Self-proclaimed "ambassador of joy" Joe Zimmerman is in a New York state of mind. The comedian is putting down serious roots in what he calls “the place to go if you want to be a standup comic.” And who can blame him? The city is treating him and his career quite well. After making his Comedy Central debut last year on John Oliver’s New York Stand Up Show, Zimmerman is now preparing for the release of his Comedy Central Half Hour special this Friday. I talked to him about his comedy roots, the NYC scene and how West Virgina is kind of like Ireland.
How long have you been in New York?
I’ve been in New York for almost exactly three years.
You originally started in North Carolina, is that correct?
It is. I started in Charlotte right after I graduated from Davidson College and I moved to Asheville, North Carolina, after about two years in Charlotte.
How did you find the comedy scene in Asheville to be while you were there?
When I first moved there, it was the year the Asheville Comedy Festival had just started. It was the second year, which was one of the things that drew me to Asheville – that festival and how creative and eclectic the people are there. It’s kind of like Austin, Texas, but smaller. A very artsy scene. But Charlotte is a little more of a bank town. There wasn’t even one open mic in Asheville, and then they started doing a biweekly Tomato Tuesdays where they would throw tomatoes at a gong if they didn’t like you. I did that once every two weeks, and it was a surprising contrast because Asheville’s such a friendly, supportive scene. I think that’s the one town where a tomato gong show would work.
After about three years there though, you could do shows any night of the week. The scene kind of exploded and it’s continuing to grow into such a creative community. It’s bizarre that there was no comedy there five years ago and now you could find it every night.
Do you go back often to perform?
I try to. It’s my favorite scene. I recorded my first album at one of my favorite venues there, the Lexington Avenue Brewery, which is a gastropub with a music listening room in the back. It’s really nice and it usually holds about 300 people. I just recorded Smiling at Wolves there in November. It was a couple shows, and I had a great crowd come out. I get back about once every six months. I usually do the Lexington Avenue Brewery.
What prompted your move to New York City?
Primarily the opportunities and the comedy. New York is known as the place to go if you want to be a standup comic. There’s a lot of great comedy here. It’s not known for having great crowds. There’s a lot of tough crowds, and a lot of great comics. It’s bizarre. You see some of the best comics in the world performing for crowds that are completely unimpressed. If you can learn to be good in New York, then you can go elsewhere – kind of like everything else is easy if you can do well in New York. The comics here are just at a higher level – in my opinion – than anywhere else, especially a small town. It just makes you better at comedy. If you don’t work hard in New York, New York kind of kicks you out.
Who are some of the comics that you would consider peers in New York who are pushing you to be a better comic by what they’re doing? Maybe they inspire you or they’re setting new benchmarks.
The comics that I look up to in New York are the comics that you could watch and you’re just like, "Wow. This is amazing." Guys like John Mulaney and Hannibal Buress are at the top of the new generation in New York. And then you can see the greats like Dave Attell and Louis C.K. around New York. And then you can see the newer generation of guys as well: Mike Lawrence, Michael Che, Mark Normand. Oh, I’ll tell you who I love watching of the newer generation: Jared Logan, who was just oddly enough also from my hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia. I love watching Jared Logan. He’s really unique and amazing. And I love watching Nick Vatterott.
Do you plan on staying put in New York for the foreseeable future or are you thinking there’s another city you would like to establish yourself in?
No, I want to be here for the long haul. I just love it here. I just found a permanent apartment in Astoria right by the park. Yeah, I kind of want to be based out of here forever if I can.
That’s great. That’s a real testament to the city because a lot of times in comedy, people are always looking for that next place to go, even if they’re in New York or LA, they’re always thinking where that next move is. So it’s kind of nice to hear somebody say that they’re very happy where they are and that you’re having enough success there to warrant sticking around.
Yeah. It seems like a lot of comics that do rise to the top of the scene here do move to LA for more television opportunities; I just like it more here. And I also see a lot of my favorites make a home here. Guys like Hannibal and Mulaney and Louie. Yeah, a lot of the greats make this their permanent home. I think LA is where people go if they feel like they need more opportunities, but I think there are all the opportunities you need in here New York City.
You grew up in West Virginia. Did that inform your sense of humor?
Yeah, 100 percent. In college, people always said I was like their funny friend. But I never knew that I was funny until I went to college because in Morgantown, West Virginia, I feel like it’s just a funny culture kind of like Ireland, where people just kind of make fun of themselves and are happy to have a drink. Pretty self-deprecating, fun culture. When I went back to Morgantown to hang out with my friends around the holidays, it just hit me more and more how funny my friends are from high school. It’s a very unique culture, and I do think it’s like some kind of version of Ireland. You meet Irish people and Irish people, 9 out of 10 times, make me laugh so hard. They’re just always cracking jokes and making fun of themselves and it’s something about the culture.
So, you had mentioned Smiling With Wolves that was released earlier this year. Are you happy with how the album has been received so far?
Yeah, I didn’t know what it would do. It was my first album ever, and then it reached Number 2 on iTunes in the first week, which kind of shocked me. And it’s continued to do well in iTunes. I get people tweeting at me that they just listened to my album or they just heard a joke on Sirius. It’s been really good exposure and it’s been exciting to sort of release that first album into the ether and simultaneously begin to start working from scratch on a new hour.
What did you learn from making your debut album that you will apply to future projects?
