The Comedian Who Paid Fav Comics (When The Comedy Store Wouldn't)
For the future comedy stars of America -- Jay Leno, David Letterman, Louie Anderson, and more -- it wasn’t easy paying the rent in the 1970s. Getting stage time at L.A.’s famous Comedy Store was a huge step to appearing on The Tonight Show or some other big break -- but doing a set for a packed room of paying customers netted the comics exactly nothing (before taxes).
The story of how those comics started getting paid is one for another day. But one comedian made it possible for several young jokesters to afford to climb the ladder -- Jimmie J.J. Walker.
Though these days he’s doing TV commercials for Medicare supplements, he was the hottest name in comedy in the mid-1970s thanks to his starring role in the series Good Times. Walker parlayed that fame into even more stand-up success -- and to keep his act among the best in the biz, he employed several unknowns from the Comedy Store.
“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,” Walker bragged in his book, Dyn-o-mite! Good Times, Bad Times, Our Times - A Memoir.
“Sitting on the couch would be David Letterman next to Jay Leno next to Paul Mooney,” remembers Walker. “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.”
So remember how those comics got paid nothing for filling comedy clubs? Walker paid them $100 to $150 a week to come up with joke ideas -- plus an additional $25 per joke for the ones he used in his act. In the mid-1970s, that was rent and food instead of returning to the small towns they came from.
“Jimmie Walker was so kind to me,” says Letterman, fresh from Indiana without a lot of cash to his name. “Every Sunday, we would go over to Jimmie’s house and pitch him jokes.”
Letterman “thought he was ill-equipped to write for a black comic,” says Walker. “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.”
But Walker wasn’t looking for a black point-of-view -- he provided his writing room with a list of commandments designed to generate jokes with the broadest possible appeal:
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
“That room was like the Roman Colosseum of comedy, except everyone sat on leather couches and the only blood was from egos being stabbed,” says Walker. “The writers were incredibly competitive.” A lot was on the line -- a perceived spot in the up-and-comer pecking order, self-esteem, and actual cash in terms of the jokes Walker chose for his act.
One comic who didn’t come with material prepared was Leno. “He would riff on the fly or comment about someone else’s joke,” says Walker. “Leno was the absolute best punch-up comic. Many times a joke would be close but not quite there.”
There was at least one more way Walker supported his unknown friends. When the up-and-coming comics decided to go on strike to demand some form of compensation from the biggest comedy clubs (literally, they were asking for beer money), Walker agreed to support their efforts and not cross pickets lines for his lucrative gigs.
Without Walker’s financial support, several of those comics couldn’t have afforded to be there on the picket line in the first place. The guy was dyn-o-mite.
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