"I'm enormously successful. I'm just not rich or well known yet. And if I don't ever get any further than I am, I'm still enormously successful."
– Brad Zimmerman
Guy MacPherson: Hello, Brad. This is Guy MacPherson in Vancouver.
Brad Zimmerman: How are you?!
GM: Good, thank you. You were expecting my call, I hope.
BZ: Not only am I expecting your call but you're four minutes late so I got worried. I said, 'Uh-oh.' But first of all, more important than that, I'm on a cellphone, I'm in Coral Springs, Florida, so hopefully we'll have the same clear connection. How long is this interview going to be?
GM: Well, we'll just see how it goes.
BZ: Okay. Well, I'm here, bubala.
GM: Okay, good. And my clock says I'm two minutes late. I thought I'd give you two minutes to get ready, you know.
BZ: It doesn't matter because you sound like a great guy. If you didn't sound like a great guy, man, I'd spend ten minutes telling you that I'm very, very prompt.
GM: I like that.
BZ: Is this radio? What is this?
GM: This is print.
BZ: Oh, cool! Oh, okay, great. What newspaper?
GM: It's called The Georgia Straight. It's a weekly in Vancouver.
BZ: The Georgia Straight. Okay. So let's talk, bubala.
GM: Bubala? What is that?
BZ: Bubala is a Jewish term of endearment. It's a beautiful word. Bubby is grandmother, and bubala... I use it to everybody. Whatever. Even to you, who is a gentile.
GM: Good. I like that. Have you been to Vancouver before?
BZ: I was there once many years ago with a group of three other comics. We just basically did comedy.
GM: Do you remember where that was?
BZ: I think it was at the Chutzpah Festival. Maybe it wasn't. I'm not exactly sure but I know we did the Vancouver JCC but I'm not sure if it was the Chutzpah Festival or not. I really don't know.
GM: Who were you with?
BZ: I know Cory Kahaney was one of them. And the other ones I don't really remember. Maybe Tom Cotter, who is a very good friend of mine and just finished second in America's Got Talent last year or two years ago. And the other one might have been Ross Bennett. He's great also. Ross was just on Letterman about four or five months ago. Did great.
GM: I've seen your clips, both standup and one-man show. What are the little tweaks you have to make from standup to one-man show?
BZ: Well, you know what's interesting is that, first of all, what you've seen – and this is what I really pride myself on; it's really what I'm about and really is what separates me from a lot of people and why I think so much is going to happen in the future, because I did sell the rights to my show so I just started a national tour – but to answer your question, my piece is a hybrid. It's part standup, part theatre. When you're doing a one-man show, you're basically saying this is a play. So there's not as much audience work between jokes or whatever. It is a play. I stick to the script, whereas if I'm opening for somebody or if I'm headlining somewhere in a comedic venue, then I can do whatever I want so it's a little bit looser. But basically when I say hybrid, I mean part standup, part theatre, so basically it's outside the box of traditional one-person shows, which are basically a story. Billy Crystal's one-man show is a story about him and his father over 700 Sundays, or whatever the title of it is. But most of them have your traditional beginning, middle and end. Mine is a little different. It is a little outside the box in the sense of there is an arc and there is a beginning, middle and an end, but part of it is standup and part of it is theatre. It's not just funny; it's very moving. So when you ask the question what is the difference, it's just kind of a mindset I have. When I go out on stage to do the one-person show, I don't feel the kind of pressure to get the laugh. Which is huge. In fact, even in the standup now, the laughter is really the byproduct. My focus is on the connection. No matter what I'm doing, when I'm connecting, that's what I'm really about. The clip that you saw, one of them was probably from 2010. In fact, probably both of them. But the reality is that in the four years I've grown so much. Because what I think what I'm really about is ultimately mastering what I'm doing and I think it's paving the way for all these possibilities for me in other mediums, whether it be TV or film. So it's been incredibly rewarding doing this one-person show because it resonates universally for not just Jews but for anybody. There's not just one message in it, but it really is about a guy who waits tables for a long, long time but doesn't give up the notion that he has a purpose on this planet, and it's to bring his humour to the world and to inspire or to make people reassess. Because it's really staying the course; it's not giving up. And that's really what ultimately the piece is. And also if you can find what you love to do, which very few people can, or you're willing to struggle... Bruce Jenner once said something. It was one of the greatest quotes of all time. He said when he won the decathlon many, many years ago – they asked him what it felt like to be the best athlete in the world. He said, "I'm not the best athlete in the world. The best athlete in the world is sitting behind a desk somewhere." So what he was really saying was, 'Who's willing to pay the price to be truly great?' You can count on your fingers how many people. Especially those who are not phenoms. I wasn't a phenom at this. I wasn't necessarily born to be a comedian or an actor but I worked my tail off and outworked other people who were much more naturally gifted. My work ethic is very strong and my attention to detail on this piece I'm doing in Florida now, I'm just tweaking. Which is maybe just adding a word or taking out two words. And that's really what it's all about is that kind of detail.
