Deep-Er-Ness: Joe Zimmerman and the Meaning of Life

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In the hobbit-hole basement of Park Slope’s Union Hall bar, Joe Zimmerman hosts Deep-er-ness on the fourth Tuesday of every month. Billed as a show where comics explore “meaningful topics” on stage, Zimmerman’s show follows each set with a performer interview exploring the theme of the night and what the performer chose to say about it. The tone is informal, relaxed and remarkably open, which ends up being an excellent representation of the best of what the host and space have to offer.

Tall and laconic, Zimmerman rolls his introductory set out with an affable southern accent that belies some left-field, high-brow references—riffing on how humans have probably always thought the next generation was over-mediated, he imagines an ancient Greek parent commanding “quit staring at that scroll, Lambicles!” The audience tonight is sparse, but as comedians begin unspooling their neuroses to the handful of people, their openness and physical closeness to us begins to feel a bit like group therapy.

Each Deep-er-ness show revolves around a theme. Brooke van Poppelen, host of truTV’s “Hack My Life,” took tonight’s theme of “relationships” (Zimmerman just got out of one) as a starting point to dive into material about her newfound relationship with a professional therapist. Eventually describing scenes from her childhood and her very honest challenges dealing with anxiety and panic on a day-to-day basis, van Poppelen’s set exemplified the confessional nature of the show Zimmerman’s put together. In her post-set interview, Joe and Brooke discuss the value of the Anxiety & Phobia Workbook, which they were both familiar with.

Myq Kaplan then brought his typical rapid-fire, stream-of-conscious delivery of stories layered with winding tangents and digressions (“my comedy is like Tetris, you keep waiting for a big long piece to come down and clear away a bunch of rows!”), predominantly discussing how his skeptical investigation of a psychic’s prediction ended up causing it to come true. While Myq’s material is drawn from his more rehearsed set, in interview he is completely candid with details and perspectives from his personal life, including discussing his positive experiences with ayahuasca and (appropriate for tonight’s subject of “relationships”) polyamory. Joe and Myq don’t push this discussion into jokiness, which is frankly refreshing given what easy topics for broad humor those particular subjects could be. I had seen Myq perform three times over the previous month, and Joe and Myq’s discussion of the of his nuanced and considered worldview added new dimensions to his set.

Later, Joe and I spoke about the different ways comedians respond to the interview portions of the show. “There are two different factions of comics,” says Zimmerman, “There’s people who when you interview them, they want all the answers to be hilarious answers, and they’re searching for the funny in their answers. Then you have other comics that aren’t pushing for the funny and get real. And if it gets funny it gets funny and if it doesn’t get funny they’re completely fine with that.” It’s clear that the way comics respond to show’s concept ends up having a lot to do with who they are as performers. And having an immediate dissection of where each comedian was coming from with their sets, learning what they felt was meaningful from their humor, and what was funny about their experiences, fosters a kind of intimacy that’s hard to come by in club shows.

And the space helps. “Brooklyn tends to reward experimentation and punish sets that are more ‘set-up/punchline,’ so a lot of comics will come to Brooklyn and take the chance to be experimental and try new things,” Zimmerman explains. Union Hall is small and cozy, with low ceilings, a convenient bar and an ever-present painting of a matronly figure gazing down from the wall-papered back wall. With a smaller crowd in a space like this, and with Zimmerman’s warm, inquisitive hosting, the separation between performer and audience can feel paper-thin. As Zimmerman explains, “A lot of times when you go to comedy clubs you hear ‘oh, these people don’t want to hear philosophical stuff, they just want to have a laugh after work’ and I respect that. I just wanted to set up one show where the crowd comes looking for that, looking for something more meaningful. So this way the crowd is into it too.”

With Deep-er-ness, Zimmerman offers an intimacy with comedians that’s never dramatic or overbearing. It results in relaxed sets, honest discussion, and as much “philosophical stuff” as each performer feels like divulging—which is really the perfect amount, as you never want a stand-up show to feel like a confession. It’s all a good trip for anyone curious about the craft, context, anxiety and perspective that leads to good stand-up.

Meanwhile, Zimmerman continues to put thoughtfulness on the forefront of his comedy. In addition to preparing material for an hour-long special in November, he is also prepping a book of humorous fiction and short-stories as well as hosting a science-focused comedy podcast called Universe City in which he and two PhD-holding friends discuss various new studies and finds. When I ask if getting at deep truths, both emotional and scientific, are a central theme of the Joe Zimmerman comedy brand, he answers with characteristic nonchalance. “I just happen to be interested in science and so I started that podcast. And I happen to be interested in talking about more meaningful things so I started the show. So I would say these two things are leading me into that direction but I’m not there yet.”

This month’s installment of Deep-Er-Ness happens tomorrow night at Union Hall in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Zimmerman’s guests include Hari Kondabolu, Nick Vatterott, Andy Sandford and Michelle Buteau.

Chris Wade is a video producer and writer in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter @saywhatagain.

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