Good Times star Jimmie Walker

Square Shooting
May 21, 2024
The Interviews Archive

Foundation Interviews: Jimmie Walker

The legendary stand-up comedian recounts his rise to sitcom stardom.

Raised in the South Bronx, Jimmie Walker first achieved success as a stand-up comedian in Harlem in the late '60s and '70s. An appearance on Jack Paar Tonite boosted his fame, and an encounter with legendary producer Norman Lear led to sitcom stardom. 

As Walker tells it, he was unfamiliar with the industry bigwigs who brought him in for a role on Lear’s Maude spin-off Good Times, and he gave them his honest opinion: “This is not funny at all.” Despite that rocky start, Walker became an integral part of the show’s success, with audiences tuning in to see his character J.J. Evans deliver his “dyn-o-mite” catchphrase. Throughout the series, however, his bold comedy style was never quite in sync with the sitcom’s earnest messages. “I was a fish out of water — just came in and started doing jokes,” he says. “Norman went with it, but he wasn’t enthused about it.”

After Good Times ended in 1979, Walker stayed in the comedy world, making regular appearances on late-night television shows and touring the country with his stand-up act. He released his autobiography, Dyn-o-mite! Good Times, Bad Times, Our Times, in 2012.

Walker was interviewed in February 2017 by John Dalton for The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire interview can be screened at

When did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up? 

I was watching The Merv Griffin Show, and Dick Gregory used to come on all the time. I said, “This would be interesting, being a comedian.”

Can you tell me about your first time doing stand-up?

The first time I really worked was with a group called The Last Poets. Big Malcolm X fans there. I got in a lot of time there, and I worked with a lot of guys. I worked with Stokely Carmichael.

How did you appear at the African Room? 

I was working uptown, not making any money. Somebody said, “You can make some money if you went downtown. There’s a place called the African Room.” I went there, and it’s the first time I worked with commercial acts: Bette Midler, Irene Cara, David Brenner, Steve Landesberg, Al Jarreau — all those guys.

My act was totally Black. All about Blackness. There’s different kinds of Black people. I had worked with The Last Poet Black people. These Black people down there [at the African Room] were in society. They weren’t angry. And they were going, “Why is this guy so angry?”

How did David Brenner become something of a mentor to you?

David Brenner said to me, “You’re a very funny guy. You’ve got the moves, but this Black anger thing ... no good. I’m a Jew. We got anger, too. We got longer anger than you got, and you need to be more commercial. You would better serve your cause, because you would get through, rather than this angry Black guy who people would not like.”

How did appearing on Jack Paar Tonite come about? 

A: At that time there were a lot of TV talk shows. Being on TV was the ultimate be-all, get-all. All those guys had talent coordinators who would come to the comedy clubs. So we’re all sitting at this funky little dive place, the Camelot, and I said, “Man, I should be on TV. Why am I not on?” They said, “Yeah, you should be on.”

This guy from Jack Paar used to come there. He could drink for free because he was a talent coordinator. They said, “Hey, how about Jimmie Walker?”

“No, he sucks, man, he’s not funny.”

Brenner and Bette and Steve Landesberg went to him and said, “You’re not going to drink here anymore if you don’t put Jimmie Walker on the show.” I got on the show.

Very cool. 

A: So I got an appointment to meet Hal Gurnee — Hal Gurnee was the guy. He eventually became the director of David Letterman’s show and [at the time was the director of Jack Paar Tonite]. Hal Gurnee says, “Everybody tells me you’re funny. Let’s see it.” So I start doing my act. And after about two minutes he says, “Okay, you’re on the show. Can you be down here tomorrow?”

My friend, Phil Foster, gave me advice [for that first show]. He says, “Go out there with a big smile on your face. Let them see your teeth. And you go, ‘Hi, I’m from the ghet-to, and I’m here on the exchange program. Imagine what they sent up there.’ You open with that line, you’ll kill.” I said, “All right.”

So I went out there. Jack Paar comes over and he says, “Hey, everybody told me you’re funny. You just go out, relax, don’t worry. I’m going to bring you on and give you a big intro. I’ve had Lenny Bruce, Godfrey Cambridge, Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor. You’ll do just fine.”

