Meet Me In New York: Joe Zimmerman

(Photo of Joe Zimmerman by Mindy Tucker)

What do they say about New York City: There are eight million stories, and sometimes it seems as though eight million of the people telling them think they’re comedians? No, that’s not it. It is a fact, though, that America’s biggest city is also its biggest comedy mecca. Hollywood may be Hollywood, but New York City is where comedians are born funny, become funny or arrive to thrust their funny upon us. I think we should meet some of these people. This is a recurring feature, a mini-profile of newcomers, up-and-comers and overcomers of New York’s vibrant comedy scene. It’s called Meet Me In New York.

Joe Zimmerman moved to New York City as one of the Beards of Comedy. Zimmerman still has a beard today as I speak to him in our neighborhood of Astoria at an independent café, mind you, but he has enough material of his own to not have to share the spotlight on a single CD. His own CD, Smiling at Wolves, was one of my favorite stand-up CDs of 2014, and hit as high as #2 on iTunes when it came out last year.

A New Face in Montreal in 2013, Zimmerman also has appeared on NBC’s Last Comic Standing, Conan, Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show and had his own Half-Hour on Comedy Central. Zimmerman’s podcast, Universe City, drops new episodes weekly on Tuesdays — while his monthly live show, Deep-er-ness, goes deep into deep topics with comedians tonight at Union Hall in Park Slope, Brooklyn. You also can see him headlining comedy clubs across America, or opening in theaters for Brian Regan.

I spoke with Joe Zimmerman on Sunday afternoon at Astoria Coffee. Patreon subscribers to The Comic’s Comic Presents Last Things First can listen to our conversation now.

Name: Joe Zimmerman
Arrival Date: August 2011
Arrived From: Asheville, N.C.

When and where was the first time you performed comedy? “I started comedy in Charlotte, North Carolina…2005. I remember it was a coffee shop called SK Netcafe. It was an Internet coffee shop that was smaller than this, probably had about 20 people. And I remember there were about 14 other open mikers in the audience and I remember nobody laughed at anything I said, and it was very uncomfortable the whole show. It felt great to get it over with! I felt like, ohhhh. Because the first time, before you’re onstage, you don’t really, you can’t really grasp what it’s like to be onstage and what’s not funny and what is, from the stage. So once you do it one time, you’re like, ‘Ohhh!’ I get — I almost get why this is hard. I have a much better understanding of why this is hard, because the same thing that people laugh at in a one-on-one, they’re not laughing at when you’re holding a microphone. So it was great to see from that perspective. It’s always a little annoying as a comic when you hear people that have never done comedy that want to do comedy, and they’re talking to you about comedy like they understand. But you’re like, you just go do it, and then we’ll talk. And then we can have a conversation about it.”

What was your best credit before moving here?

“Definitely no television. But I had toured. I had formed the tour group, the Beards of Comedy. We actually recorded two albums. Our first was with Rooftop Comedy in 2008, and then in 2010, we recorded an album with Comedy Central Records. So I would say my, it’s not a credit, but I would say ‘has recorded a record with Comedy Central Records’ was a decent thing to say.”

So that’s what you had them say to introduce you onstage? “No, that’s how I introduced one-on-one. Hi, I’m Joe, and I’ve had a record with Comedy Central Records with the Beards of Comedy. Onstage, I don’t remember. Yeah, he tours with Beards of Comedy, he had an album with Comedy Central Records, yeah, I think that was my credit.”

Why did you pick New York over Los Angeles or anywhere else?

“After five years of toiling in North Carolina, I learned — I figured out you have to be in New York or L.A. to have any opportunity, to have the opportunities in comedy. You just don’t get the opportunities elsewhere. So I knew I had to be in New York or L.A., and L.A. just doesn’t sound appealing to me. New York seems fun to me. It seems there’s so much, so many exciting things going on and so many funny comedians and cool shows and L.A. you go, and you occasionally do a cool show, but it’s so much of not running into anybody. It just seems like it’s a lot of isolation in L.A. That’s what I’ve heard about it, and that’s what I’ve experienced when I’ve gone out there, is your house is, you have a bigger place to live, and the weather’s nice, but there’s not as many shows to do, and a lot of people get lost in L.A. They go out there and there’s not as many spots to do, so maybe they, I don’t know. I’ve heard that. They get lost out there.”