GM: And that's something you can't do with a play because you have to stick exactly to the script.
BZ: I can do anything I want. Absolutely. And that's wonderful. What's great is the producers and the people that I'm with have enormous faith. I just did it in Phoenix for six weeks and the response was tremendous. After the show, I'd go out and sell the book that I wrote as a souvenir and the bonding after the show was as enjoyable for me as doing the show. People telling me how much it meant to them and how it resonated for them. It's been a sublime experience. Although I started in 2005 and in 2013 is when the show sold. Essentially I'm really bearing the financial fruit of the piece now. So that's after nine years. It doesn't matter. It takes as long as it takes and I just stuck with it in addition to doing my comedy and all these other things and working with Joan Rivers and some of these other people and also headlining in various theatres and arts festivals. So it's been a real uphill battle but at this point, I feel like I'm warming up. And that's kind of an interesting feeling. I'm the late bloomer's late bloomer.
GM: It's got a great title that hooks you immediately.
BZ: Yes, that's a great point. That's a really good point.
GM: A Jewish Tragedy... Is it specific to Judaism?
BZ: Here's the bottom line: There is a joke that goes there's a big controversy in the Jewish view of when life begins. In Jewish tradition, the fetus is not considered viable till after it graduates from medical school. So what that means is, when you think of Jews, you think of lawyers, doctors. That's their idea of success. It's all about money. So if I'm waiting tables for 20 years and not making a dime – and a lot of that had to do with my own personal demons: fear, lack of belief in the product. It really kept me on the sidelines – so naturally that's in a sense the tragedy, that I'm not this multi-millionaire who the mother can brag about. I'm this waiter. So you feel guilty about it. My mother, of course, plays a huge role in the play. So when you grow up as a Jew, this is a generalization or stereotype or whatever, but Jews are very ambitious for whatever reason, a lot of them. They're go-getters. And if you look in show business, if you look in government, if you look in the money business, so many of them are Jews. It's a shame that people think of success in terms of how much you're worth financially. A psychiatrist once said to me if you're happy, you're successful. Now, I'm not saying I'm happy, but I have moments of happiness. Because we're not always happy and I do suffer from a certain amount of depression, like any artist. But when you love what you do, and you feel you have this enormous purpose... You know, I'm enormously successful. I'm just not rich or well known yet. And if I don't ever get any further than I am, I'm still enormously successful. I've done something that very few people can do: write a play and be able to hold an audience for an hour and twenty, to twenty-five minutes. And that's a huge accomplishment. There's not a lot of people who can do that. I think it's from being authentic. And that's part of what the goal is. I'm a huge believer in quotes, but Seth Godin, who's a big motivational guy, said we need art that is genuine, that connects, not fake that entertains. And we have so much fake that entertains that if you can get genuine that connects, we need that so desperately. Now obviously there's a huge segment of the population that just wants really dumb comedy, you know, punch, punch, punch, punch, punch. They have short attention spans and they don't have the ability to process something that is smart. But I'm not writing for that audience; I'm writing for a theatre audience. I'm writing for sophisticated people, cultured.
