How I Discovered Jay Leno and David Letterman
Recollections from Jimmie Walker’s writers’ room.
Leno, his idol, rarely submitted any jokes. He would riff on the fly or comment about someone else’s joke. He and Mitch were like jazz musicians, playing off the other instruments. Leno was the absolute best punch-up comic. Many times a joke would be close but not quite there.
Something would be missing or needed to be tweaked for it to work. Jay was a master at that. He could save a joke like no one else.
A joke might experience so many changes in meetings or afterward that in the end you could not decipher the original source. All I know about the following joke was that it came out of a March 3, 1976, session with me, Wayne Kline, Jay, Byron Allen, and Dave:
You all into that astrology stuff? Some girls really believe that their lives are controlled by the planets. This fat girl told me the reason she ate so much was because her moon was in the house of Mercury. Looked more look it had been in the International House of Pancakes.
Maybe no one wanted to take credit for that one. But with such talent in that room, there were more hits than misses. Some of the uncredited jokes that earned check marks:
Kids always say they’re 7-and-a-half, 8-and-a-half—always fighting for those halves. As you get older, you stop fighting for those halves. Like you never hear adults say, “Yes, I’m 49-and-a-half.”
The government just did a study. Found out the reason the unemployment rate is so high is because there are so many people out of work.
Went to the doctor. Had to get an X-ray. Just before the technician took the X-ray, he ran behind the screen with me. Said he wanted to be in the picture too.
There’s a new course they have in school now called black studies. But I always wondered what would happen if I flunked. Would I fade?
An article in Cosmopolitan says that women can tell a man’s sexual prowess by the kind of plants he grows. I’m taking no chances; I have a redwood growing in my bedroom.
I was on the Johnny Carson show last week, and I mentioned in passing that I had never gone out with an airline stewardess or Playboy Bunny before, and I do not believe the response I got. I got like 200 letters from guys who said they’ve never been out with one either.
Many of my writers went on to write for successful sitcoms and talk shows. Jumping to the head of the class, however, was Letterman, who was given his morning show in 1980. Letterman thought his morning show was great, but after weeks of low ratings, the network blew that baby out. He was devastated. Sitting on my couch, he went on and on about how hard he had worked and how he didn’t know what he could do next.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “You’ll get another shot.” But the truth is that I thought he was done.
I felt the same thing about Steve Martin after I saw him open for singer Phoebe Snow at the Troubadour in LA around 1975. The crowd was filled with industry people—a tough audience. He wore a black suit, not a white one. He did his balloon-animal bit. He played the banjo. He died a comic’s lonely death.
I went backstage and told him, “Hey man, you have to let this stand-up thing go. You have a nice job writing for that Dick Van Dyke Show (which co-starred Andy Kaufman). The people in these audiences are the ones who might hire you for other writing gigs. If they keep seeing you do this act, they will never hire you again.”
Steve said he had some gigs coming up with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and then he was going to New York to guest host a late-night show called NBC’s Saturday Night. “Then I’ll take a look and see what I should do,” he said. On that late-night show (which was later renamed Saturday Night Live) he sang “King Tut,” was one of the “two wild and crazy guys” with Dan Aykroyd, and became a sensation. That’s right, people, I told Steve Martin to get off the stage!
I was wrong about him, and I am glad I was wrong about Letterman too.
Jimmie Walker was born in 1947 in New York City. He began performing during the golden age of stand-up comedy before reaching pop-culture immortality on the landmark sitcom Good Times. He continues to tour the country doing stand-up while living in Las Vegas. His website is DynomiteJJ.com.
Sal Manna co-authored the biography The King of Sting: The Amazing True Story of a Modern American Outlaw following a career writing for magazines such as Time, Playboy, and Los Angeles, and newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and Boston Herald. He lives in Northern California.