How long did it take you to get your first paid gig in NYC after moving here?

“I was doing the road full-time when I moved here. So I moved here with comedy as my job. As far as getting paid in New York, I think I immediately was getting spots at The Laughing Devil, which is a tiny club.” Which is now The Standing Room. “Which is not just a tiny club, it’s literally the smallest comedy club in the world, according to some estimates. But as soon as I moved here, I had finished, I had done well in the Laughing Skull Festival, so the person booking that club knew me and was immediately getting spots at that club. So I moved here already knowing a lot of people from visiting and doing festivals. I don’t remember getting paid and being, ‘Sweet! I finally got paid in New York!'”

“I think it has taken me a while. It just happened to me at that one tiny random club. The whole first year in hindsight was very hard, because you can’t get much stage time. You do the good shows once, and then you can’t do them for a while.”

How is the comedy scene better/worse/different from where you lived before?

“Well, I mean it was night and day. Because the scene I moved from, you do an open mike and the crowd is amazing. There’s always amazing crowds. Wherever you go, the crowd’s always supportive, especially Asheville, North Carolina. And you do an open mike on a Wednesday night and it’s just packed — 80 people, there to see comedy. But on the flip side, there were no other comedians living there that I can think of who were pursuing it professionally. So I didn’t have anybody. You move to New York, all of a sudden you have 100, 1,000 comedians who are pursuing it professionally, and the work ethic is night and day. I was laughing with a friend who’s an editor who moved here from Asheville, and we both visited Asheville recently, we were both laughing about how happy everybody is there, but we’re just like, ‘Boy, you guys are lazy. Sure, you’re happy.’ Asheville people are happy, they’re relaxing, they’re laughing.” They’re laughing their Ashe off. “You come to New York and you’re like, ‘Whoa!’ People are working so hard, like crazy!’ Well in New York there are a fair number of comics who are obsessively working at it, and I just hadn’t seen that before. So the amount of work that people put into it here is motivating and inspiring.”

What’s an “only in New York” experience mean to you? Do you have one?

“Within the last month, this definitely would only happen in New York. There’s no other place this would happen. I’m walking up this street to come to this coffee shop, and this Tibetan monk — full wardrobe Tibetan monk — hands me his business card. And I take it, because that’s not, I’m not going to turn away some guy’s card. But the agreement is, the social contract is, you take a thing and you keep walking. This Tibetan monk didn’t play by those rules. He embraced my arm as he handed it to me. He embraced my arm, wrapping a bracelet around my arm, before I could say anything. Which sounds fine. Then he wrapped a second bracelet around my arm, and he’s speaking Tibetan, so I can’t understand what he’s saying. I mean, he’s a Tibetan monk. He hands me this notepad and it says, Name, Signature, Peace (yes or no). And I think some sort of peace agreement. That sounds nice. And I’m like, yes, sounds great. We’re all doing good things here today. And then next to that, it said donation amount. I’m like, there it is, here’s the racket. Above it, above my name, was 10 names in a row that had donated exactly $20 — like I’m supposed to believe that. So this had all happened in a period of 15 seconds, 30 seconds. So I said I don’t have any money, if we’re doing that, I’m sorry. I just left my house! And you’re getting hit up for $20. He keeps speaking to me in Tibetan. I said no cash. He said no money, no peace! And he ripped off my bracelets and walked off angrily. So. Only in New York does a Tibetan monk make me feel horrible. Not only make me feel horrible but he monetized peace. You’d think peace would be free?! He was angry that a person walking down the sidewalk wouldn’t hand over $20.”

