How long have your dreams been on hold? Did you let those dreams disembark from your life, then whizz past them on life’s highway as they frantically tried to flag you down? Eventually, you’re too many exits away to turn around and retrieve those dreams. It’s too late.
Says who?! Not Brad Zimmerman.
In 1978, Brad was in his twenties. He arrived in New York with his heart set on a theater career. He got a job waiting tables and he took acting classes. He waited and he studied and he waited. Decades passed. His confidence failed him. His mother helpfully relayed stories of other people’s successful children. But it turned out Brad wasn’t just taking orders and ferrying filet mignon. He was gathering stories and he was sharply observing human foibles and his own hilariously tetchy reactions.
Twenty-nine years into his unsatisfying career as a waiter, his destination came into view. Note: I said “unsatisfying.” I almost wrote “unrewarding,” but the truth is, those years waiting tables were about to reap big rewards.
A friend took a stand-up class and Brad decided to push past his self-doubt and give it a shot, too. He had all these stories, after all, and no one could tell them like he could.
He continued to wait tables, but now he was frequenting open mics and he wasn’t funneling energy into futility. Newfound purpose and talent propelled him forward.
How far did it get him? This is a good time to hear from Joan Rivers. She said, “I’ve had three great opening acts in my lifetime: Billy Crystal, Garry Shandling, and Brad Zimmerman.” Brad also opened for George Carlin for years, including for Carlin’s last HBO special.
Brad didn’t stop there. He decided that he needed to take his comedy acumen and resurrect his abandoned theater dream. My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy was born. The hybrid piece, “part stand-up, part theater,” as Brad describes it, is all true, and has been a sold-out hit around the country. The show opens at the North Shore Center for Performing Arts on July 6, back by popular demand for a second summer in Chicagoland. It runs through August 13. After the last show, Brad will debut the sequel, My Rise to the Middle for one performance only.
My Son the Waiter is so authentic and relatable that the theater ceases being a theater and the audience ceases being the audience. Instead, we’re good friends sitting in Brad’s apartment (the same one he’s lived in since he got to New York), catching up, commiserating, laughing and being inspired by the human spirit’s ability to break through life’s bottlenecks and emerge with triumph, surprising confidence and if we remember to look, an abundance of comedy. This story is about a fascinating man who knows struggle and then knows purpose. But it’s also about each one of us and our ability to emerge finally as we were meant to be.
Brad kindly spoke with me by phone about how he aligned his journey with his destination and about his remarkable connection with his audience.
Teme: During your table-waiting years, what stopped you from pursuing your acting dream?
Brad: It was lack of belief in my product, fear of failure, and all sorts of self-doubt.
I was a great athlete as a kid and it came very easy. Acting didn’t come quite as easy. I chose acting initially not because I loved it, but because it provided similar perks.
When I came to New York, I didn’t feel like I was really an actor. I felt like I was an athlete acting, or trying to act. So I studied forever and ever and ever. It wasn’t until I took a comedy class in 1996 that I started going out into the world and understanding how invaluable failure is. It’s the only way to improve, unfortunately.
I also realized that if I’m not actively pursuing my career and I’m just studying acting, it means I’m putting “getting better” over getting ahead and actually improving.
Teme: How did you go from not believing in yourself to knowing you could do comedy? How did your thinking change?
Brad: Well, the thinking changed gradually. I look at my life as going from somebody with no purpose – or purpose submerged under resistance and fear – to uncovering this incredible drive and enormous purpose. I’ve never felt more purposeful, but it’s taken an enormously long period of time.
I was waiting tables and had developed material about being a waiter when I first took a comedy class. The class was a springboard to going out into the world. I slowly started doing open mics and “bringer shows,” where you bring a certain amount of people, do ten minutes, and [the club] hires a videographer.
After six years of “bringer shows,” I got a great tape. I started sending it out and getting calls for jobs. So that was really the beginning of making money. I still waited tables for many years after that, many years. But from [allowing myself] to go out and fail, I’m now in this vicinity of real belief.
It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve done My Son the Waiter, there are always adjustments. As I’ve focused on the show, it has emerged as a unique, one-of-a-kind product and my belief [in myself] has evolved with it. My confidence now is similar to what it was when I was an athlete. It’s been a very slow, gradual, but ultimately, remarkably rewarding process. It takes as long as it takes, and I’m a late bloomer.
Teme: I’m a late bloomer, too, so I totally hear that.
Brad: Self-improvement is the ultimate natural high. I’m not talking about minor self-improvement until you get confident. I’m talking the sublime where you create something that stands on its own, that is totally authentic.
While I’m doing My Son the Waiter, I’m also working on the sequel, My Rise to the Middle. If I was just doing My Son the Waiter, I would be very depressed. You have to keep the process going. It hasn’t been sold and it’s still in progress, but just working on it and seeing if I can get a second marketable piece is a challenge that gives me enormous purpose.
