When you’re just starting out in stand-up comedy, it’s often ill-advised to take on too much. Many comedians choose a theme—gender, mental health, video games—or a character, and stick with that “brand” of comedy to maximize their marketability. Not today’s subject. He refuses to box himself into one brand of humor, or even one medium; he has a live stand-up show in Brooklyn each month, a Comedy Central half hour, and a podcast, all of which cover vastly different topics. But clearly, this unorthodox approach to comedy—try everything that interests you, and others will find you interesting—has paid off. In a sea of New York comedy, he has proven to be a refreshing voice of curiosity and interdisciplinary interests: an English major and writer, a host of a popular science podcast, an aspiring philosopher, all woven seamlessly into an intellectually stimulating stand-up set. Joe Zimmerman proves you don’t have to limit yourself to broaden your appeal, and that an interest in expanding your view of the world might just pay off in comedy dividends.
What motivated you to try stand up for the first time?
I went to Davidson College in North Carolina and participation grades were huge in class. I remember I couldn’t keep up with my British Romanticism reading, so that participation grade was 40 percent. What I found was, if I just chimed in something funny, everybody would think I was participating and reading. So it worked—I passed the class, and at one point, this guy in the class came up to me outside of class, who I didn’t even know, and said, “You’re the reason I show up to British Romanticism at 8:30 AM.” And I was so flattered that my little humor snippets had made somebody laugh that much. That was my first experience of feeling what it’s like to hear, “Oh man, you’re so funny.” I was kind of hooked on that feeling, so after college, I made the executive decision that I didn’t want an office job, and that I wanted to have a creative job. So I was like, “Well, I like making people laugh, so I’ll just go and do comedy.” I went to my first open mic in Charlotte, North Carolina at a coffee shop and I did five minutes, and nobody laughed. It was great.
Has your comedic style changed as you progressed through different locations, different levels of success?
I think early on I was speaking in a voice that in hindsight, was more affective and more what I thought would sound funny, based on the affect of my voice. Looking back, that was less funny. Now I think I am more myself on stage, and I have the tools now to be myself on stage.
Do you think that changed with staying in one place, New York, for a prolonged period of time? I know you toured the Southeast with the Beards of Comedy tour for a while.
New York City does help you find your voice, because when you tour on the road, you’re performing for audiences that are coming out to have a good time and have a laugh, and don’t necessarily listen to a lot of comedy. So you’re there as an entertainer. When you do comedy in New York, especially Brooklyn, there are more audiences that are there to connect with the real you, as opposed to just be entertained. In New York, you have more opportunities to feel like yourself, and feel like less of a performer, I guess.
I went to my first open mic in Charlotte, North Carolina at a coffee shop and I did five minutes, and nobody laughed. It was great.
Do you think that New York has put more pressure on you to succeed, because there is such a saturation of stand up comedy? Has it made you branch out of your comfort zone more?
There is more pressure, but it’s in a good way. You’re surrounded by other comedians who are working a lot harder than you realize when you’re not living here. Not living here, I didn’t realize how hard people were working. And then you come here and people are working so hard, and people are so funny, that you’re like, “I gotta work harder if I want to do this for real, now that I see what other people are doing.” I have branched out, but the motive for me branching out is simply because I enjoy doing other things. I do a science podcast with two science friends, so we kind of have a comedy-science podcast called Universe City, that’s been going great and I’ve been learning a lot. It’s kind of like Freakonomics, but funny—that’s my goal for it, at least. And it’s starting to become that, which is great. It’s also a way for people to keep in touch with me outside of stand up. I’d like to be a writer, so I’ve been writing humorous short stories, and I’ve started submitting to shows every now and then; Saturday Night Live or Colbert. Those are the three areas—podcasting, stand up, and writing.
Do you have a science background?
I do not, I was an English major in college. I just started getting more into science and reading more science news, and then a lot of my comedy started involving science premises. So I just found myself having interesting conversations with two of my comedian friends who have science backgrounds, and they would always explain things to me, and one day I pitched them this podcast, and it’s been great ever since.
Do you feel like your writing has a different style of humor than your stand up?
I think, definitely from doing stand up, there’s so much emphasis on word economy and getting to the interesting point quickly. I think it gives me a much better awareness when I’m writing short stories on which parts are funny and which parts are slow, just because I have so much experience in front of a live audience. It’s definitely forced me to be more concise with the short stories.
Did your love of writing come first, or did you find it after stand up?
I’ve always felt like a writer, but it’s only recently that I feel like I’m a capable writer.
Did you ever think about comedy as a career when you were younger, growing up in West Virginia?
Not at all a comedian growing up, I was quiet in class, I was a good student. If anything, I was more reserved in private. I never thought about doing comedy. I didn’t listen to comedy CDs. I watched Seinfeld religiously in high school and I watched The Simpsons before that. I recently remembered my first real delve into comedy—I got obsessed with The Far Side cartoons when I was 10 years old through maybe 13 years old. So that would be my first experience enjoying comedy, through those cartoons. But at no point was I like, “I wanna do this.” I just liked reading The Far Side.
Do you think The Far Side‘s sense of humor influenced your comedic style as a stand up now?
It definitely inspires my writing still, as well as my overall sense of humor. I still tend to prefer the more abstract, fictional humor as opposed to the autobiographical, vulnerable humor.
Do you feel like you’re playing a character in your stand up?
No, I would say I’m very much myself on stage.
Your humor tends to be pretty cheery and positive, which is not the norm in stand up. Where did that come from?
Number one, I don’t like complainers and whiners, so I don’t want to be one. Number two, I don’t have an angry or aggressive personality, so it wouldn’t make sense for me to be that on stage. I guess, if I have a type, it’s more the absentminded silly type. If you’re silly-funny, you’re not aggressive-funny.
What does your family think of your comedy? Do they come to your shows?
Yeah, I wouldn’t say they’re upset that I’m a comedian, but I wouldn’t say that they’re thrilled that I’m a comedian. They’re both funny, but they’re not the type of people who would go to a comedy club. My dad loves Woody Allen movies though. I thought comedy was a complete break from what my dad does, because I’m a lot like my dad, and I thought comedy was very different. But after doing comedy for about six months, he was like, “Y’know, this reminds me of the time right after college when I had a comedy TV show on a Michigan public access channel.” He had a comedy news show with his friend, and I had no idea that he had ever done that. I definitely grew up with a family that was very funny; when we’d get together at Christmas, people would be laughing so hard that tears were coming out of their eyes like some cartoon.
How has doing comedy affected your mental health?
The thing I’m most interested in with stand up isn’t necessarily silliness or complaining. I’m interested in trying to hit the more meaningful topics, kind of like, if you could make a philosopher hilarious, that would be my favorite comedian to see. So I wanted to try to create a show where comedians could talk about meaningful stuff and try to make it funny. That’s my hope for Deep-er-ness, and for my development as a comedian. As far as my mental health… I heard some dark musician being interviewed on NPR, and Terry Gross was asking her if she had a really sad life. And she was like, “No, I’m very unhappy, but I get that all out in my lyrics, and then I’m able to be happy the rest of the time.” So I would say that’s how I am with my comedy—I get out a lot of my comedy and a lot of my anxieties on stage, and then I’m able to just be a normal human being, for the most part, for the rest of the day.