About a Joke: Joe Zimmerman’s “Lasik Vs. Contacts”

In my “About a Joke” series I will write about a stand-up comedy clip and how the joke writing reminds me of certain techniques and tricks I have talked about in my “How to Write Stand-up Comedy” series. Both series are companions to the Have You Heard This podcast in which I have conversations with comedians that explore a new and developing joke from their act.

The very funny comedian Joe Zimmerman recently posted a clip to his Instagram account from an appearance he made on The Tonight Show. You can watch his full set from the show here but I mostly want to focus on the joke he recently shared. Here it is:

Joe is a great comedian and writer. This bit is a fantastic look into his comedic style, joke-writing ability, and how he’s able to relay his comedic persona in a tightly written, very funny story that stems from exploring a single tip from his therapist – “find the worst thing that can happen.”

That, in itself, is a powerful start to a comedic premise. Especially for someone like Joe who conveys the comedic persona of an overthinker. The simple prompt leads him down a rabbit hole that starts with a relatively normal (yet hilariously phrased and delivered) fear that the lasers used for the surgery will “explode my eyeballs.” His mind won’t stop him there, however, as he imagines himself suing the doctor who botched the surgery, losing, and then losing a counter-suit which would land him in major debt.

Finally, Joe hits the comedic “rule of three” by providing a third example of an even worse “thing that could happen” in a scenario that leads him to blindly leave evidence on a dead body. This third example properly heightens his first two (comparatively) normal fears and brings home the joke with a bang.

I personally don’t know how Joe wrote this joke, but I do like to hypothetically “reverse engineer” joke writing by imagining that the comedian used tools from my own joke writing toolbox to come up with their bits. His third example of being afraid of accidentally leaving evidence on a dead body could very well be pulled from a list Joe keeps in his notebook of things that he fears. Just like I wrote about here.

It’s entirely possible Joe just sat down and naturally came to the conclusion that the third “worst thing that could happen” would be to possibly implement himself in a stranger’s death. He most likely didn’t have to take a look at a previously written list of “Things Joe is Afraid Of” to come up with this. But I bet this fear is something he thought about before he wrote this joke. And there will be plenty of times while working on a joke that the answer won’t come naturally or be right there to pull from. Keeping a list of things that bring out strong emotions will come in handy in instances like this.

This joke hits so hard for many reasons. Joe is a great writer and performer, for sure. Part of that great writing is the natural progression of his fears as they get more and more ridiculous, yet still in the realm of “possibility”. And another part is the relatable nature of Joe’s fear of accidentally leaving fingerprints on a dead body. That in itself could be a premise for an entire joke but works even more perfect as the final punchline is this well-crafted bit. Trying to start a joke with the premise “I’m always afraid I’ll accidentally leave my DNA on a dead body” would probably seem clunky, forced, and might lose the audience. But when it comes as the final example in a series of progressively stranger fears, the audience is allowed to go on the journey with Joe and is reminded that their brains can do similar things when left to wander.

Not everything you write on your lists will end up being a standalone joke. But that doesn’t mean you’ll never use them. This joke is a perfect, hilarious example of how saving those feelings could help put the finishing touches on a bit when looking for the right example of a “strong emotion” to wrap things up.

More About Joe Zimmerman

Joe Zimmerman grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia, and started his comedy career in North Carolina. While living in the South, his stand-up group the Beards of Comedy landed a record deal with Comedy Central Records. He moved to New York City in 2012, quickly appearing on The Late Late Show and John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show, as well as performing at Montreal’s prestigious Just for Laughs festival. His resume has since grown to include The Tonight Show, Conan, Nickelodeon, Last Comic Standing, and his own Comedy Central Half Hour. Joe’s solo album Smiling at Wolves reached number two on the iTunes comedy charts and is played regularly on SiriusXM. (His second, Innocence, is due this summer on Comedy Central Records.) He has also contributed humor pieces to The New York Times.

Joe’s new podcast, “A Great Listening Experience” details his questionable attempts to attain infinite knowledge and power. Among his many podcast & radio appearances, he has recently appeared on 2 Dope Queens, The Dork Forest, Bob & Tom, The Todd Barry Podcast, and The Artie Lange Show. Joe is frequently touring, headlining clubs around the country, and occasionally opening for superstars Brian Regan and Ricky Gervais.

Aaron Hertzog is a Los Angeles-based comedian and writer. He started his career in Philadelphia where he was named “Best Stand-Up Comedian” at the WitOut Awards for Philadelphia Comedy. He hosts the Have You Heard This podcast, in which he has conversations with comedians that explore a new and developing joke from their act. His debut stand-up comedy album “Delicious Mistake” along with weekly bonus podcast episodes are available for subscribers on Patreon.

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