But anyway, getting back to what you're saying, the interesting thing about the title is that I didn't come up with it; somebody else did. The original title was something else. When I first had it produced in Florida many years ago, the director of the theatre said, "Put Jewish in the title. It's a great selling point. Especially in Florida." And some guy in the theatre came up after seeing it and said this should be the title. And I actually paid him. He didn't expect it but he deserved it because he came up with it. You're right, it's a great, great title.
GM: I would imagine the best of all the art is genuine and connects and entertains.
BZ: I would agree with you 150 percent. There's another element to that. Entertained, yes. My play's very entertaining. But it also has a tendency to make you think. People have told me that. It can make you think. And I think that really good theatre has that ability. If you just want to turn off your mind and just be entertained by something that has no depth, just surface stuff, that's fine. I have no problem with that. But mine goes deeper. Mine goes to, Can you find something that you love? When I think of all the people that I started out with in this business, there's very few left. They're priorities changed. They didn't want to struggle. They wanted security. They wanted a family. I don't have a family. I'm all by myself. I love children but the fact that I don't have any? Oy! I am so happy, you have no idea. Because this way I can devote all my time to my work. Now, that doesn't mean that some day I don't want children, but right now I'm just about the work. It would be selfish to have a kid and not be able to devote all my time. So it is entertaining – enormously entertaining. But if it's just entertaining, then it's not a one-man show. I mean in my book. I think it's gotta have an emotional undercurrent if you're doing a one-person show. I mean, loads of people do it. Jackie Mason and so many other people do one-person shows where it's just funny. But I think if you can touch people deeply, which I do – or at least some people; everybody's touched in their own way – I think they have an experience, they have something to think about, it can stay with them, they relate to it, and it may make them reassess their own lives and say, What's important to me? What am I not doing that I need to be doing? I also think being creative, even if you don't make a living, is huge. In some ways.
GM: You're playing the Chutzpah Festival but as you said, this isn't for any specific group, right?
BZ: No. In fact, Phoenix has a large gentile population. It's almost half and half. I've done it for old Jews, I've done it for old gentiles, and I've done it for a mixture. So I think again it's just for people who are willing to go with my journey and have a certain kind of, let's say, intelligence and enjoy culture. That's really what it is. It really resonates universally. The more specific you write, the more universal it is. People just relate to it. You know, a mother is a mother is a mother, whether you're Italian or Jewish or African American or Chinese. Mothers have a lot in common in terms of how they deal with their child.
GM: There are so many Jewish comedians and we love them. Watching a Woody Allen movie, we get the experience even if we haven't experienced it quite that way ourselves.
BZ: Absolutely. Absolutely. That's a very good point, why it is that there's so many Jewish comics, I'm not sure. Some of it probably has to do, for me, with survival. I felt insecure s a kid and humour was a way of feeling better about myself. First of all, the fact I make my living, that I went from being this shy, kind of aloof kid that was totally into sports and that's it to ages later opening for George Carlin, it's shocking – shocking – that that's how I ended up. I would never in a million years have imagined me as a comic. I'm not a comic; I'm really an actor who does comedy, but nonetheless.
"If you're good, you're good. I don't care if you're a truck driver during the day, if you're funny, you're funny."
– Brad Zimmerman
GM: You started in 1978 trying to become an actor?
BZ: What happened was I moved to New York to become an actor – and this is part of what the play's about – but I didn't really pursue it because I never, never felt for a long time... It really boiled down to a lack of belief in the product. So I just stayed in acting class for many years. I never really did anything but wait tables and study acting. Then I sort of dropped out of acting because I was getting bitter and I felt like I had no purpose. And finally I was turned on to the right psychiatrist and blah, blah, blah and took a standup comedy class in '96 and that's when I finally went out into the world. It's so ironic that what I was afraid of was failing – because failure was always so humiliating. However good I am now, it's because I went out and failed over and over and over again and learned from it. So what I was afraid of is the reason I'm good!