So he brings me on with this great intro. I walk in — I had my turtleneck on — and I said, “Hey, I’m from the ghet-to,” which got a little titter. “I’m here on the exchange program.” Big laugh. “You could imagine what they sent up there.” Huge laugh. Then I just took off. It was unbelievable. Things started changing a little bit because of that one shot.

How did you get cast as J.J. Evans on Good Times

It came from Jack Paar’s show. [Joey] Edmonds and [Thom] Curley, a very good comedy team, saw me at the Improv. They were supposed to do warm-ups for a show called Calucci’s Department but couldn’t make it. They said, “Why don’t you get Jimmie Walker to do it?”

So I went over and started doing my act. They didn’t want you to do that. They like you to mingle with the crowd. Luckily, there were some gigantic laughs. This woman comes up to me and says, “You’re very funny. I’m a casting director for Tandem Productions.” I went, “Good for you.” And she says, “No, we’re doing a show on the West Coast called Good Times. Esther Rolle from Maude is in the show.”

Had you watched Maude at that point?

No. She says, “We’d like to have you on this show.” In this business, people lie all the time. So I go, “Yeah, let me know when it’s happening.” She came in again and said, “Next week I’m bringing Norman Lear.” I’m going, “Good.” I didn’t know who Norman Lear was.

Norman Lear comes and watches me do my thing, and he comes up and says, “Welcome to the family.” I went, “Yeah, okay, thanks.” I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. He says, “Give me your address. I’ll send you a contract.” I said, “This guy’s full of it.” So I gave him the Improv address. I come in [to the Improv] early, and Louie the cook was there. Louie says, “You got some mail here, man.” And it’s a contract from Tandem. I’m on the show.

We had this guy sitting at the end of the bar, Kenny the drunk. He’s a lawyer. Every night he’d come in about 5:30, nice and clean-cut, and just start putting down shots. By 9 his head was on the bar. I said, “I need a lawyer to look at it.” Louie said, “Kenny’s down there.”

I picked his head up off the bar and said, “Kenny, what the hell is this?” He put on his peepers; he says, “This is a contract.” I said, “Is it any good?” He says, “Yeah,” and then his head went back on the bar. I swear to God, that’s exactly what happened.

I said, “What do we do now?” He says, “Maybe you should sign it and send it back.” So I signed it and sent it back. I get a call at the Improv. Jadie Jo, Norman’s secretary, says, “We’re going to send you tickets to come out to do some rehearsals of the show.” And I went, “Rehearsals of what show?” She says, “Good Times. You signed on, you’re in.” I go, “Oh, okay.”

Edmonds and Curley got me some dates, so I’m back touring in Vermillion, South Dakota; Fargo, North Dakota ... I get a call, and it’s Jadie Jo. “Where are you?” I said, “I’m in Fargo.” She says, “You’re supposed to be at the CBS Center on Beverly Boulevard.” I said, “What’s going on down there?”

“You’re on a show. You have tickets in New York to come out. We’re going to send you new tickets to come out from Fargo.”

I’m in the car with the other acts. I said, “Hey guys, stop by the airport. There may be a ticket for me.” I stop by the airport and they say, “Yeah, we have a ticket. You’re going to Los Angeles in about three hours.” I go pick up my bags and I said, “Guys, I’m going to go do this TV show.”

I get there and Allan Manings, our executive producer, and Eric Monte, who created the show, say, “Hey, welcome to the show. We’re going to put you in a hotel.” I stayed at the Farmer’s Daughter Motel, right across the street from CBS.

It's still there. 

It's still there. I called Steve Landesberg and said, "Man, we got to do some sets." So he picked me up, we go do some sets, and we go to Redd Foxx's room on La Cienega. The next morning I'm at the hotel, sleeping, and it's like 9:30. There's a call — Jadie Jo. "We had rehearsal at 8:30. You should be at the show. Did you get your sides?" I said, "What are sides?" She says, "That's our script. It's downstairs waiting for you."

