When Zach Zimmerman was a boy, his father, a mechanic and assistant pastor at the local church, preached at the table, telling his son, “If you’re not saved, Zachary, you’re going to Hell when you die.”
His mother shared those beliefs and routinely prepared a meal of Southern fare that, Zimmerman writes, seemed to declare, “We’re all going to die of heart attacks, so let’s do it. like a family.”
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For Zimmerman, who grew up gay, atheist and vegetarian, childhood was a time of questioning and self-doubt, causing pain and insecurity, but also providing plenty of fodder for a career in comedy.
Now Zimmerman, whose stand-up career has earned him praise in the New York Times, Vulture and USA Today, has written his first book, a collection of essays called Is It Hot in Here? Or do I suffer for all eternity for the sins I committed on Earth?”
There are humorous pieces and essays about his love life and work at Papa John’s, but much of the book revolves around family.
“Family members always have the nuclear codes for each other, the precise collection of words and phrases that, when entered, cause total annihilation.”
Zimmerman recently discussed essays over a vegetarian lunch at a Brooklyn restaurant he references in his stand-up for all the donuts he bought there. (So, vegetarian, but I’m headed for that heart attack anyway.)
Q. What made you think you could write a book?
Illusion. There is actually a book “The Delusion” by another Zach Zimmerman. I think it’s self-published. I heard about it during the pandemic when a telemarketer called and said, “Zach, we’d love to publish your book.” And I said, “What?” And they said they saw it online. When I said I wasn’t, they asked if I had a book and I said, “I guess I might have a book.”
Ever since I was a child I wanted to write a book. Just to feel immortal.
In high school, I dramatized my life in a novel, but mostly I just took screenshots of my flirting messages and put them in a book. While I was working on the sketch comedy Second City on a cruise ship, I was hiding in my room and writing a really bad novel about passwords.
Really, the pandemic was the trigger for this book because I had far too much free time to analyze all my demons. I have insight into my life and funny stories to put it all together, so I thought this was the right time.
I felt imposter syndrome the whole time I wrote it, and even now it doesn’t quite feel real. I learned what “DNF” means. It’s on Goodreads for Not Finished. It was very traumatic. I need to stay off Goodreads.
I think there are three fantastic sentences in this book that are worth the $17.
Q. What are these?
I can’t give that.
Q. Was it hard to figure out what was funny on the page without the audience laughing?
What is the difference between stand-up and writing? Writing is sad and lonely, while stand-up is sad and lonely.
But I’ve honed my stand-up voice enough to know what is and isn’t funny. Stand-up is more of a note, and in prose you play a whole orchestra of sounds and it doesn’t have to be the last word in the sentence. You can come up with a humorous idea and say funny things along the way.
Q. Did writing the book help you get to know each other better?
One hundred percent. You are confronting your own negative self-talk. You hear that voice that says, “This story isn’t worth it,” or “That’s a terrible line,” and I’ve had to learn to quiet that voice when I’m writing and being playful. Then when you edit, you can be mean to yourself. But I also learned to be funny and kind to myself. I’ll say, “Oh, Zach from a month ago, I see what you were trying to do there. But it didn’t quite make it onto the page.”
But I think you only understand your whole life the day you die, so any book written before is a work in progress.
Q. There is a mix of personal essays and there are simple humorous pieces. Was that always part of the plan?
I wanted to have different types of essays, some a single moment of life and somewhere there is a jump in time. For the essays, I’ve tried to choose moments that are meaningful, whether they’re funny because something terrible happened to me and now I have perspective, or moments that aren’t funny and I’m just trying to capture the truth and rawness of the moment. I didn’t originally plan to have humor pieces, but this was a suggestion from my editor and it was exciting for me. Humor can definitely take people’s guards down and then hit them with a devastating truth.
Some of the weirder stuff was cut, like a bit about being put in a Facebook group with all these other Zach Zimmmermans; My editor said all the other pieces let her think about more things and this was a mark.
Q. How much do you emphasize the reality of your stories in stand-up and then in these essays?
I’m leaning towards 100% true because of my evangelical fear of lying. I remember the first time I created a composite character in stand-up—I was dating two different people and it was a cleaner, funnier story to combine them—and I felt like I was lying. But ultimately I think it’s okay in stand-up to step up the scripts. In this, as non-fiction prose, I have done my best to be real and honest.
Q. What do your parents think of the book?
Mom got to chapter three and then she said there were some things Mom didn’t need to read. I spoke to Dan Savage and he said that he redacted certain chapters before he gave the book to his mother, so in hindsight there was no need for me to send him those parts.
I’ve been through this before. Looks like mom loves the limelight. I have a thing about her working at Red Lobster and it went viral on TikTok and her first response was “I’m going to get fired,” but then she saw all the responses and the love and said, “I think it’s fun. .”