The headline reads “I’m Queer, and I Love My Evangelical Mom.” In the viral post, comedian Zach Zimmerman details how, in an almost Love, Simon-esque scene, he nearly came out to an audience of 30,000 during his college graduation. The only thing standing in his way: His Southern, conservative parents.
Like everything Zimmerman does, the story is vulnerable, heartfelt and laugh-out-loud funny. The New York City-based comedian has crafted a career that deftly toes the line between “sweet Southern gay moves to the big city” relatability and whip-smart, iconoclast alt-comedy. From his Baptist upbringing to unsolicited butthole videos, Zimmerman can seamlessly swing from sweet to shocking and back, all while leaving audiences gasping for air.
It’s certainly been a recipe for success. Zimmerman’s album, Clean Comedy, debuted in Billboard’s top ten comedy albums and at No. 1 on iTunes.
Between his nightly comedy gigs, appearing on Scruff’s live trivia gameshow Hosting and preparing for the next performance of his show 100 People In a Room (yes, it’s inspired by the Gaga quote), we got Zimmerman to chat with us about his work, his mother, his favorite chain restaurants and more.
So, I’ve read your recent piece about you and your mom.
That was like seven months in the making. The first pitch was “I Love My Homophobic Mom,” and then I gradually had conversations with her where she doesn’t identify as homophobic, even though she believes marriage is between a man and a woman, which some would argue is a rationalization of homophobia. Our relationship continues to evolve, even though she has not listened to the album and probably won’t read this piece. It’s funny how it keeps changing with each piece of art I make about it. So I’m just hoping it’s trending in the right direction.
It feels like you found a way to navigate that relationship without compromising who you are and what you do.
It feels still like it could all fall apart at any moment. Like the wrong word could get said. It feels like you’re navigating a field of landmines, and just through experience learn where they are. And you don’t have any limbs left, because you’ve already stepped on too many. But now you kind of slowly make your way through it and memorizing what the path is. Like ‘Oh, this word is dangerous, let’s avoid this word or this whole topic or category of things.’ Some days you want a little drama, and you lean into it. Other days, I just want to be told ‘I love you’ from my mom; I’m not going to bring up the clusterf*ck du jour from the Trump administration. A friend this weekend, a straight friend, made this comment that he was jealous of my relationship with my parents. His parents are progressive, he’s progressive, but he commented on what seems like an intimacy we have about talking about bigger topics. That was surprising for me, because I think we have a difficult relationship, but because it’s difficult we all have to work harder at it, which means that we haven’t just been coasting. Maybe all this hard, hard, hard emotional labor is inspiring other people to have relationships with their family, and it’s all not for naught. Because it’s exhausting on the inside.
What was it about comedy specifically that spoke to you?
I did plays in high school, and then it was sort of improv in college that started to encourage me. Eventually, I got very bored with saying the words that people had written, and I got very interested in writing my own words as a way to figure out what I actually believed about the world. Because with improv you could get away with not having a fully-fledged set of beliefs. With stand-up when you sit down to write a joke, you have to actually know how you feel about things. That was not a thing I really knew for the longest time. Since I had such a huge identity switch in my life, from this Southern Baptist carnivore to a gay, vegetarian atheist, I was still learning how to walk. I didn’t yet know how I felt about the things I was holding on to that were helping me walk yet. Now, I know what I am. I’m an out, queer, 30-year-old comedian with anxiety and depression and a tendency to catastrophize and a history of being attracted to men that are withholding. This is how I feel about XYZ. I think that’s maybe what drew it to me. It’s an artform that helps you make sense of the world, rather than getting a script for a play and delving into that character, which gives a totally valid way to learn about the human experience. But I’ve always been someone who — if we really want to go deep, deep down, Bobby — it’s because my dad never let me talk at the dinner table very much. So he created a f*cking stand-up comedian. So, to all the fathers out there, let your kids talk and interact with them, or they’ll become stand-ups, and we have plenty of those, I think.
I love the way you talk about chain restaurants on the album. From coming out at an Olive Garden to your mom’s work at Red Lobster, they’re something of a motif to the album. What is it about these fast-casual chain restaurants that speaks to you?
I, like a lot of people I imagine in suburban areas, just grew up on those chain restaurants. My mom was a Red Lobster server, so I would go there as a kid. She got a discount at Olive Garden, so I would go there for every birthday. We would go there after church. Before I knew any better about local spots or red sauce Italian restaurants with Yelp reviews, I was just being carted to these chain restaurants … Some part of it is nostalgia, and then you experience it ironically as an adult. Like ‘Oh, I ate this before I knew better, and now I know better, and I’m going to go back and do it nostalgically.’ When my mom visited, we went to see Waitress the musical, which she loved, because she’s a waitress. Afterward, we went to the Olive Garden in Times Square, we had a competent meal, and it was spacious and comfortable. It’s always going to be tied up in this childhood nostalgia and now this ironic enjoyment. Also, while I was there, I was like I kind just want to come back and sit in the Times Square Olive Garden as a subversive way of subverting the ironic fascination, too. I guess it’s similar to my relationship with my mom. There are many sides to it, and it morphs and changes depending on the action. Am I making fun of Olive Garden when I go to Olive Garden? There’s a joy to it, there’s a childhood joy to these chain restaurants. Then there’s the joy of being in on the joke, like no one really likes this place, or it’s like kitsch or cliché.
I think there’s something almost inherently queer about them. They’re campy! The decor in Applebee’s could be a Boxers or Rockbar.
Even the birthday song from Olive Garden, which I can sing from memory, that’s total queer camp. At the comedy show, I asked my mom if that was the most gay people she’s ever seen before. She was like, “No there were like nine of them at Red Lobster!” There’s a long history of actors waiting tables, there’s something queer about working at certain restaurants … We need to reclaim the chain restaurants.
Oh my god, Zach, are we opening a restaurant?
I love the part of the album when you go on a random date with an audience member. Has that bit ever ended in actual romance?
I’m about to go to dinner with Mark from the album once we get off the phone.
We’ve become buds. We decided we’re going to get married one day, but neither of us want to get married right now. So we’re just kind of killing time. I will say, in Edinburgh, I had a lot more sex than I planned to, because people see you opening up on stage, and they feel like they know you really well. I tend to sincerely flirt with the person. Maybe it’s why groupies sleep with a rock star after a show. No long-term relationships have come from it.
I almost want to hear more about the short-term relationships. That’s what the readers are here for, honey.
There’s a little cutie in Edinburgh whose company I enjoyed. And a drag queen who ghosted me. At the album recording, the guy I flirted with’s husband has become a huge advocate of me and my career … I’m still looking for the one. Right now I’m so career-focused, it feels like any bit of energy I could put toward romantic relationships is wasted on career. I’m sure that just means I’m going to burn out in six months and die alone with my resume in my hand.
What would your advice be for the next generation of baby gays finding their voice and realizing it might not sound like what their parents wanted?
Here’s a little nugget I’ve only ever given in person in the moment, but it’s being shared. It popped into my head while I was drinking iced coffee with a little whisky in it, and I had just gotten my fingernails painted. I don’t claim it, but it’s a piece of wisdom:
You haven’t been waiting for the world to realize your greatness. The world has been waiting for you to realize your greatness.
That little phrase slipped into my noggin and there by a god I don’t believe in, it helped me realize you have to look inward and make choices with yourself and have a belief in yourself. That’s when people’s heads will turn, and they will notice you and take you seriously.
And get some good headshots.
Zach Zimmerman’s debut album Clean Comedy is available now.