Teme: I saw an interview where you said that at one point you were thinking of ending your one-man show, but your therapist said, “You’ll keep doing it because you like a challenge.”
Brad: That’s enormously poignant.
Teme: It really moved me.
Brad: I had been saying to myself, “The show is going to make me a name. It’s going to increase my income.” When I walked into therapy that day in 2007, I said, “I’ve already been working on this show for two years. What’s the point?” But when he said the word “challenge,” he took away the pressure. Now, like an athlete, I see life as a challenge.
Teme: I tend to think of endeavors as either successes or failures and that’s stressful. When I heard that story, I realized that if I re-frame and instead think of things as challenges, it removes that stress.
Brad: Absolutely. I have a bible. It’s called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
Teme: Oh, yeah, about resistance.
Brad: Yes. He says you focus on the work and the rewards come or they don’t, but just keep doing it. He put me in touch with the understanding of “process.” When you start out, you think everything has to be perfect and brilliant, and failure is humiliating.
I moved to New York at twenty-four. I’m sixty-three. Now I understand that everything was part of the process that has taken me to where I am now. When you can understand what the difference is between process and end result, then you understand it’s about the journey not the destination. That takes away some of that pressure, too.
Teme: Do you think that the resistance has become less of, or not even a factor?
Brad: I don’t even think there is any, really. I’m plowing forward. I’ve rented a theater in California in August to do two shows of my sequel. I’ve rented a theater in New York, which I’ve done for the past two years. I feel like I’m sort of a warrior. I’m lasered in. I can’t be stopped.
Although, the resistance is always going to be there a little bit. Like, “Why am I on Facebook when I should be doing the work?” You know what I mean?
Brad: But that’s normal. I get my work done. That’s the important thing. I stay in great shape, which is all part of having a great product; staying in shape, eating well, being healthy mentally, physically, emotionally, always trying to make adjustments.
There’s a concept called “deliberate practice.” It is the most important aspect other than drive in the equation of getting great at something.
“Deliberate practice” is knowing where work needs to be done, being aware of the need to make adjustments and being able to handle criticism and put it into the work.
I just did an hour of comedy last night in Florida. I haven’t done stand-up in a long time and it was outside my comfort zone. It went fine, but I was flailing a little bit and there were moments when I didn’t know what I’m going to say next.
The difference between last night and twenty-five years ago is then, I would have been speaking from a place of incredible depression whereas now I’m speaking to you from a place of, “I did it. It’s over with. Move on.” That in itself is enormous growth.
Teme: One of many compliments I’ve heard about your show is that it’s very relatable, very universal. What makes it so very easy to connect with?
Brad: Oscar Wilde once said, “Be yourself, everyone else is taken.” It’s my favorite quote ever. I’ve learned to be who I am. What makes [my show] relatable is telling the truth. A lot of writing today is contrived and about getting to the punchline. My process over the years has been about writing for me, not targeting an audience. I’m writing my truth and as such, the more specific I get, the more universal it becomes.
I talk about things that really have gotten under my skin that people can relate to. Whether it’s health food, or airplane delays, or reality television, or sports. Then there’s the whole Jewish mother thing. I have a long section about that. People don’t have to be Jewish to say, “Oh, my mother is like that!”
That’s called truth. Everybody gets it. It doesn’t even have to be a punchline. I write about what I know and really dig deep. It’s so specific that it does become relatable.
When you’re real, people will say, “It’s almost like we were in your living room.” One of the best reviews I’ve ever gotten was in Atlanta. She said, “It felt like [the show] wasn’t even memorized. It was like it was so spontaneous that there was no script.” That’s high praise for me.
Teme: Your delivery feels very natural.
Brad: The delivery I’ve developed is very deliberate. Every sentence has meaning. My therapist once said, “An audience needs time to process. If you’re rushing, the audience has to be on guard,” whereas I put them at ease. Sit back. There’s no rush.
Teme: It’s very relaxing for the audience.
Brad: Yes. Some comedians bombard you because they’re afraid of silence. I’ve learned to live in silence. Tommy Smothers saw me open for Carlin right before his last HBO special and paid me one of the highest compliments I’ve ever had. He said, “I love your air.” He was saying, “I love your pauses.” He also said, “Hardly anybody works like that anymore.” He used to work like that, him and his brother. They were all about pauses.
Teme: It’s really an art, the art of the silence.
Brad: It truly is.
Teme: How would you define Jewish humor?
Brad: The first word that comes to mind is angst. It’s emotionally driven. Maybe it comes from a long history of being the underdogs or the outcasts … Having to rely on humor to survive, so it’s life and death.
