This week, we’re highlighting 25 talented writers and performers for Vulture’s annual list “The Comedians You Should and Will Know.” Our goal is to introduce a wider audience to the talent that has the comedy community and industry buzzing. (You can read more about our methodology at the link above.) We asked the comedians on the list to answer a series of questions about their work, performing, goals for the future, and more. Next up is Zach Zimmerman. Tell us a story from your childhood you think explains why you ended up becoming a comedian.
When I was still in diapers, I decided to light a firework in our house. I got a smoke bomb, lit it with a candle in my sister’s room, and tried to throw it out her window. The window was jammed. I panicked and ended up running down the hallway, racing the fuse, but it exploded in the hallway, sending sparks and smoke and ash all over the carpet. I immediately ran away and hid in a closet. I knew I was in trouble, so to try to get out of getting punished, I started screaming “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!,” thinking if I punished myself enough, I’d be spared. It worked. It was when I first realized the power of performing self-flagellation to manipulate the behavior of others, a bedrock of the art form that is stand-up comedy.
Also, “What do you call cheese that isn’t yours? Nacho cheese” did very well at the fifth-grade Monterey Elementary School lunch table.
What unscripted or reality series do you think you’d excel at? What archetype do you think you’d be?
The Amazing Race. I think I could easily charm locals (appear helpless and appeal to their inner sense of pity), and I’m a good driver (not stick). I couldn’t do any of the bungee-jumping or skydiving, but that’s what your partner is for.
Archetype? I think I’d be “the Crier.” They’re an essential part of the ensemble, providing emotional release and catharsis. I’m easily moved by the melancholic beauty of humanity, so that, combined with the jet lag? There are gonna be waterworks. Also, I grew up poor and we never left the country, so whenever I get to leave the United States, I get excited and emotional. Phil Keoghan, you know how to reach me.
What’s your proudest achievement of your comedy career so far?
I wrote a book! It’s called Is It Hot in Here (Or Am I Suffering for All Eternity for the Sins I Committed on Earth)? It’s a collection of essays about my journey from straight, meat-eating believer to queer, vegetarian atheist, among other things. It was named a Barnes & Noble Best Book of 2023 (So Far), an Esquire Best LGBTQ+ Book of 2023 (So Far), and Amazon even put it on a NYC billboard. I had to stand on the street corner to wait for it to come up for 15 seconds every eight minutes to get a picture. Made a lot of friends.
After a show in Boston, a fan sent me this message: “As an Evangelical turned gay, you make me feel like the dissonance I feel all the time is okay to have. And I’m gonna be happy in spite of it. You’re confirmation of that.” That meant a lot to me.
What have you learned about your own joke-writing process that you didn’t know when you started?
When I started stand-up, I scripted everything first: wrote the joke, memorized the joke, and recited the joke. Even the little tags and made-up comments in the moment I scripted. Over time, with enough proven material, point of view, and knowledge of what will work for me (though no one ever fully knows, but you can get to an 80 percent hit rate, I think), I’ve learned I can write a new joke in my head, mouth, and body without typing it on the page first. It saves a lot of time and lets me try a lot of new things before tattooing them in my mind.
Tell us everything about your worst show ever. (This can involve venue, audience, other comedians on the lineup, anything!)
I’ve had my fair share of rough shows, each with its own wonderful lesson. I once did a surprise improv show for a guy’s 50th birthday, and the “stage” was positioned directly in front of the buffet. (Never come between people and their food). I once did a show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe where the room smelled of vomit. Fresh or old, you ask? BOTH.
But my worst show in recent memory was in Seattle. It was my first time there, and I was playing a little 65-seat theater. It sold out to 63 Seattle fans of mine (I love you!), and two random women who were just there. One of them was very drunk. Throughout the show, she was shouting things that were all positive (“Bring on the bud!,” “You’re hot!”), but her timing was terrible, and she was ruining jokes. I think I handled her fine — everyone had fun — but it’s what she did after that made my blood boil.
I was greeting my adoring fans in the bar after (hoping someone would talk to me), when a friend from college’s parents came over. They had brought me some fancy chocolates from a local chocolatier: Fran’s! They were in this gorgeous purple square box — so delicate, pristine. I couldn’t wait. They congratulated me on my recent late-night set, remembered seeing me in shows in college. It was adorable. I love parents.
