by Ryan Meehan
In 2013 comedian Joe Zimmerman made his television debut on John Oliver’s New York Stand Up Show on Comedy Central, and since has appeared on Conan, The Late Late Show, Season 8 of NBC’s Last Comic Standing, Nickelodeon, and recorded a Comedy Central Half Hour Special. He was also chosen as one of the New Faces at Just For Laughs Montreal, where he was positively reviewed by The Spit Take and Time Out NY. In 2014, he recorded his debut album Smiling at Wolves which reached #2 on iTunes, and Buzzfeednamed him a “comedian you should be paying attention to,” saying “The combination of Joe’s calming vocalization and inventive writing is a thing of magic.” Praised for an accessible style pairing absurdism with observational and autobiographical material, Joe is an original member of the Beards of Comedy, which toured from 2008 to 2012 and released two albums – 2011’s Cardio Mix and 2009’s Comedy for People. Based out of New York City, Joe is currently touring the country with his new hour. He hosts a popular science podcast called Universe City which comes out every Tuesday, as well as a monthly show at Union Hall in Brooklyn called “Deeperness”. We are delighted to have Joe Zimmerman as our guest today in 7 questions.
RM: What exactly makes you an ambassador of joy? Is it more than just the scarf?
JZ: Three years ago I was starting to feel more and more like I was being selfish for doing stand up. It’s just a lot of me talking about myself and expecting / requiring other people to put aside everything and listen to me talk about myself. I think Mitch Hedberg mentions that feeling in a joke on one of his albums. So I was talking to a good friend (a very positive friend) about how it felt very “Me, me, me” and she said she felt the opposite, how it seemed like I was a guy going around making other people happy, how I was an ambassador of joy, and a curator of laughs, and other terms like that. The “Ambassador of Joy” phrase really stuck with me as being a funny and positive way to look at traveling around and being a comedian. Right around that same time I was having my new website designed, so I just posted that on my home page – “Joe Zimmerman: Ambassador of Joy.” You gotta go with a new log line / mission statement every few years. Back in the MySpace days it was “putting the Merman in Zimmerman,” and I think my (inactive) Google plus profile says “Joe Zimmerman – Fearless Lover,” which is a reference to an old poem I wrote. My previous website said “Joe Zimmerman: Comedian, writer, icon.” They’re all just silly… you know, and joyful, because as an ambassador of joy that’s what I do, I spread it.
RM: You were a finalist at both Laughing Skull and Laughing Devil…Did you make some sort of a deal with Satan that will eventually make you the Robert Johnson of comedy?
JZ: Well, if I recall correctly those festivals were both in 2013, and I finished 3rd in one and 4th in another, or actually I think I finished 3rd in one and 5th or 6th in the other. So, all that’s to say, the devil didn’t exactly deliver for me. It’s a pretty big let down when you know you have to spend a fiery eternity in hell for a 3rd place finish and $225 (a break even on the week after travel costs).
RM: Where do you find that the worlds of science and comedy meet? Other than those scientific discussions, what sets your podcast aside from all of the others in the industry?
JZ: I actually do believe the podcast (Universe City) is different than other podcasts, because time and time again I’ve had people say, “No one else is doing that.” It’s a podcast where myself and two other comedians (who both have Ph.D’s in science) read a specific scientific study and then we discuss it briefly. From there we branch out into tangents about how it might relate to our own lives, or its broader implications. We’ve also started doing bonus episodes where we do science movie reviews (i.e. we discuss the science the movie got right and the science it got wrong). X-men is a good example, because the way mutations actually work in the real world, for every cool mutant there would be 10,000 crappy mutants with an ear between their eyes. Right now we’re going back through all the Star Wars to lead up to the new episode 7 release in December. Science and comedy intersect in many of the same ways that politics and comedy do…It’s just that no one is doing a Daily Show for science, because science isn’t quite as prevalent in the main stream news as politics is. But I really want to create a Daily Show for science, and I’ve been trying to pitch it. I actually got to do Conan a few months ago, and one of my jokes was inspired directly from a study we read about how crows recognize human faces and hold permanent grudges. I think you could spend a whole hour of television talking about all of the hilarious things that crows do. They survive and thrive entirely off humans, and so they’ve gotten to know us really well. Any time a study comes back to humans and our own lives, it’s even easier to find the comedy.
RM: Do you think that being funny is something that you have to be born with, or something that can be taught? Have you ever taken any sort of instructional classes that have allowed you to perfect your craft?