GM: So those eighteen years, from '78 to '96, were spent in acting classes?
BZ: No. Anything I did outside of an acting class, it really didn't pay anything. I think I did two one-person shows but there was no money involved. I did one when my dad died in '93. And the first one I did was in '87. But other than that, nothing. Maybe a few non-union commercials, but really nothing. Truly nothing. And even once I started doing the comedy, I didn't stop waiting tables until 2007. What's interesting, Guy, we lead one life. And I think ultimately what I said to myself was I'm gonna commit to this, and I'm gonna get out into the world in whatever it is, whatever happens, happens but this is my life and I don't need to be a grandparent some day. I'm an artist. So this is my life for better or worse. And if I die poor, which I won't because I think it's all ahead of me, then that's my choice. You know what I'm saying? But the struggling, which is why so many people leave it, I just thought of it as part of the whole process. If you're on this planet to master something, which I think is why I'm here, the ultimate purpose, then struggling and insecurity and living in the unknown and not knowing when the next gig is coming, that's all part of it. So I don't think of it as anything special, like, Oh, you have so much courage or this or that; I just think of it as this is what I do. Learning to live struggling... I've lived in the same apartment forever. It's just this tiny place. And I'm fine there. That's not as important as my work. So I'm a little different than most of my contemporaries and people I'm good friends with, some of who are very successful financially and some of who are in my bracket.
GM: Did you just take to standup when you started out?
BZ: I think that, having done some of the one-person shows, I had some restaurant pieces and a couple of mother pieces so I went out into the world with five minutes of some restaurant stuff. And the restaurant stuff became at that time my signature piece. And it is still to some extent my signature piece. Because nobody's ever done the restaurant stuff the way I do it. And if you come see the show, you'll see that it's truly one of a kind what I do. So I think that what happened was I finally found something. Remember, when you're acting, you're acting with somebody else. I found that working alone, writing my own material, being my own boss, and having a certain amount of comedic chops that I got in acting class, I think it was just a great fit. The combination of all of those things. I knew I had a certain kind of sense of humour. It's like a muscle, if you do have it. If you're not funny, and there are so many people who are not funny who try to do this... But yes, I think I was different from the get-go. Tommy Smothers said something to me. When George Carlin did his last HBO special, I was opening for him. Carlin's manager had actually signed me to a deal. He said, 'I'll have HBO film you at my expense and we'll see if we can market the tape.' So HBO was there and I did 32 minutes. And Tommy Smothers came backstage, because he's friends with George, and he has a winery up in the wine country – we did it in Santa Rosa – and he said to me, "I love your air." And what he was saying was, 'I love the pauses that you take.' And if you watch comics today, very, very few work as slow as I do, or have the ability to live in silence. And that takes a lot of confidence. Tommy said, "People don't work like that anymore." So much of the laughter you can get is when you're not saying anything. And I've learned to do that. I see so many of my contemporaries who, if they would employ some of that and not rush... People are afraid of silence. They're afraid they'll bore the audience. They gotta bombard them. And as my therapist says, an audience needs time to process. If you can make them just feel relaxed so they can enjoy you because you're not bombarding them, they love it. Especially if you're interesting.
GM: I would say as an audience member, as long as the pause is purposeful, it's good, not when we get the sense you're struggling to figure out what to say next.
BZ: Oh, absolutely. All my pauses are purposeful. In fact, the more I do the show – I did eight shows a week in Phoenix – the best thing about it was having a chance to repeat over and over again, like coming up to bat in baseball, and to make adjustments on those pauses. Getting comfortable on stage as a comedian is so hard. Louis C.K. said it takes 15 to 20 years. He's so on the money. When he's talking about comfort, he's just talking about that there's no pressure. The audience is there to see you; they're not going anywhere. So get into that mode where I don't have to rush. I'm gonna make them laugh. I've done my work. And even if you don't, sometimes it's not your fault. All you can do is what you can do. I have so many different responses. The hardest thing for a comic is one night a line will just blow the roof off and they applaud and the next night they don't get it. So learning to play with that wide range of response on each line, if you took it personally it'd be like you're in a heavyweight fight getting sucker-punched every two seconds.