Then the drunk lady’s friend made her way over. I thought she was going to apologize, so I readied the grace I’d be extending her, but instead she said, “Oh, Jerry is someone who makes herself known.” When Jerry finally did come over, it was combative. I tried to explain sometimes questions in stand-up are rhetorical, but she stood her ground. “You wanted us to interact!” She thought she was helping …
We parted ways, and I talked to some other fans. Later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jerry kind of rummaging at a table. There’s no way she’s in my bag, I thought to myself. Suddenly, her friend fell at the back of the room. It wasn’t a dangerous fall; it was kind of like she just gave up on standing and wanted to lie down for a bit, but made it look like a fall, you know? Jerry went to help, and I went over to see what she had been doing to my stuff.
Jerry had reached into my gift bag, undone the ribbon on the box, and laid out the ten — now eight! — chocolates in a little row at the edge of the bar table. I felt so violated. My gift! For a good show! I’m generally a pretty empathetic person, but the fact this was a gift from a friend’s parents, a sweet I wanted, and a reward for a good show … You didn’t do an hour of comedy, Jerry! You didn’t earn the chocolates.
While Jerry, her friend, and the bartender did a Weekend at Bernie’s dance at the back of the bar, I reassembled the sweets and left. It was my worst show ever not because of its quality, and not just because I was robbed of two chocolates, but because when Jerry made herself known, she also made wickedness known. I’d lived a life of ignorance up until this point. Jerry stole two chocolates and my innocence. At this show, I realized there’s a deep, ancient evil inside us all.
But there is also justice. Since I had sold the tickets directly, I had Jerry’s email. I sent her a note giving her a chance to apologize. She never did. Fran’s Chocolates heard about the ordeal, though, and sent me a box of chocolates.
It’s true what they say: Life is like a box of chocolates — sometimes a drunk heckler ruins it.
Let’s say we live in a “Kings of Catchphrase Comedy” alternate dimension where every single comedian is required to have a hit catchphrase. What’s yours and why?
I’d have ten hit catchphrases on a “Wheel of Catchphrases” that spins during the joke and lands just as the catchphrase is needed. They would be:
• You know me … blessed and highly favored!
• And that’s what you missed on Glee!
• There is no ethical consumption under capitalism.
• Our Lord works in mysterious ways.
• I am empathetic to both individuals in the situation.
• You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have: the good and the bad!
• Somebody needs a sweet tea!
• We’re all gonna die.
• Can’t we all just get along?
• We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.
Alternatively, Atsuko told me that Margaret Cho told her that every comedian has one core joke — like a central comedic premise to their being. She rattled off a few examples, and I asked her what mine was. She paused and said, “I promise I was invited.” At first, I didn’t know if I got it, but then slowly I did. “I promise I was invited.” I promise I’m supposed to be here, I’m allowed to be here. It’s okay that I’m here. It’s not meant to be something you ever say, but can come back to when you’re writing. It could work as an aside/catchphrase though. (“I was at the Daytime Emmys — I promise I was invited.” “I went to an orgy the other weekend — I promise I was invited.”)
Nominate one comedian you don’t know personally you think is overdue for wider recognition and why you’re a fan of their work.
Beth Stelling! She’s so smart, funny, provocative, playful, goofy — all the things a great comedian is to me. She’s doing great, but I think she should be a megastar and household name yesterday. P.S. Beth, if this pops up on your Google Alert, I love you!
Also, I just saw Pierre Novellie at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He’s famous in the U.K., but I think he should be famous everywhere! Go follow him.
When it comes to your comedy opinions — about material, performing, audience, trends you want to kill/revive, the industry, etc. — what hill will you die on?
I’d much rather rest in a valley than die on any hill, so my opinions on comedy tend to match the opinions of the people I am talking to at that moment.
If you had to come onstage to just one song for the rest of your life, what song would it be and why?
John Cage’s 1953 composition “4’33.” It’s four minutes and 33 seconds of crisp, clean silence.
What is the best comedy advice, and then the worst comedy advice, you’ve ever received, either when you were starting out or more recently?
Best: Greer Barnes told me you’re welcoming the audience into your mind, which reminded me that even though I’m there to entertain, I am in charge. Tom Thakkar once told me his first draft is pretty close to what the final version will be of a bit, which gave me confidence to trust my instincts. My friend Jon in college used to say reasonable people can disagree about what is funny, which is a great way to get out of any comedy-nerd discussion.
Worst: Life is like a box of chocolates — sometimes a drunk heckler ruins it.
We Promise Zach Zimmerman Was Invited
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