JZ: I think it’s similar to a sport in that regard. Michael Jordan was known for his work ethic. He got to the gym at 5 a.m. and outworked everyone to become the best ever. He wasn’t born with it, because he famously didn’t make the varsity team his sophomore year in high school, and he famously didn’t go 1st in the NBA draft. So it would be wrong to say, “Oh he’s just naturally gifted and blessed and that’s why he was the best ever.” But then again, you also can’t say it was ONLY hard work, because he was six feet six inches tall (which is probably in the tallest 0.1% or 0.01% of male height). So it’s both, but I would say the work and willing to learn and grow is certainly more important that what you’re born with. I will say, it’s confusing with comedy though, because there’s nothing funny about working hard. Sometimes in order to be funnier you have to take a vacation or be super lazy for a month or (in the case of many) get so drunk that you have a great story about it. It’s not like you can just go the gym every morning and get funnier. If anything, you’d probably have to avoid the gym, get chubby and depressed and then make fun of your Chipotle belly and how sad you are, and for all I know, even that would back fire — it’s certainly not a straight line from no laughs to laughs.
RM: Which stage in NYC would you consider to be your home club? What is it about that venue that makes for such a great comedic atmosphere?
JZ: I find that I get asked about my home club in NYC quite a lot, and so I’ve had a chance to think about it, and I really don’t think it’s a thing that exists for most comics here. For me, the whole point of NYC is that there are so many venues and places to go up, that you get to do them all and you get better and stronger because of doing such a wide variety. As a comic here you can go up thirty nights in a row, and do thirty different venues, and I think that’s the most optimal scenario for a comedian. That being said, I have my own show called “Deeperness” the 4th Tuesday of every month at Union Hall in Brooklyn, which I get very excited about. I feel very comfortable in that basement room and it’s a fun place to experiment and take risks.
RM: What was it like to work with a guy like John Oliver who had tremendous success on The Daily Show and then developed a following of his own much in the way that Stephen Colbert has done? What was the most important thing that you learned watching him; and could you ever see yourself at the center of a program like that?
JZ: Oh, nice segue…Yeah I would like to eventually pitch “Deeperness” as a 30 minute stand up show on TV that I would host. So I don’t know if it will happen, but I can at least picture it. John Oliver couldn’t have been nicer or more impressive. I watched him do three different host sets in the same night at Webster Hall, that went onto three separate episodes of his show on Comedy Central. He did nine different sets in three nights that week (I think Mon/Tue/Wed) while simultaneously taping Letterman earlier in the day. To do that many different sets for TV and do them all well in a span of three days (while also being the primary correspondent on the Daily Show)…Well, there’s an extremely short list of comedians capable of that. In addition, I also got to see how he riffed and improvised with the live audience, which was also very impressive. Seeing him do all of that live and in person made me realize just how exceptional he is, so it isn’t surprising that his HBO show has completely taken off.
RM: Which aspect of the writing process do you appreciate more: Brainstorming joke premises; or fine-tuning ideas until they become finished bits that you can use on stage? Is that the same answer that you would have given if we were doing this interview at the beginning of your career?
JZ: I have always enjoyed the brainstorming process and the creation the most. You’re in a fun playful zone, making things up out of nothing (probably while drinking coffee). The editing and fine tuning and polishing, ugh, that’s the work part.
RM: What’s the story behind the title “Smiling at Wolves”? How has that album been received by the comedy community; and how long did it take you to compile the material fof that record?
JZ: The title is just based off a joke I do on the CD (about wolves) and I feel like it also suits my personality. One time I was in Atlanta and I happened on an empty street at night, where this menacing looking guy approached me, with a menacing look and murdering gait, and instead of getting into a defensive or offensive position, I smiled real big and dumb and said, “Hey man! How are you??!” And he kind of seemed temporarily stunned, and in that moment I just walked past him. It’s also in line with being a comedian, you make light of dark things — you smile at the wolves, and that makes the wolves go from seeming like vicious blood-thirsty people killers to fluffy arctic dog bears.
RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2015? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
JZ: I’m back out on the road a lot working on my new hour. There are some shows coming up that I’m really excited about, and they’re all listed on my website. I’d like to complete the hour and tape it in December at Union Hall and see if it’s strong enough to then go and film a one hour special. Otherwise, my Universe City podcast comes out every Tuesday, and I have my Deeperness show the 4th Tuesday of every month at 8 pm.
Official Website: http://www.zimmermancomedy.com/
Joe on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/zimmermancomedy
Joe on Twitter: https://twitter.com/joezimmerman
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