
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.
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.
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."
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?
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 Chrétien 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?
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?
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.
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?
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
GM: You're also a huge sports fan.
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.