Brad Austin is a Brooklyn-based comedian and writer. Visit bradaustincomedy.com.
On a Friday in late March, I attended a taping of The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon. Joe
Zimmerman had invited myself and three other comics to see him perform on the show. We
were a tad miffed that he brought a couple other comics into the green room with him while we
were stuck in the audience like chumps, but we got over it. Joe’s set was so good that we forgot
we were there as Joe Zimmerman’s friends, and remembered we were Joe Zimmerman fans.
If this were 1991, Joe may have been greeted by overnight fame and development deals. Sadly,
the days when a television appearance could change a comic’s life are gone. For Joe, it was
back to his crappy day job as a professional touring comic and opener for Brian Regan at small,
seedy venues like Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado.
But The Tonight Show is The Tonight Show, and late night remains an essential stop in a
comedian’s journey. You’re still alone, on television, being seen by two million people; you still
have to bring your best five minutes, and you still should dress immaculately (Joe wore jeans
and a flannel). To me, it seemed like an experience worth asking about. I recently sat down with
Joe at Astoria Coffee to talk success, golf, and girls. But first, I hit him with the most important
question I could think of.
BRAD AUSTIN: How come Jono [Zalay] got to be backstage and me and Steve and Andy and
Raj got the high hat?
JOE ZIMMERMAN: Y’know, it’s a tough decision, picking who your best friends are. But
Chenoa, my manager, said, “Myself and Tovah are coming” – Tovah’s an agent – she said, “We’ll
be there, is there anyone else you’d like to bring?” and I said, How many people am I allowed to
bring, and she said I probably can’t have more than four people total in the greenroom. So I just
invited two more friends.
AUSTIN: So, Jono and who?
AUSTIN: Doogie Horner. Great guy. You guys were both featured heavily in Todd Barry’s book
which I just read.
ZIMMERMAN: Funny book, right?
AUSTIN: Yeah, you thought it was great ‘cause you were in it so much.
ZIMMERMAN: I was surprised by how funny it was because Todd is hilarious, but [while he was
writing it] he would ask me, like, “Hey, you remember what sandwich we ate?” and I was like…
Todd. How is this gonna be funny? And Doogie was experiencing the same thing. “Hey, do you
remember if we had chicken tacos or beef tacos?” And we were just like, there is no way this is
gonna be hilarious. We had a very boring trip. He made it hilarious.
AUSTIN: Do you do a lot of interviews?
ZIMMERMAN: When I go on the road. The radio guys, morning TV people.
AUSTIN: Are you one of the comics who’s like, “I hate radio?”
ZIMMERMAN: No, I get into job mode. Like, this is a job that I do to make a living. And now I’m
going to work. Because, if they say, “How’d you get into comedy?” I have to make it entertaining
for radio listeners. I can’t just say, “Well, I did some open mics and that’s that.”
AUSTIN: So what is your getting into comedy story? How’d you get into comedy? Let’s just
make this the most boring interview ever. No, but how do you make the story more interesting?
ZIMMERMAN: You just mix it up. You can make up stories. But this is true, I couldn’t keep up
with my reading load in college. I was an English major. And in British romanticism…
ZIMMERMAN: Forty percent of the grade was a participation grade, and I’d come in and hadn’t
read a single thing. Just not a word. And it was like two hundred pages of reading. Every class.
So, to participate, I would just start chiming in some humor here and there in the discussion,
and the class would laugh and the professor would like it and I got a A++ participation grade,
never read a word. And a friend… and I’m not a fratty guy, like you.
AUSTIN: I love frats.
ZIMMERMAN: But I was at a fraternity party, a “frat” party, toward the end of my year and this
bro-ey guy said, “Dude. Joe Zimmerman? You’re the reason I show up to British Romanticism.”
So that was the first juice I got as a comedian, like, “Man. This guy really likes me.”
AUSTIN: That was your first time being funny? You didn’t even have, like, “I’m the class clown
in third grade” and….