GM: When you're doing 30+ minutes of standup, you weren't just doing restaurant material, were you?
BZ: No, I do a lot of topical stuff. Not political because I'm not smart enough. Not religious because I'm not smart enough. You think about it as a guy who's waited tables, we all see the world differently. We're all wired differently. I do restaurant stuff. That sets the table for who I am, for a guy who's struggled. And then I talk about the world the way I see it, whether it be reality television, whether it be the world today versus the world I grew up in where everything was simple and there was no technology, or my social life, which has been almost non-existant, or the Jewish mother. Just loads of different things. Or some of the comedy stories that I have. Some of the bombs where somebody will say, three minutes into my act, "Get to the punchline." That's what separates me from comedians and why I don't work clubs, is that comedians have to have, like, six punchlines a minute. I don't work that way. When I write, I never worry about the punchline. I know there's going to be one and you have to get there, but sometimes you gotta wait for it. So that's why I don't do clubs. Because I'm not a comedian in the purest sense of the word.
GM: The clip I saw of your standup was from Caroline's Comedy Club.
BZ: Now that was interestingly enough in 2002 and that was a bringer show. I started in '96. A bringer show is the most important, probably, event that you can do as a beginning comic, where you bring ten people, you get ten minutes, and they hire a videographer. Now, I did 30 bringer shows and six years after I started that tape that you saw from 2002 is the reason that I work. Because I sent it out and I started getting booked on that tape. And I used it for eight more years until I edited my one-man show, which I did in 2010, and started using eight minutes from that. And started to really slow down in 2010. Really slowed down.
GM: You got booked from that into other clubs or did you just say no to clubs right away?
BZ: I started doing clubs, I started opening for Joan Rivers, Brad Garrett, then George Carlin, all on the tape. All on that tape. Country clubs, Jewish country clubs, synagogues, casinos, all different kinds of places. All based on that tape.
GM: Did your stories of exchanges with customers all happen to you or are they an amalgamation of other stories you heard?
BZ: Some of them definitely happened. The whole waiter thing started when I was working on a one-man show the year my father was ill, in acting class. The teacher said to me what's missing from the play – I've never taken a writing class so I didn't know anything other than whatever it is I knew from not taking classes – she said, "You need stories. You need anecdotes." And I went back home and I thought about what she said and I wrote a restaurant piece. It was basically based, very simply, on something a woman said to me at a table. I was bitter at this time. I was not a happy person. I was waiting on this party and a woman said to me at one point, "My sister doesn't think you like us." And I said, "It's not that; I'm very busy." She said, "I understand that. That doesn't mean you can't smile." And that was in one of the pieces that I wrote initially – it's not in my act anymore. It started me off on writing a lot of waiter stuff. Remember, when you've waited tables for 29 years, you have a lot of stories. And yes, the amalgam or whatever you want to call it, the woman who can't make up her mind or all of those kinds of things or there's this one bit in my one-man show where we're about to close and there's nobody in the restaurant. I'm already doing my side work and a customer comes in. If I were doing a sitcom, the opening scene would be her coming in and me going to my locker and getting a rifle and you see the dot on that person's head. You don't fire the gun but you just see the dot. It's like the rage that you feel about a person that comes in right before you're closing and has the audacity to sit down. And the manager who seats the person. So it's a combination of so many things. Humour starts with the truth but then you can stretch it. And that what you do sometimes. And then sometimes it's totally not stretched. My thing about reality television, my thing about a lot of things, is pure. There's no stretching because the truth is what's funny.
GM: When you were doing standup and talking about being a waiter, that's brave because my sense is that some comedians are embarrassed if they have a day job. They wouldn't want to admit that. They'd want the audience to think that this is what they do professionally.