I go downstairs; the script is there. I walk across the street, get into the building. Everybody’s there — Norman Lear, the network. We start reading the script. Norman’s sitting next to me. I go, “What is this, man?” He says, “This is a show that we’re doing, a spin-off of Maude.” I said, “This is not funny at all.” He says, “Well, we kind of think it’s funny.”

David Brenner forgot to tell you not to say those kinds of things to the producer of the show.

We finish, and Allan Manings comes over and says, “A lot of people work very hard on this. If you don’t like something, go to one of our writers and say, ‘Is it possible to make a change?’ But you don’t vocalize it in front of everyone.”

It's your first lesson in show business. 


How was the character of James Jr. originally conceived?

Just a slick-talking guy who was able to steal stuff. I would go in and go, “We need to be a lot more funny.” But they said, “We’re trying to do stories with messages.” I look at it this way: Our cast really wanted to do stories. Norman loved to do stories. I came in as a comedy kamikaze. I wanted to just hurt people with laughs. Anytime there was a laugh, most of the cast said, “I don’t want to do that.” I said, “Well, I’ll take it.” At the end of day, I had like 14 jumbo jokes in there. I was a fish out of water — just came in and started doing jokes. Norman went with it, but he wasn’t enthused about it.

You became a cultural icon. 

Well, let’s not go too far.

Can you explain how "Dyn-o-mite" came about?

I was rehearsing, so I said to whomever it was, "Hey that's dyn-o-mite," and went on with the scene. John Rich, our director, says, "I love that dyn-o-mite thing. You've got to do that." He showed me how to do it. "You've got to put the teeth out there. I want teeth, eyes, everything."

I go, "John, people will never be that stupid and buy it." He says, "Yes, they will." That's when all hell broke loose. We were doing it two, three times a show. Norman said, "I don't know what it means, I don't know what it's about, but it's the stupidest thing I've ever seen. I hate it."

John Rich went to the mat for it. He says, "The thing works. This is fabulous." To calm everything down, they said it's only going to be in once a show. Norman says, "I don't even know if I should let it be once a show. How about once every other show?" John says, "No, it's going to be once a show." So we did it once a show.

The cast did not like it either. They didn't want to be onstage when it happened. So a lot of times I was just in the middle of the room, doing a soliloquy. It became the bane of Norman Lear's existence.

How was it being the breakout star?

I never felt like a breakout star because the cast wouldn't let you feel that way. And working at the [Comedy] Store every night, you definitely didn't feel like a breakout star, because there were huge comics coming through there: Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg.

Do you think ultimately J.J. hurt your career or helped it?

I think it's a mixed bag, without a doubt. I'm always going to be J.J., and that's the reality of my life. I'm still writing, I'm working comedy shows — that's one of my biggest sources of happiness. When I do a show, there's always people who say, "I hadn't planned on coming to your show, but these people dragged me. You're much better than I thought you would be." That, to me, is the most tremendous compliment.

I know that when I die, there's going to be some newscasters who say, "You know who died today? Jimmy 'J.J.' Walker, the guy who said 'dy-no-mite.'"

What advice would you give to an aspiring comedian? 

Good management is really important. And you need a lot of friends. You need a friend that will stand up for you, because when you go into a room and pitch people, the initial thought on anybody is going to be, "Absolutely not, fuck him." You need that person to go, "No, fuck you; this guy is in. I love him." Then people go, "Alright, he's in." Adam Sandler did that with Rob Schneider. Jerry Seinfeld did it with Larry David. For Judd Apatow, Garry Shandling was his David Brenner. Everybody has their guy.

The contributing editor for Foundation Interviews is Adrienne Faillace.

Since 1997, the Television Academy Foundation has conducted over 900 one-of-a-kind, long-form interviews with industry pioneers and change-makers across multiple professions. The Foundation invites you to make a gift to the Interviews Preservation Fund to help preserve this invaluable resource for generations to come. To learn more, please contact Amani Roland, chief advancement officer, at or (818)754-2829.

To see the entire interview, go to:

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue #3, 2024.

Browser Requirements
The sites look and perform best when using a modern browser.

We suggest you use the latest version of any of these browsers:


Visiting the site with Internet Explorer or other browsers may not provide the best viewing experience.

Close Window