ZIMMERMAN: That was my first time where somebody said, “You’re funny,” that wasn’t just a
friend, it was a stranger.
AUSTIN: So you weren’t really cutting it up in high school.
ZIMMERMAN High school, I was just a hundred and ten percent golf. Couldn’t care about
AUSTIN: Golf? [laughs SUPER hard] You were on the golf team.
ZIMMERMAN: Yeah. Didn’t think about girls, didn’t think about anything, but golf.
AUSTIN: No girls in high school?
ZIMMERMAN: I mean, I had a relationship for two years. I just had a solid, set girlfriend and
that means I didn’t have to think about anything.
AUSTIN: Including her.
AUSTIN: But she was happy enough to stay with you for two years while you were playing golf.
ZIMMERMAN: I don’t remember it that well, but I remember just having a friend group, and the
friend group essentially split off into relationships. And I just remember it being a solid, steady
thing, and in hindsight I was totally neglecting her. And I’m sure she felt that, but that was her
first relationship too. So neither of us knew any better. But we got along great and then we went
off to two different colleges. So it’s not negative.
AUSTIN: Did you make her laugh? At least?
ZIMMERMAN: I think so. But I wasn’t – in high school, people weren’t saying, “Oh, you’re so
funny.” In college… I think in college I just got depressed about certain things. And that was
when I started making jokes, when I got depressed. Because it’s better than being sad all the
time, so you just make a joke about it. And that’s I think when people started being like, “Oh,
AUSTIN: What happened to golf?
ZIMMERMAN: I played college golf four years.
AUSTIN: That wasn’t making you happy.
ZIMMERMAN: I wanted to be a pro golfer, but I wasn’t good enough. I was ranked – you can go
look up your NCAA rankings. Sagarin Rankings. Are you familiar with Sagarin?
AUSTIN: Yes, I’m very – no, not at all.
ZIMMERMAN: So, if you look up any college rankings, there’s the AP Rankings, Coaches
Rankings, and then there’s Sagarin Rankings. And Sagarin ranks every team and every player.
And I was like 943rd best college golfer in the country.
AUSTIN: You’re still in the top thousand.
ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, but if you wanna be on the PGA tour, you basically need to be in the top
ten. So I wasn’t good enough. But how did that end? I wanted to get into something more
AUSTIN: And now you’re one of the top ten comedians in the world. Would you do a golf
ZIMMERMAN: There’s nothing funny about golf.
AUSTIN: What? You mean nothing funny left about golf? You don’t think Happy Gilmore is
funny? What are you, nuts?
ZIMMERMAN: Happy Gilmore is funny, Caddyshack is funny.
AUSTIN: Tin Cup is hilarious.
ZIMMERMAN: Tin Cup is great, you’re right. Every time I bring up golf, though, people shut
down. I think people associate it with… I dunno, maybe I’m projecting.
AUSTIN: I think that’d be very funny. You talking about golf for a half hour and cuttin’ to some
golf bloopers? That’d be terrific, I’d love to watch that.
ZIMMERMAN: I actually saw Chappelle’s Netflix special and it was so…
ZIMMERMAN: Well, I was gonna say so funny and nothing like I would ever do. Topics I would
never think to talk about, that I was just, I dunno how… I just, it’s on another plane. It’s
impossible to be that. He’s on the Richard Pryor plane I think.
AUSTIN: You think people would ever be as excited about what Joe Zimmerman does as they
are about what Chappelle does?
ZIMMERMAN: Well, that’s the thing that you get sad about. You think, well nothing I ever do is
ever gonna be that exciting to people. ‘Cause I’m not talking about, like, Bill Cosby.
AUSTIN: You could if you wanted to. It would just be your own take and there’d be animals
ZIMMERMAN: But you see some great comic and you think, well maybe in my wildest dreams I
could be kinda like that someday and you see other people like, even Patton Oswalt, I’m just, I
dunno how he does that. Chappelle, Patton Oswalt…
AUSTIN: Regan? You think you could take Regan?
