When David Letterman Worked for Jimmie Walker
Writing jokes for Jimmie Walker was the first gig David Letterman had in show-biz. In Indiana he’d worked in local broadcasting before coming out to Hollywood in the mid-seventies and doing sets at the Comedy Store, where he was duly paid in experience, exposure, and ready access to the waitresses (all three of which he avidly availed himself of). The Comedy Store is where he met Walker, flush with Good Times money and ready to invest some of it in material for his standup.
A lot of eventually big names wrote jokes for Walker in those days, and Walker tells all about it in his terrific new memoir Dyn-o-Mite!: Good Times, Bad Times, Our Times. Besides Letterman, there was Jay Leno, Richard Jeni, Paul Mooney, Byron Allen, Jack Handey, Louie Anderson, Elaine Boosler, and others. They would meet up at Walker’s condo in Beverly Hills multiple times each week and pitch zingers at a rate of 25 bucks a pop, upon acceptance. Some of the better writers–and this category includes Letterman–would receive a flat fee of $150 a week. Often there’d be close to a couple-dozen people in the room. The atmosphere got competitive. “You had to have thick skin to absorb all the hits,” Walker writes. “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.”
When Walker first met Letterman in 1975, he wore a red beard and drove a red pickup truck. “I thought he had some good quirky ideas,” Walker writes, “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.” He got the gig writing for Walker based on a recommendation from their mutual friend George Miller.
Letterman later liked to joke that he was writing black-oriented material for the first black person he’d ever met. You have to wonder if that’s not the literal truth when you read Walker’s sampling from his files of jokes Letterman wrote for him in those days. Probably the worst of them (though by no means unrepresentative) is this one, which Walker has meticulously identified as coming from March 19, 1976: “You see where police broke up a homosexual slave ring? We had homosexuals back in the plantation days too. You could always spot the gay slaves. They were the ones picking daisies.”
It’s probably fortunate for all concerned that Letterman did not continue writing jokes from the black perspective. He and Walker did continue as friends, however, through those ensuing years when Letterman did in fact work on game shows and host some talk shows, none of which obtained for him secure purchase in the world of national broadcasting. Letterman also found representation with the talent agency Walker had founded, called Ebony Genius. When Letterman’s career started picking up some heat and he decided it was time to go with Rollins and Joffe, Walker agreed to let him go easy. But Walker had partners to answer to, and one of those, Helen Kushnick, who had never believed in Letterman before, was not so compliant. (She and Dave’s paths would very publicly cross again during the late-night wars of the early nineties, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.)
Letterman’s reputation for loyalty to old friends is not at all contradicted by his subsequent treatment of Walker. No matter how big Letterman and his late-night show became over the years to follow, there was always a spot, on stage and on panel, for Walker to come and play. On YouTube, I was able to find a clip of Walker on Letterman from as recently as 2009. Walker also tells the story of Letterman subsidizing a comedy tour Walker and some other old friends of Letterman’s recently did, when no promoter could scare up the funding by other means.
Letterman’s generosity is certainly justified. In addition to giving him steady work and humane management, Walker also gave Letterman some marital advice that’s saved him millions over the years. When Letterman and his first wife split up, Walker knew the potential consequences of not getting a divorce immediately, in the off chance that Letterman should make it big.
“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.
Not that Walker was convinced Letterman would make it, you understand. It would be so easy for him to write that into the narrative here, but, as in so many places throughout Dyn-o-Mite!, you appreciate Walker’s preternatural candor. When in the early eighties Letterman lost his NBC morning show, in which he’d invested so much hope and hard work, he was once again over at Walker’s place, sulking and depressed. This is what Walker told him then: “Don’t worry, you’ll get another chance.” This is what Walker tells us now: “But the truth is that I thought he was done.”
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