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.

We did not take a poll or a vote on each joke, but there would be a general reaction. If it was positive and I liked it too, I told Mister Geno to write down the joke in his notebook. If there was a lot of grunting and “That sucks!” or I said “No way,” the joke was tossed and we moved on. But any critic had to be a little careful—his joke might be next on the firing line. Later, Mister Geno typed up a rundown of the finalists, and at the beginning of the next meeting, he passed those sheets around. Often it would be Leno who would say, “Know what might make that work?” and offer a fix on jokes that needed improvement.

That room was like the Roman Colosseum of comedy, except everyone sat on leather couches and the only blood was from egos being stabbed. The writers were incredibly competitive. Their self-esteem was on the line, and so too was money. Although I paid many of them on a weekly basis, others would get paid only if I bought a joke, usually for $25. They could be vicious with each other, much like when we hung out at the Camelot in New York or, now in LA, at the Jewish restaurant Canter’s or Theodore’s coffeehouse.

You had to have a thick skin to absorb all the hits. It also helped to be vocal and forceful to push your jokes ahead, to fight for them to get noticed and appreciated. But slugging it out like that was not part of Letterman’s self-effacing personality.

I first saw him at the Store not long after he drove out from Indianapolis in 1975 in his red truck and sporting a bushy, reddish beard. I thought he had some good quirky ideas but also felt that he probably was not going to be a tremendous stand-up. He was too uncomfortable on stage in the stand-up format. Maybe, I thought, he could be a host of a talk show or game show. George Miller, who roomed with Dave and was another comic I had become friends with, vouched for him, saying, “I think this guy is funny.” When I asked Dave to join our writers’ meetings, he was very happy. Our sessions were becoming legendary, and he admired many of those in the room—none more than Leno. He was thrilled just to be around those guys.

His wife, Michelle, came with him to LA, but she eventually returned home. When he told me they had split, I said he should get a divorce rather than leave the relationship unresolved. “You never know what could happen,” I warned him as he sat in my townhouse. He looked at me innocently and asked, “What could happen?”

I had my lawyer, Jerry, explain to him what he could lose if suddenly he hit in Hollywood. Jerry then helped Dave get his own lawyer, and the resulting divorce was without hostility.

I put him on salary at $150 a week even though he thought he was ill-equipped to write for a black comic. He has been quoted as saying, “[Jimmie] wanted me to write jokes with a black point of view. He was the first black person I had ever seen.” That was an exaggeration. In truth he didn’t have any problem coming up with “black jokes,” as shown by these he brought to our meetings:

Birth control is one of the big problems in the ghetto. When I was a kid going out with girls, they would always say, “If you try to make love to me, are you going to use contraception?” I was never sure what that meant, so I’d say, “Hell, I’ll use hypnotism if I have to.” (Dec. 14, 1975)

You see where police broke up a homosexual slave ring? We had homosexuals back in the old plantation days too. You could always spot the gay slaves. They were the ones picking daisies. (March 19, 1976)

I used to be real interested in camping. I’d find out when y’all were away on a camping trip, then I’d come over and do a little shopping. (April 12, 1976)

Among his nonethnic submissions was a doctor joke you could almost hear Rodney Dangerfield do:

You have to wait forever to see a doctor. Had the 48-hour virus. Went to see my doctor. It cleared up in the waiting room. (Feb. 8, 1976)

Unusual for Letterman would be a sex joke, such as this one:

The University of Washington conducted a study that proved girls with big chests get more rides when hitchhiking than flat-chested girls. Used to be all you needed was a thumb. Now you’ve got to have two handfuls. (Feb. 8, 1976)

Occasionally he offered a joke that embodied that sharp, wise-ass attitude of his, a joke that would probably kill on his show today:

I love professional golf. Only game in the world where a guy gets applause for his putts. (Feb. 8, 1976)

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.