NORFOLK, Neb. — Jimmie “JJ” Walker knows Nebraska.
He can spout off members of the state's congressional delegation and questions whether Nebraskans will vote a Democrat in to succeed Sen. Ben Nelson in November. “Nebraska electing a Democrat is like a black man winning a swim meet,” he adds with a laugh.
He has seen Husker quarterback Taylor Martinez's throwing motion and doesn't like it. “He'll never make it to the pros throwing like that,” Walker says.
He knows the popularity of the Husker football program among Nebraskans, too. “You could be the bus driver for the Huskers and have a great radio show,” Walker said.
Mostly, however, he knows Johnny Carson.
Although he never had the chance to perform on “The Tonight Show” while Carson was host, the New York City actor and stand-up comedian talks with reverence about the late entertainer who grew up in Norfolk.
“The Carson influence is still there,” Walker said. “I still write material like I'm getting ready to do ‘The Tonight Show.' I'm thinking, ‘I hope Johnny likes it.' ”
That's why Walker says he is genuinely flattered and honored to be this year's recipient of the Johnny Carson Comedy Legend award, which will be presented to him during the Saturday performance of the Viaero Great American Comedy Festival at the Johnny Carson Theatre.
“I'm thoroughly moved. It means so much to me. This is the closest I'll be to being on stage with Johnny,” said Walker, who appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno several times.
Walker is proud to point out that his stand-up comedy material is clean — just like Carson would have preferred.
“Johnny Carson regulated comedy,” he said. Today, “the language of comedy is really dirty. It's a reflection of society, sad to say.”
The challenging thing for a comedian, Walker said, is that there's little or no middle ground in terms of audience reaction. “You either love him or hate him. Either he's funny to you or he's not,” Walker said. “It's not that way with music. With singers, people say, ‘Well, it's not my favorite style, but he still is a good singer.' ”
Walker shot to stardom playing “JJ” on the CBS sitcom “Good Times” in the late 1970s. Time magazine named him the comedian of the decade. Since then, he's appeared on numerous television shows and several movies and continues to perform stand-up comedy. At one point, he even did a show on an Omaha radio station.
That Nebraska connection is part of the reason why he's looking forward to his time in Norfolk later this week.
But the biggest reason is Johnny Carson.
“I say that with all sincerity,” he said. “It will be an honor to be there.”