Nobody expects Jimmie "JJ" Walker to sell out a downtown theatre these days. But there's nothing funny about a talent that Time magazine once dubbed the comedian of the decade serving as the opening act in a suburban ballroom designed for wedding dinners, not stand-up comedy, and hawking t-shirts in the lobby at $25 a pop (signed glamour shots included!).
It's unclear why the breakout star of "Good Times" was up first Friday night at Courtyards of Andover, ahead of "Night Court" alum Marsha Warfield and Marc Price, best known as the nerd-next-door in "Family Ties."
Not that Walker's cohorts are lightweights. Warfield, who came out of retirement a year ago, was a former writer for Richard Pryor and has a natural, low-key charm on stage, especially when she breaks into her "nasty Grandma" dance. But the comic also admitted early in her set that she didn't really have an act, and she proved her point several times by forgetting points she was trying to make and recycling material.
Price, who has been organizing these "Legends of Comedy" shows across the country, was bursting with so much in energy and a willingness to please that he almost made up for the fact he's got 15 minutes of solid material spread out over 40 minutes that includes a uninspired bit in which he plays his ringtones for famous "friends" (Gary Johnson and Jill Stein were matched with The Who's "Who Are You?").
Walker was the most polished -- and least daring. He may be forever tied to a sitcom that dared to be set in a urban housing project, but his act is strictly PG-Vegas with a steady stream of "ladies and gentlemen" and easy, often dated targets. If Walker is genuinely still stunned by the development of drive-thru ATMs, then he's the only one.
But the 69-year-old veteran, who once employed David Letterman and Jay Leno as joke writers, also knows how to play to a suburban, older audience, especially one that's predominantly white and seemed to tense up whenever Donald Trump's name came up. Based solely on applause and groans, the crowd of roughly 250 people accurately reflected the country's division.
His references to "The Honeymooners" and "Where's the Beef?" commercials drew applause, as did his one recitation of "Dy-no-mite!" the catchphrase that helped keep "Good Times" on the air for five years -- and drove co-stars John Amos and Esther Rolle nuts.
The two-hour show wasn't helped by the venue. Courtyards of Andover, about a 40-minute drive from downtown Minneapolis, deserves credit for trying to bring live comedy out to the Twin Cities fringes, but if it wants to be taken seriously, it needs to invest in a better sound system, a proper dressing room and more respectful logistics (every time the bartender opened up the beer fridge in back, a light washed over part of the audience).
Walker probably didn't care. For him, this was another payday, another chance to earn pocket money, scribbling out his name on 40-year-old photos.
At the end of the show, Price tried to call up his fellow comics for a Q&A, but it didn't materialize. Nobody seemed to have told Warfield about the encore and Walker was busy working the merchandise table.
Sometimes, selling a few extra t-shirts is as close to good times as you can get.