ZIMMERMAN: No, I think he’s the funniest person in the world. But the topics he talks about, I
could see sort of talking about similar things. But I just think he’s the funniest… I think he just
walks in a room and people are just gigglin’, it’s like a vibration that he puts out.
AUSTIN: Yeah it’s an energy. He’s great, I wish he was more famous, but maybe that would ruin
ZIMMERMAN: I think he’s surprisingly famous, because he sells more tickets than most famous
people so he’s famous to his following. We did Red Rocks for eight thousand people and AUSTIN:
Oh my god, how was that? Is that place amazing?
ZIMMERMAN: Yeah. But eight thousand people at a beautiful venue, and across town Sinbad
was doin’ a comedy club for three hundred people. And people are like, “Man, how come Regan
isn’t more famous?” Well, Sinbad is very famous, and he’s performing for three hundred people,
so it’s weird.
AUSTIN: Wow, [performing at Red Rocks] would be a dream come true.
ZIMMERMAN: It was the loudest laughter I’ve ever heard at jokes that I’ve told. Like the
laughter felt like it was physically hitting me because it was that loud. So that was cool. And then
you come to New York and you perform for twelve people.
AUSTIN: Which is fine.
ZIMMERMAN: The thing about New York, you go on the road some places for things like that
and they wonder if you’re a millionaire. And then you do shows in New York and they ask you
what your day job is. The difference between last night and tonight is so insane that it’s hard to
figure out what’s correct about your life or where you’re at, ‘cause so many people wonder if
you’re a millionaire, and so many people wonder what your day job is. You’re like, “Neither of
those are accurate.”
AUSTIN: You’re single now?
AUSTIN: And you like it.
ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, I mean I…. I consider myself between relationships. I imagine that when
the right thing happens I’ll be open to it. But I’m not trying to be Mr. Single.
AUSTIN: You’re not tearing up Tinder and Bumble? Todd Barry explicitly mentions in the book
that you were on Bumble.
ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, and that was a year and a half ago. But I found that if you just go to
comedy shows and you just say hi to people, it’s so much nicer. You don’t have to hit on people
but you just say hi and you suddenly have met seven people that wanna hang out.
AUSTIN: Because of being onstage?
ZIMMERMAN: Because people are out, for one. Brooklyn shows are a fun place to hang, and
they know you’re a comic and they’re like, oh, he’s a fun person. And you get none of that on
Tinder or Bumble, where they say, oh you’re a comedian, what’s your day job? No respect for
comedians. New York comedians, everybody assumes are bartenders or dog walkers or
AUSTIN: Do they?
ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, I think women in New York think comedian dudes are complete failure
bags without a career. They just think they’re people that say they’re a comedian, ‘cause there
are a lot of people that do say they’re a comedian. People who have done three open mics and
say they’re a comedian, there’s people who’ve done improv class for a year that list themselves
as a comedian. I think that makes women hesitant.
AUSTIN: As it should.
ZIMMERMAN: As it should.
[“Two Princes” by the Spin Doctors comes on]
ZIMMERMAN: The Spin Doctors… how old were you when the Spin Doctors were big?
AUSTIN: How old were you?
ZIMMERMAN: Thirteen, fourteen.
AUSTIN: How old are you now?
ZIMMERMAN: I was fourteen, fifteen.
AUSTIN: Ok, so I was probably… six.
ZIMMERMAN: [laughs] I bet you’re thirty-one.
AUSTIN: I’m thirty-one, yeah.
ZIMMERMAN: I was right.
AUSTIN: And you’re thirty-three.
ZIMMERMAN: Give or take.
AUSTIN: Thirty-four? Why are you weird about your age? Who cares?
ZIMMERMAN: I hear Kevin Hart lies about his age.
AUSTIN: Really? He’s like forty-two, isn’t he?
ZIMMERMAN: That’s what he wants you to think.
AUSTIN: You think he’s older than forty-two? Whoa.
ZIMMERMAN: I dunno.
AUSTIN: It’s hard to tell. How old are you?