“And then the day before that I was jogging down the sidewalk and this lady goes, ‘Idiot Alert!’ right in my face. I’m jogging. I turn around to try to figure out what I did that was so idiotic. Why did she Idiot Alert me? Still no idea. No idea why I was an Idiot Alert. Probably because I was an idiot. I wish I knew. I didn’t know if I wasn’t supposed to jog on sidewalks? I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Might have been in cahoots with the Tibetan monk? “She might have known.”

What tip would you give any comedian who moves here?

“Comedians have asked me this, and I always ask them: What do you want from comedy? Because it’s so different. If you want to be a writer, that’s such a different path than if you want to tour the road as a headliner. So different! Some comedians will be like, oh, I want to write for — ultimately my goal would be to write for a late-night show. Well, I’m like, that’s very different than if you want to be a road comedian. So it’s depends on what you want. If you want to be a comedian comedian, burning down the road, my advice for New York would be to put together your golden, tightest five-minute set. Shave down all your longest jokes. Get them really short. Put together your best five-minute set. Tape it a bunch of times. Get a great tape. And use that tape to send to any New York bookings, agents and hot shows, because people in New York will watch your tape. And if they like your tape, they’ll put you on their show. I got most of my bookings early on from sending a clip to bookers. You send that to festivals, it gets you into festivals. And ultimately a good five-minute video you need to get a late-night TV set. And a late-night set enables you to get road work. So I found so much comes down to a great five-minute tape.”

Where do you see yourself in five years? What do you want from comedy by 2020? Not hindsight but foresight?

“It’s funny. I was going to sit down tonight and go over my new goals. I just finished writing 10 humorous pieces — short stories — so my brain has been on fiction for the past month. Tomorrow my brain might be in a very different place. But what I always come back to, even for a tangent off a month when I focused on fiction, I always come back to, the holy grail of comedy is to put out a great hour, just a really a great hour special or a CD. It’s always fun to write a new hour and keep writing new material. So the holy grail would be to put out an hour that people like, and then you get to start on another hour. There’s something romantic about writing, putting together a new hour. But the holy grail of stand-up is to sell tickets. That’s what comedy is: Sell tickets. Three syllables. Like a catchphrase. Because that means people are coming to see you and you can be more creatively free to be yourself. Right now I do the road as a headliner, but it’s mostly crowds coming out to see a guy, or because they know this club is good and they know it’ll be good. But if they know they’re coming to see you, you’re no longer babysitting drunk audiences. Now you’re having a fun time with fans. That’s the Holy Grail. Five years? Yeah, I guess five years that’d be the ultimate goal five years from now, to go to cities and have people come out to see me because they’ve seen my hour and they liked it. That’s stand-up only. As far as other, I also like writing a lot. I love the idea of being able to write humorous books. And I love doing this science-y podcast. I’d love to get more listeners for that. And with television, comedians always want a TV show. I’m doing this Deep-er-ness show monthly at Union Hall where comedians come and talk about deeper topics. They sit down for a deep talk afterwards. Ultimately, I wrote that as a TV pitch, so, and then I was like, I should actually do this as a live show to see if it works. It’s been going great. So someday I’d love to be able to that, whether as a webseries or a TV series. So I have a lot of things. Advice I’d give would be to focus on one or two things, so I’m not following my own advice.”

Well, there’s always tomorrow.

“Always tomorrow to dial that in.”

Here was Zimmerman’s late-night set back in 2013:

Zimmerman co-hosts the Universe City: podcast with Jono Zalay and Raj Sivaraman (two PhDs and one NCAA athlete) exploring a new topic in science each week. In Deep-er-ness, his live monthly show at Union Hall, his favorite comedians perform stand-up sets that explore the more meaningful topics (i.e. philosophy, psychology, religion, environment, economy, death, love, childhood, race, history, social commentary, current events, personal stories, etc), then go deeper into discussions with Zimmerman while sitting awkwardly close.

His 2014 stand-up CD, Smiling At Wolves, is available now:

Which NYC comedian would you like to see me style and profile next for Meet Me In New York? Send your nominations to: thecomicscomic AT gmail DOT com

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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