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Finding the Funny 

Young, homegrown comedians learn the rules of engagement

"Hated by most and feared by all" is how Joe Zimmerman is introduced as he struts to the stage and aggressively grabs the microphone stand. But before he says a word, the young comic cracks a smile that crooks to one side and slacks open, letting on that his bad-boy image is a parody -- if you couldn't already tell by his puffy, center-parted hair and conservative navy blue button-down.

"Heeeey, everybody," Zimmerman says in the silly Hee-Haw-like tone of a goofus, his self-described persona.

He is performing in front of other novice comedians at Johnny Millwater's free stand-up workshop. It's comedy charity from Millwater, a headlining act who is trying to help local amateurs make the leap from open mic at coffeehouses to MC in comedy clubs in less than the three years it usually takes for comedians with talent.

Zimmerman, who is 24, has been doing stand-up for about 10 months. According to the rule of comedy, his experience is the equivalent of being a 10-month-old baby in real life. Most comedians can guess how long another comedian has been at it, some down to the month, just by listening to his or her act.

Getting laughs is a serious business in the comedy world. Many promoters and bookers will count a comedian's laughs per minute, or LPMs, as they call them. Four to five LPMs show potential for a beginner. Seven to ten, which is a laugh every 6 to 8.5 seconds, mean a comedian is at the level of a headliner like Millwater. Zimmerman gets just over five LPMs.

His three-minute bit tonight is about "being on the prowl." In the set, Zimmerman talks about playing truth or dare with his date:

"She asks me what my favorite flavor of ice cream is, and I tell her it's chocolate. And then I'm like, 'So how many dudes have you slept with?'

"She thought about it. She was like, '73.'" He pauses. "'...ish.'"

"I'm like, 'Whoa!' That's honest. It's a lot for an ish.

"Now she's going, 'Who are you to judge me?'

"All I said was, 'whoa.' Whoa isn't a judgment, it's an expression of surprise. To me, a judgment would have been more like, 'Whoa, you're loose.'

"Now she's pissed. She's going, 'Fine, Mr. Goody Two Shoes, how many women have you slept with?'

"'Three.'" He says while flashing the number like a gang sign. "'..ish. I pretty much get A-round. I had to use the ish too, because like you, I also lost track. Somewhere around two. Two point five. Three point one four. Pie-ish.'"

Zimmerman's act has come a long way. When he first started after graduating from Davidson College, he made many of the classic mistakes. He tried to tell funny stories, and stories never work. Premises take too long and punch lines are nonexistent or have too little pay-off for the time spent on the set-up. Initially, the humor in Zimmerman's material was in the set-up, such as his routine about going to Starbucks and being suckered into upgrading his drink size because the baristas were perky and pleasant to him. He didn't get many laughs.

"I hate thinking about it as set-up and punch line because it sounds so jokey," Zimmerman says. "But if you look at any stand-up comedian, even if they don't sound like they're telling jokes, even if they just look like they're being funny, it's all set-up, punch line, tags."

Tags are add-ons to punch lines and are the best way to get extra laughs. To illustrate the use of tags, Zimmerman retells cult comic Mitch Hedberg's doughnut joke. Depending on the crowd, Hedberg could eke out eight separate laughs from tags in under 30 seconds:

"I bought a doughnut, and they gave me a receipt for the doughnut. [set-up]

"I don't need a receipt for a doughnut. I'll just give you the money, you give me the doughnut. [punch line]

"End of transaction [tag 1]. We do not need to bring ink and paper into this [2]. I just can't imagine a scenario that I would ever have to prove that I bought a doughnut [3]. To some skeptical friend: 'Don't even act like I didn't buy that doughnut.' [4] I got the documentation right here [5]. Oh wait, it's back home in the file [6]. Under 'D' [7]. For doughnut [8]."

Other material Zimmerman tried out in the beginning got laughs, but he decided to cut the successful jokes because they didn't fit his comedic personality. Take this early nugget: "When I die, I want to be reincarnated as a bird. So then I can fly above other birds and shit on them."

Still, comedy teacher Tom Haines and Comedy Zone owner/booker Brian Heffron encourage young comics to copy their favorite comedians before developing a stage personality, which comes with time. Another local amateur with potential is Carlos Valencia, who always wears a fedora and a sport coat over a T-shirt. He mimics Hedberg in his short set-ups, clever and weird punch lines, and apathetic mumbling.

click to enlarge Joe Zimmerman cracks his goofus grin...and fires up the crowd - ANGUS LAMOND
  • Angus Lamond
  • Joe Zimmerman cracks his goofus grin...and fires up the crowd

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