In some respects, Jimmie “J.J.” Walker could be considered an iconic entertainer. After all, he was an object of obvious affection to those who came of age while watching the popular CBS comedy series “Good Times” during its successful run from 1974 to 1979. It earned him a pair of Golden Globe nominations and established his catch-phrase “Dyn-O-Mite!” as a part of the cultural vernacular, where it still lingers today.
A string of subsequent television appearances, stints as a deejay, various movie roles, a Grammy nominated-comedy album, and a best-selling autobiography further fortified his indelible presence, but these days it’s his hawking for a Medicare insurance plan — which naturally incorporates his famous byword — that’s reestablished his presence with those of his generation.
Nevertheless, the role Walker relishes most is that of a stand-up comedian, an ongoing pursuit that will bring him to the Bird & The Book in Maryville for two shows, Friday, March 25, and Saturday March 26.
Walker, who, in an interview with CNN, described himself as a “realist independent,” comes across as a pragmatist who doesn’t necessarily align himself with any one point of view, political or otherwise. Yet he quickly concedes that with the divide and dissent that’s so prevalent these days, making people laugh isn’t necessarily as easy as it once was.
“Political correctness has made it a challenge,” he said when asked about the obstacles entertainers often need to overcome. “That’s the problem. It just depends on who you are. I think this society has become very factionalized, where people have their group and everybody has their people. The universality of comedy is gone. You find your own little niche, whoever it may be.”
He cites certain comedians that seem have specific followings — Jerry Seinfeld, Katt Williams, Jay Leno, Larry the Cable Guy, Gabriel Iglesias and Jeff Foxworthy, among them — while suggesting that it’s culture and ethnicity that appeals to audiences nowadays.
“There’s comedy for different segments of the population,” he said. “Hispanic comedy for Hispanics, Black comedy for Black people, gay comedy for gay people, Filipino comedy for Filipinos. And the list goes on and on.”
While some might remember Walker for the goofy characters he portrayed early on, it appears as if he’s attempting to shed that persona, at least when it comes to his own personal perspective. It’s also apparent that he veers towards the middle of the road, often despite the expectations of others.
“There aren’t many people like me who are universal and want to be universal,” he said. “People have their people. Everyone has their crowd. I’m in the third or fourth strata of comics. Those guys I mentioned are at the top. They can do whatever they want.”
That attitude, he said, factors into today’s divide.
“Both sides have their own sensibility, where they feel their side is right, and the other side isn’t worth listening to,” Walker said. “Look at Al Gore. He lost in 2000. And when he lost, of course he wasn’t happy about it. But everybody said, ‘Okay, now we’ve got to get back to our regular lives, we’ve got to make that crossover. I don’t think we’re capable of doing that now.”
Walker mentions popular podcaster Joe Rogan as an example of someone who attempts to give equal time to people with opposing political persuasions.
“Joe brings both sides on his radio show, but people are upset with certain people he gets on,” he said. “That seems wrong to me. Both sides should be listened to, and then you can make your choices. Today people tend to think that the other side is completely ignorant, nonsensical, and we hate them. I’m not that way.”
Neither does he think of himself as any sort of groundbreaker, despite the fact that “Good Times” was television’s first African American, two-parent family sitcom. He defers to Dick Gregory, Flip Wilson and, yes, Bill Cosby, as comedians that broke the color barrier and found a mainstream audience. As far as his own show is concerned, he gives credit to executive producer Norman Lear for bringing it to fruition.
“Norman pushes those kind of envelopes,” Walker said. “That’s his deal. Even at the age of 99, nearly 100, he’s still out there. He goes to the office every day. He writes. He’s in there. He’s still doing it.”
Asked if he tends to look back his own career and marvel at his own accomplishments, he demure once again
“Not ever,” he said emphatically. “I’m just a road guy.”