Jimmie Walker: How I Discovered Jay Leno and David Letterman

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July 12 2012 7:00 AM

How I Discovered Jay Leno and David Letterman

Recollections from Jimmie Walker’s writers’ room.

Actor Jimmie Walker attends the 8th Annual TV Land Awards at Sony Studios on April 17, 2010 in Culver City, California.
Jimmie Walker in 2010

Photograph by David Livingston/Getty Images.

The following article is adapted from Jimmie Walker’s Dyn-o-mite!, out now from Da Capo Press.

The bigwigs at the movie and TV studios were not aware of it, but there were many, many days while I was starring on Good Times when there was more comedy talent on the bottom floor of my three-story condo on Burton Way in Beverly Hills than anywhere else in Hollywood.

Sitting on the couch would be David Letterman next to Jay Leno next to Paul Mooney. Snacking on the food might be Robert Schimmel, Richard Jeni, Louie Anderson, and Elayne Boosler. Young Byron Allen would be trying to ignore the fact that his mother was in the kitchen waiting to drive him home. There were others whose names would never be recognizable to the public because they were not star performers, such as Wayne Kline, Marty Nadler, Jeff Stein, Jack Handey, Steve Oedekirk, and Larry Jacobson, but who would soon write for some of the most popular sitcoms and late-night talk shows in television history.

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All of them—all then unknowns—would gather at my home from one to five times a week because they were on my writing staff, commissioned to pen jokes for my stand-up act.

Success paid for them, but success also made them necessary. When no one knew who I was, much of my material came from observing everyday life. I could walk around in the general public and interact with people. But once I made a name for myself and was instantly recognizable, that was no longer possible. When you come into people’s living rooms every week and then they see you in person, they can’t believe you escaped from the TV! Instead of being able to listen in on conversations, I was the conversation. Instead of being the watcher, I was the watchee. I needed access to the eyes and ears of less visible comedians.

I knew Leno from our days in New York. He had moved to the West Coast and was establishing a beachhead at the Comedy Store. But no one was being paid there. He could pick up $150 a week working on jokes for me. He also told me about a friend of his, Gene Braunstein, a former classmate at Emerson College in Boston where their comedy team, Gene and Jay, played area coffeehouses. Leno asked if Gene could join our meetings, and I said yes. Braunstein, aka the Mighty Mister Geno, quickly became my comedy coordinator.

During the week, as soon as I left the Good Times set in the afternoon, I jumped into my car and headed for a Chinese take-out place, where I would grab some food and phone Mister Geno. I would tell him I was on my way and then call one or more girlfriends to pick up pizzas, sandwiches, and sodas for everyone.

The writers arrived around 5 or 6 o’clock. At times there would be nearly two dozen of them in the room. The better writers were invited nearly every weekday, the lesser ones just once a week. The goal was for each of them to bring in 20 jokes. One by one they would pitch me their best ones. Most of the time it was every joke for itself.

I had a guideline sheet I gave prospective writers:

AREAS TO AVOID:

ALL MATERIAL MUST BE AS NONETHNIC AS POSSIBLE

1. NO religious jokes

2. NO ethnic humor (especially NO black humor)

3. NO abortion, Kotex, dildo, vibrator, prophylactic, or dick jokes

4. NO Good Times jokes

5. NO ghetto humor

6. NO bathroom humor

Allan Stephan, who was one of the Outlaws of Comedy with of Sam Kinison, would pitch jokes that were too dirty or too rough. When he saw the guidelines, he said, “What jokes does this guy do?”

Along with telling writers what not to submit, the guideline sheet did list subjects I wanted jokes for: the economy, women’s rights, family, parents, kids, doctors, lawyers, mechanics, dating, marriage, divorce, school, television shows and commercials, smoking, driving a car, diets and exercise, the post office, white-collar crime, and more.

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