That’s still a very difficult question to answer. It’s like Jews and food. Jackie Mason talks about gentiles. They’re mellow and are like, “I just want a bourbon on the rocks.” But Jews with the food. You’re eating breakfast and your mother says, “What do you want for dinner?”
Brad: It’s hard to define. It’s an energy. I was born to be a Jew. I’m neurotic, I’m emotional, I overreact, I’m angry at times. All of these things that can define a Jew.
Teme: Yep, that’s me. I completely relate. I’m always in a foxhole.
Brad: Right, yeah, I get you. That’s very interesting. I love that image.
Teme: What are the keys to great storytelling?
Brad: Connection, really connecting to an audience. Don’t be general. Be specific. Don’t rush. Ultimately, it’s the authenticity. Be real. Be yourself.
Teme: What is your favorite or most memorable encounter with an audience member?
Brad: When somebody says, “You’re so real,” or they say, “That ninety minutes went by so quickly.” When somebody says that, holy shit, that’s like saying, “I could listen to you for another hour and a half.”
I’ve seen one-man shows where at intermission, I don’t care who it is, I want to leave. There’s nobody who could interest me for that long. So that’s the greatest compliment, when somebody says, “It went by so fast.”
Teme: What does your mom say about the show?
Brad: She’s enormously proud of what I’ve done and still thinks like the Jewish mother about finances and all that stuff. But she loves the show, and she loves the fact that she’ll get calls from people she’s never met, or they’ll stop her and say, “I saw your son, he’s so fabulous.”
Teme: What is a typical day like when you’re in Chicago?
Brad: I find my Starbucks, I find my gym, and I rehearse. One thing I’ll be heavily doing is rehearsing the sequel because I will be doing it once [in Chicago].
Those are the three big priorities. Rehearsal is going to be huge for me because I want to make sure [the sequel] is in my muscles when I do it in Chicago, and then California. Those are the three things, but when I was there last year I had friends I reconnected with. I had a very brief interlude with a woman who pursued me, which happens a lot because they get to know me [in the show] and they go, “Oh, I’m interested.” It didn’t work out, but she was a lovely woman, lovely, a great lady. But the connection ultimately wasn’t there for me.
While I’m there, my schedule is a rigid, organized thing where my off-days are blissful because six shows a week is grueling.
Teme: It must be!
Brad: I’m a huge reader, so on the off-days after I do all my work, I’ll go to Barnes & Noble and hang out there or have a bite to eat someplace. I’m huge on reading the sports. There are all sorts of things that give me great joy, but are very simple.
I’m sure I’ll reconnect with other people and new people who are coming to see the show. Last year, someone took me on the boat tour on the Chicago River. I’ve gone out to eat with couples that have befriended me. I love meeting new people.
Teme: People who are audience members?
Brad: Oh yes, oh absolutely.
Teme: That’s such a tribute to how real and authentic you are because people feel they know you and that you’re a friend as they leave.
Teme: That’s really cool. Oh, and what are you reading now?
Brad: I’m reading Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo.
Teme: Is there any question you hope someone will ask in an interview?
Brad: “What advice would you give somebody who wants to enter into the arts?”
Teme: What would you tell them?
Brad: It opens up a whole can of worms. The pros, the cons. It’s not an easy question to answer. In order to answer it, you’d have to ask a lot of questions of the person who asked you. How driven are you? How much do you love what you do? Are you going to listen to your parents? Are you going to listen to your heart? How important is having a family?
Ultimately, you say, “Get great.” That’s everything.
Teme: What would you say is at the core of getting great?
Brad: Drive is number one. If you have the drive, then you have the perseverance. It’s devoting your life to getting the most out of a specific discipline. In other words, mastery is everything. Self-improvement is empowering.
Teme: Is it important not to splinter your focus?
Brad: Absolutely. A lot of people spread themselves so thin that everything is “good.” But just focus on one thing and see if you can make it sublime. That to me is everything.
Teme: What would you say makes something sublime?
Brad: Precision. Making sure that every word is the right word. Twain once said, “The difference between almost the right word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and the lightning.”
It’s the ability to stick with something until it’s right. So many people have short attention spans. They’re constantly moving on to other material when something isn’t finished. There are pieces that I’m working on for three years, where I finally go, “Got it.”
Teme: That’s a great answer. My last question is what else would you like your audience members to know?
Brad: That I’m a great lover.
Brad: I’m only kidding.
Teme: Well, that’s not a bad thing to know.
Brad: It would be that if you can find something that gives your life meaning, real meaning, you’re home. So many people give up. If you can stick with it, if you have the courage to stay the course, the potential reward is unequaled.
You can see My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy from July 6-August 13 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Tickets and more details here.
More about Brad at bradzcomedy.com.
You can stay up to date with Comedians Defying Gravity by typing your email address in the box and clicking the “create subscription” button. My list is completely spam, spam, spam, spam free, and you can opt out at any time.