The things I learned – and I don’t know if it will be interesting to anybody other than other comics making albums – is that apparently, for one, CDs are dead. I learned that. All that matters is iTunes, Spotify, Pandora and Sirius now. So, it sort of hit me, physical CDs are not a thing anymore. People don’t even have CD players anymore, so its hard to take them to shows and sell them because half the crowd is like, "I don’t use a CD player." So everything is digital, and just from a comedy standpoint, I learned that apparently, the first week of sales sort of drives the identity of how the album does. And I didn’t really know that, so the first week I was doing a lot of PR and I wasn’t prepared for that. I was kind of prepared for a slow turtle-wins-the-race attitude. But you kind of just have to do every PR thing in the first three days of the album. So the next album, I’ll be more prepared to sort of hit it hard the day the album is released.
Are you much of a self-promoter? Do you feel comfortable marketing your product and your message whether its on social media or your website or interviews like this? Do you like doing that?
No, I don’t. I don’t like it, and I used to do it a lot. And then I started paying attention. I used to market myself because everybody said, “Oh, social media is important. You have to sell yourself. Marketing, sales, marketing, sales.” I started paying attention to my favorite comics. I remember a long time ago, I read an interview with Sean Patton…this is four or five years ago, he is completely off of Facebook and at the time, he was completely off of everything. I don’t think he even had a website. He said that he’s very anti-networking because good comedy networks itself. And I realized that’s true. If you’re a comedian, you’re out there in front of people every night and they see your comedy and decide whether or not they like you based on your comedy. So I just started pouring all my efforts into the creative process and have tried to get away from the business side of things. And as it turned out, I’ve seen a lot more personal success.
You spent four years touring with the group The Beards of Comedy. What were some highlights from that experience?
Yeah, The Beards are what kept me in the Southeast as long as I was. Because everybody says you have to be in New York or LA, but I started touring with The Beards, who were based out of Atlanta and Athens – I was in Asheville – and we were able to do indie, alt venues and perform for crowds that were a good fit for us. So we were able to get that good road experience early on. As opposed to just doing clubs to promote to the general public, we were able to promote to crowds that were a good fit for us early on and that was huge in the Southeast. The highlight was when we did a West Coast tour. We did 11 shows in 12 nights and obviously we’re not from the West Coast. It was our first big tour. It was our first time out on the West Coast.
One show, we had Kyle Kinane, one of my favorite comics, who did a guest spot at Meltdown Comics before it became a full-time comedy venue and then we drove through the night to get to a morning talk show and the next night, Brian Regan showed up. He had just performed at the hockey arena across town in Washington and he just came out and sat in our audience of 20 people and then he did a guest spot at the end of our show. It was amazing. Then he took us on his tour bus afterwards. So it was kind of a surreal experience to have just three years in comedy and to be hanging out with your favorite comedians, driving in a van for 13 days. We had a good journalist, Justin Heckert, along with us for the whole trip doing an article for Atlanta magazine. Just a really cool, unique experience and a lot of the guys – Dave [Stone] is doing really well now and Andy [Sandford] just put out an album – everybody is doing really well on their own now, so it’s cool to see.
So lets talk about the Comedy Central Half Hour. Where was that filmed?
It was filmed at the Royale Theater in Boston, Massachusetts.
So that wasn’t much of a hike for you, then.
It was not. I actually reached out to Kinane, again, one of my favorites, he was doing Helium in Philly through Sunday and I reached out to see if I could open for him for those four days right before my special. So I actually got to run my 30 minutes for six shows in a row in Philly, then I drove up to Boston and it was a really cool experience because I’ve opened a lot over the years for Tommy Johnagin and he ended up taping on the same night as me, so I got to hang out with him all week in Boston, which was cool because it just felt like I was doing a normal club week, eating at Panera Bread with Tommy.
Were there any surprises or spontaneous moments that happened during the filming that you couldn’t have prepared for?
There were a couple. I tried to prepare mentally for any surprise possible. One of them was I had a joke about – I start with, “Hey, I grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia,” and I had a whole section of people just cheer really loudly, which caught me off guard, because I’ve never said, “Hey, I’m from Morgantown, West Virginia,” and had a section of people cheer. It did throw me off and I remember commenting and then just being sort of surprised that I had a Morgantown, West Virginia contingent out there that I was unaware of. I remember taking a beat to get back into my material. That was one surprise. I also had a section of forty Davidson College alumni that were sort of cheering me, that was another pleasant surprise. As far as the comedy set itself, yeah I was prepared. I was mentally prepared for everything, but I was very happy that it went completely smoothly. Everything you’ll see was exactly how the live show would have been. There were no second takes or anything like that. It just went smoothly and it was very live and in the moment, and yeah, I couldn’t have been happier with it.
Do you have anything planned, a viewing party or any type of celebration, for the premiere of the special?
You know, I was hesitant to do a viewing party because I just feel awkward watching myself but I decided to. I decided I needed to celebrate, so I’m going to do a show at The Creek and the Cave, which is one of my favorite venues in New York. It’s not far from me. I’m going to do a show at The Creek and the Cave where I’m going to do my new 30 minutes. I’m going to have a show with friends at 10 o’clock where I’ll do my new 30 and then right after we’re going to go downstairs and watch the Half Hour on Comedy Central. So it’ll be the new 30, then it’ll be the old 30, so I can sort of celebrate the new with the old.
What does this Comedy Central special mean for you at this point in your career?
Oh, well it’s huge. As far as doing comedy, coming out with a half hour seems like the biggest, hardest to reach thing that sort of stamps you as a successful comedian. And now that I’m doing it, I’m like, Oh, it doesn’t stamp me as some all-time great but it’s just an amazing validation after years of doing bar shows in Kentucky and driving 20 hours to North Dakota. It’s an amazing validation for Comedy Central to give me the half-hour and to reach so many people doing the material that basically is my favorite material. It’s just a nice, I guess, it’s just a nice reward. It feels like a nice reward for the hard work, and it makes me feel like I’ve been doing the right thing.
Isaac Kozell is a writer and standup comic.