By Annette Hinkle
Living up to the expectations of others, particularly the people who raised you, has never been easy — most adults have had to deal with the disappointment of a parent at some point in their lives. Bringing home bad grades, sketchy friends, or a spouse with incompatibility issues are just a few common stress points in the timeless realm of parent/child relationships.
But when it comes to familial disappointment, actor and comedian Brad Zimmerman takes things to a whole new level — and willingly makes it public.
There’s an old story about an unknown thespian who says he’s an actor, and is met with the response, “So, you’re a waiter.” In the case of Brad Zimmerman, that couldn’t have been more true.
But instead of sulking, Zimmerman made a piece of theater out of it — and a successful one at that. “My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy,” Zimmerman’s one-man show, has garnered rave reviews wherever he performs it. The show is in the midst of a two weekend run at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton where it is being presented as part of Bay Street @ The Parrish, the Sag Harbor theatre’s summer collaborative program with the museum.
At 56, Zimmerman will tell you he has taken his time honing his performance skills (so will his mother). Years of acting lessons followed by comedy classes and stand-up gigs at clubs around the city have made him comfortable on stage. But it was nearly three decades of experience as a food server that gave him a living while he studied acting, and provided the material that became the basis of his show.
Zimmerman’s last restaurant job was at the Chat and Chew, a comfort food joint on 16th Street in Manhattan, where he worked for over 12 years. Ironically, the decision to finally leave restaurant work behind and take the plunge into full time acting was not entirely his own.
“I was working on my show and using money I had earned to live on,” explains Zimmerman. “The restaurant closed for two weeks. I was not planning to quit, but if they’re closing to renovate, I thought maybe it’s a sign. I took a chance and it worked. In the summer of ‘07 I left after 29 years.”
Zimmerman’s not looking back. These days, he’s opening for Julio Iglesias or performing at Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club in Las Vegas. And even though his own mother had her doubts for a few decades there, Zimmerman notes that she’s quite pleased with the way things are working out for her son.
“I grew up thinking my value was what I did, not who I was. It was another generation,” says Zimmerman of the pressure he felt to give up acting. “But money is the by-product for an artist.”
And today? Zimmerman says his mother is his biggest fan.
There is also something to be said for real life experience. Zimmerman feels his show is finding an audience because, unlike many young comics, rather than just doing what he needs to do to elicit a laugh (cheap or otherwise), he’s using his acting skills and life experience to make the work ring true.
“I’m more of an actor who picked up the comedy,” explains Zimmerman. “The whole show is true. I wouldn’t do comedy if I was just a joke teller. Especially living the life I lived.”
It hasn’t always been easy. In addition to the familial pressures, Zimmerman has also watched others around him find their niche in the world of comedy and acting while he was still taking orders.
“I wanted to be an early bloomer, famous at 25,” he admits. “But at 56, I can’t say how gratifying it is to be hitting my stride. People who made it young and are now in their 30s or 40s are so bitter, they go into clubs with chips on their shoulder.”
Zimmerman does both stand-up comedy and his one-man show, which he describes as a hybrid — part stand-up, part theater. And while portions of his one-man show do find their way into his stand-up act, there are important differences between the two.
“I don’t do the more moving, serious stuff in stand-up,” he says. “For example, I don’t talk about my father dying of cancer in my stand-up act.”
Zimmerman also notes that his training as an actor has taught him not to be afraid of silence. In fact, Zimmerman milks the quiet moment in excruciatingly exquisite fashion at one point in his show as he imitates a customer who can’t decide what to order and the waiter stands by, living up to his title.
“All my acting training has taught me what it’s like to live in silence,” says Zimmerman. “I work really slow, like with the woman who can’t make up her mind to order. There are places where I have eight seconds of silence. Most comedians are deathly afraid of silence, but I’m able to live in it.”
While the humor is evident in “My Son the Waiter,” Zimmerman finds it is truth that ultimately seals the connection with his audiences.
“It’s all about one guy’s lengthy struggle to make it in New York,” explains Zimmerman. “Dealing with a Jewish mother, the fact you’re letting down your family, fear of failure, lack of confidence. I talk about being a waiter for a long time, which is humbling. But I can live with myself. It’s real. There are people who are billionaires who see the show and connect.”
“I’m literally inspired because I really stayed the course, I made a choice,” he adds. “It hit me in my late 40s and early 50s, practice does make perfect. I’m not telling jokes, I’m talking about life. I don’t ever think about punch lines, I think about truth. The most important thing is authenticity — seeing something real.”
Brad Zimmerman performs “My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy” on Friday and Saturday, July 30 and July 31 at 8 p.m. at the Parrish Art Museum (25 Job’s Lane, Southampton) as part of Bay Street @ The Parrish. Tickets are $35. Call the Bay Street Theatre at 725-9500.