Joe Zimmerman '05 is usually the quiet guy at the party, not often competing to be the center of attention. This may come as a surprise, since he spends most of his time in the spotlight–literally–as a stand-up comedian.
"A lot of comedians like being on stage, being the center of attention, but that's not what drives me," Zimmerman said. "What I like about my job is it allows me to be creative, and I like the writing process."
A former English major and member of the Davidson golf team, at just 31 years old Zimmerman already is making a name for himself on the comedy scene. He has been featured on John Oliver's New York Stand-up Show on Comedy Central, has toured as one quarter of the "Beards of Comedy" group, contributes to the Universe City science podcast, has appeared on Nickelodeon, and will perform on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson Nov. 20. This weekend he also is recording his first solo album, Smiling at Wolves, which should be released in December.
While the path from English major to comedian may not seem an obvious one, many of the skills Zimmerman learned and practiced while at Davidson serve him well in comedy writing, he said. He draws particularly from his classes in short stories and creative writing.
"Comedy is just storytelling you disguise as jokes," he said. And the best way to learn how to write those stories/jokes is simply to start doing it, he said. He begins every day by writing–whether it be developing new ideas or polishing existing ones. From there, he reviews his thoughts and underlines the ideas that are potentially humorous. "Maybe one in five actually make the cut," he said, and his acts begin to take shape.
Zimmerman began to find his comedic voice as a student at Davidson, writing comical articles for the campus literary magazine Libertas; he even found ways to incorporate humor into English assignments. "Those papers were often my most successful," he said.
Growing up, Zimmerman was interested in comedy but never considered performing until his junior year of college, when he performed at Davidson's Battle of the Bands. "The students responded well," he said, and he began to consider pursuing comedy further.
After graduation, Zimmerman worked with Habitat for Humanity through AmeriCorps and began performing at the open mic nights hosted by Julia's Café and Books, a shop located inside the Habitat Re-Store in Charlotte. From there, he began performing at Charlotte comedy clubs–with each performance he further honed his comedic voice.
"Your voice grows over time," he said. "Performing in Charlotte I knew I was not going to get discovered, but I was going to learn how to be a comedian."
And he did.
After two years performing in Charlotte venues Zimmerman took his show on the road. While performing in Atlanta comedy clubs, he became friends with three other comedians and with them planned a tour as the "Beards of Comedy." The "beards" built a name for themselves among colleges and comedy clubs in the southeast–enough so that Zimmerman decided his next career move was to relocate to New York City.
"Comedy is very different from what most people picture–it's not just a bunch of people laughing at the funny guy–you really have to bring a polished act," Zimmerman said. And as a relatively new comedian, you face additional challenges.
"For a famous comedian, the audience is there to see that comedian," he said. "As a lesser-known comedian, you have to work hard to earn the laughs and the recognition."
Zimmerman's hard work certainly has earned him recognition, and is turning some big-name heads.
While performing at a comedy festival recently, Zimmerman caught the eye of an agent from Los Angeles who sent clips of his act to the staff at The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. They liked what they saw and booked Zimmerman to appear on the Nov. 20 show. This follows his successful appearance on John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show in June, and now he is being considered for a Comedy Central half-hour special.
Another career milestone, this weekend Zimmerman records his first solo comedy album, Smiling at Wolves, at Lexington Avenue Brewery in Asheville, N.C., with plans for a December release.
Though his self-driven career continues to develop and gain momentum, Zimmerman still does not consider himself a "business guy" or entrepreneur.
"I see myself as a creative type who's just trying to get on board with all the business stuff," he said, "and I'm having a lot of fun doing it."
To learn more about Joe and his upcoming shows, visit his website.
Christina Ritchie Rogers