AUSTIN: Are you, like, embarrassed?
AUSTIN: You think you should be further along in comedy, at thirty-five?
ZIMMERMAN: Now I do. [laughs] ‘Cause you just said that.
AUSTIN: Well, that’s why comics don’t wanna tell their age. Everybody wants to be, like, twentyfour. ‘Cause it’s impressive, wherever you are. Don’t you find that’s true? People think, I should
be here by this age. I can’t believe I don’t have…y’know, this or that.
ZIMMERMAN: I don’t really think about it like that.
AUSTIN: ‘Cause you already have those things. You got a [Comedy Central] Presents. You got
a Conan. You got a Tonight Show. You got an album out. Number one on iTunes.
ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, I got it all. I think that some people are hesitant to say their age because
movie people and agents, if they see a hot young twenty-four year old they go, “Oh he’s got
potential. He’s gonna be a star!” And if they see somebody hilarious, and they’re thirty-five?
They’re gonna say, “Eh. They’re not gonna get much better from there, they’re already peaking.”
AUSTIN: Somebody was telling me they were really sad they were turning thirty ‘cause they
haven’t done a late night set yet so now their chances are reduced considerably because
they’re not hot and young anymore.
ZIMMERMAN: That’s actually ironic though, ‘cause most people don’t get any late night until
they turn thirty. A lot of people thirty-one, thirty-two, get their first TV spot. Look at people’s
debuts. [Nathan] Macintosh just debuted. Isn’t he about thirty? Everybody debuts right around
AUSTIN: I dunno, Julio Torres is like twenty-one.
ZIMMERMAN: Ok, well that’s different.
AUSTIN: Joe Pera I think is twenty-six, twenty-seven.
ZIMMERMAN: Ok. Well that’s different. They beat the thirty mark. I do think you’re supposed to
have specific goals, though, ‘cause then you move in a right direction. But so many things you
get in standup are, “Oh, I wasn’t expecting that. I guess I’ll do that.” That’s kinda fun.
AUSTIN: But those other goals, you said, help you get to those random things.
ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, I doubt Trevor Noah comin’ out of South Africa said, “I’m gonna host The
Daily Show.” But he’s doing that. I think most comedians who become actors, I don’t think they
were planning on that.
AUSTIN: Yeah, I don’t think Ray Romano was like, I wanna be taken seriously as a dramatic
actor and be on Vinyl with Bobby Cannavale, or whatever his name is.
ZIMMERMAN: Supposedly that’s what standup used to be. You used to wanna get on Carson
and then get a sitcom based on yourself. Now standup seems like finding your niche. I keep
encouraging our boy Steve Forrest. I think he’s going down the basketball comedy road and I
think he’s finding his niche.
AUSTIN: And your version of that is science.
ZIMMERMAN: So yeah, I pitched a science talk show and I’m doing a pilot for that and if that
goes to episodes then that’s my niche. If it doesn’t go to episodes I’ll either keep doing that or I’ll
get into sports.
AUSTIN: Would you really?
AUSTIN: How’s your happiness project coming along? ‘Cause you’re one of these guys who
treats happiness as a science almost.
ZIMMERMAN: Oh, it’s true.
AUSTIN: Like, “If i could just eat this amount of lima beans and get this amount of sleep I’ll
finally have cracked the code.”
ZIMMERMAN: I do, I do that. I’ve been meditating, which helps. In the morning I’ve been doing
my three thank you’s for the previous twenty-four hours. If you wake up and say what you’re
thankful for in the last twenty-four hours, it makes you feel good.
AUSTIN: I think Aparna [Nancherla] told me to do like seven or something.
ZIMMERMAN: We had a conversation about this. She’s like, “I’ve been doing 27” and I said,
No, that’s way too many, you’re gonna put pressure on yourself! You’re gonna run out.
AUSTIN: Yeah, then you’re gonna get bitter there’s not more things.
ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, do three, there’s no pressure, and then there’s always three things. It’s
always three new things.