BZ: That's a great point. There were people who told me that I should say that I was a waiter. And I decided no. No, that's not what I'm going to do. I'm going to tell them that I still wait tables because that's the truth of the matter. And that's a great point on your part. I wasn't concerned about people thinking I'm not professional. That never bothered me. It probably bothered other comics who advised me more than me. It never bothered me. If you're good, you're good. I don't care if you're a truck driver during the day, if you're funny, you're funny. So that's the way I saw it more than anything else.
GM: Who did you sell the rights to?
BZ: I'll tell you what happened. I signed with a manager in 2013, in February or March. The first thing he did was he got me three weeks at a theatre called the Stage Door Theater in Coral Springs. And the show kept getting extended because of word of mouth. The owner of the theatre knew these two producers who produce a number of different shows, one of which – and I'm sure he's been up in the area; do you know Steve Solomon?
BZ: His play is called My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish, I'm in Therapy. He now has a whole bunch of them that he's written. He has other people playing them now. And after three years, I can do that, too, if I agree on who they cast as me. I don't have to do the show for seven years. They have the rights for seven years, but just the touring rights. One of them is a guy named Dana Matthau. He's Walter Matthau's nephew. The other is Phil Roger Roy. They're great producers. They're wonderful guys. It's a great fit for me. They came down and saw the show and made an offer the next day. So I just finished six weeks in Phoenix. When I finish Vancouver – and they didn't book me; Cory Kahaney might have recommended me – but after Vancouver I'll be in Maryland, I'll be in Boston for five weeks, I'll be in San Diego for the whole summer and then another part of California. It's an amazingly gratifying thing to have this kind of situation where a comic only lives in the unknown and I'm not really living in the unknown because they have to book me a certain amount of times to make a certain amount of money each year. So that's great. It's the first time in my life that I've never not worried about money. I can't even tell you what that's like. It's beyond heavenly. It's amazing. It's an amazing feeling not to be juggling bills.
GM: This could be like Defending the Caveman.
BZ: I never saw it but I know it's the biggest-selling one-man show ever. Did you ever see it?
GM: Yeah, I saw it in Vegas.
BZ: It has its own theatre. That's how the guy made millions, by doing it and then farming it out to other actors but he still gets paid every time anybody does it. Did you like it?
GM: Yeah, it was fun.
BZ: I never saw it. Quite frankly, I don't know if you'll get a chance to see mine but without even having seen his, I'm very competitive so I can tell you I'm sure mine's better. (laughs)
GM: I'm sure yours if funnier.
BZ: I'm sure it's funnier and it's very, very moving. Defending the Caveman I'm sure doesn't talk about the death of his father. That's part of it, is that my father never saw me become successful; he only saw me as a waiter. I have a brother who worked for him. That was another thing. I have two other brothers and they worked for him for a time and both eventually quit and the youngest one eventually sold a kayak business for millions of dollars and my father never saw that. That's life. That's part of life and that's what I'm presenting in the show. It's not funny; it's sad, it's touching, it's poignant, it's this, it's that. It's such a variety of emotions. It takes you on such a journey. That's really what it does.
GM: But Brad, it's not a competition.
BZ: What's not a competition?
GM: You don't need to compete with the Caveman.
BZ: Oh, I'm not. Can I tell you something? I'm not competing with the Caveman but when I was a kid, and the first piece talks about this, I was very competitive. I was a great athlete. And being competitive in my life is something that's never really left. And part of that you can say is healthy; part is unhealthy. It is what it is. When Dustin Hoffman's acting teacher said, "You don't have it," he said he was always motivated by revenge. Even to this day. He said it on Inside the Actor's Studio. And my therapist would say whatever does it for you, as long as you can maintain a certain amount of humility. We always know who we're better than. I'm exactly where I should be. I don't think I should have my own sitcom, even though if I was out there doing that, I think I'd be landing roles all the time but that's not the way I wanted to go. I'm very content doing this and seeing how far it takes me. It's kind of a challenge and it's kind of thrilling in its own way.