Interview: Standup Comic Jeff Simmermon Tells (Not So) Tall Tales


Jeff Simmermon may be an award-winning slam storyteller whose live appearances at the Moth in NYC, on radio with NPR’s This American Life, and in written form in The Paris Review Daily, have made him the toast of the contemporary literati. Yet, it is as a standup comic that he is currently having the most effect (or at least the most fun). Now, as Simmermon commences his debut comedy club tour this Spring 2017 in support of his rousing new album (pink vinyl, yet) And I Am Not Lying, he covers everything from hanging out with Reverend Al Sharpton to dating in Australia. He called us from his home in New York City, just before the start of his tour.

A.D. Amorosi: I’ve seen you in the past, sans facial hair, and I have to say that you are really letting that beard grow out. Why is that?
Jeff Simmermon: I went camping in the Outback in 2015 and simply haven’t shaved since I got back. It just kept going.

A.D.: You talk about Australia quite a bit in your act. It’s vast, I’ve been there. You lived and worked there in the early aughts. What’s the attraction?
Jeff: I grew up loving Road Warrior movies, so there’s that, Plus I met a woman online in 2003 before I realized that maybe I shouldn’t fall in love via the internet, which I did. So I sold my drums, my records and my van to fly out and meet her. I moved in with her for like 9 months, so it worked for a minute. I made friends, some of my best, too, and spent time in the Outback, camping, with kangaroos. Australia really got down into my soul. All that space, though it looks like nothing’s going on, is teeming with life. And I love the quiet and extreme heat. I grew up on the East Coast – there’s no quiet there.

A.D.: So the title of the new album automatically signals to me – the skeptic – that you might be lying. What percentage of the stories that you committed to vinyl are true? Because how true is true these days?
Jeff: That’s a fair question to ask as any questions of truth are appealingly relevant. When I came back from Australia I started a blog by the same name, and that comes from when I was growing up in Virginia, you would always here people telling stories – incredible ones, truly tall ones – that always ended with these great Southern accents, “and you know I am not lying.” Which means it’s all true, but I ramped it up. I don’t want to pull a Mike Daisey here – so yes, if a New York Times fact checker worked on this record, they’d have a problem, but more due to the time frames than anything else.

A.D.: So, you’re never actually lying, you just need a better watch and a calendar.
Jeff: Exactly. They’re more efficiently told. Plus, I picked stories that are hard to believe – like having a band with a chicken in it.

A.D.: See, as a music writer, I KNOW about your chicken band and its legacy. Do you think truth is overrated or malleable in 2017, and for the better or for the worse?
Jeff: If you’re talking about politics, it’s for the worse. Absolutely. I’m not running for office. Look at Al Franken. He’s had to change his shtick the further he’s got into office. Without turning this into an anti-Trump fest….

A.D.: …which everything automatically becomes now, which drives me nuts. I mean, there are other topics.
Jeff: Exactly. This all sucks. The fact that we can’t trust that anyone is telling the truth is a stain on our culture, and that’s never going to come out. When I’m old, Trump is gone and we are living in some Judge Dread society, that stain will still be on this jacket. Everyone’s going to know it.

A.D.: But it’s great for comics and storytellers. Anything goes.
Jeff: The goal, my goal, is that you have a good time. I am going to take everything in my life that wasn’t a good time at all and magnify it. If I have to remix the time line to make you laugh, so be it.

A.D.: Forget about the roles of ‘storyteller’ or ‘comedian’. Do you feel as if the primary goal of storytellers or slam artists is to make people laugh now? Because I have been to countless storytelling events and few do not come with laughs, as opposed to, say, sadness or hard drama.
Jeff: That’s a really good question, but, we need to break that down into smaller chunks. That’s worth a graduate class in itself. Telling a story in the way we’ve done since w hunted down mastodons happen in the way that they need to be.  Laugh or not, you have to serve the story. Some of my favorite films, like Road Warrior, aren’t laughers. Then you look at another fave like RoboCop, and it’s funny as hell. The goal of storytelling should be coherent and show change. What I see now in storytelling – the scene and the culture of NYC for example – we need some laughs, man. Patrice O’Neal was a great example of a great comedian, and an amazing storyteller. He could tell you something completely misogynistic – something that I don’t believe in at all – but he could make you see the wisdom in it, because he was so good. You got his idea real fast. Daniel Kitson is so on his own planet, an alien relic who has been on Earth longer than anything. He works humor into absolutely everything that he does. Humor is a punctuation, it keeps people on board. Humor makes sure that a story is not a funeral dirge without relief.

A.D.: I always say that if even the bleakest, darkest story doesn’t allow some light in, it doesn’t work.
Jeff: Good. Yes. Exactly. I teach a class about how to put laughs into the darkest stories. I think it’s critical to getting an audience on board and keeping them there. It reminds you that, hey, we’re alive here.

A.D.: Do you know when you decided to move the balance of the stories you were telling toward going for broke and getting more of the laughs?
Jeff: One painful origin story – like getting bit by a radioactive spider TWICE – is when I was hosting my first show at Caroline’s on Broadway for a very popular comedian.

A.D: Whose name you will not divulge.
Jeff: I can’t. But he’s well respected and hot. I don’t want to sound like I’m coat-tailing, but while he was on his way up, I got a job hosting for him there. He asked, I did it, after just doing This American Life a month previous. As a beginning person, I thought, well, "Ira Glass has laughed at my little witticisms, of course Caroline’s on Broadway would be onboard."

A.D.: And would fall to their feet, which they didn’t. Because Noel Coward wit isn’t laugh out loud comedy.
Jeff: Exactly. Three minutes into it I had sweated through a three-piece suit with steam on my glasses. People on dates there didn’t get laid because of me.

A.D.: What did you learn from your famous comic that night that you have taken with you?
Jeff: That, in a comedy club, no one is there to listen,they are there to do as little work as possible. They want to laugh after getting a baby sitter and paying a stupid two drink minimum. Those things raise the stakes, so you have one minute before your audience starts playing with their phones and checking out. So I went after it as a quest. I wanted to break that horse.

Jeff Simmermon: Friday June 9, 11:59 PM, UCB East, 153 East 3rd Street, New York, NY,;  Saturday, June 10, 11:30 PM, Good Good Comedy, 215 N 7th Street, Philadelphia, PA,

Photo Courtesy of Comedy Dynamics

Posted on Friday, June 9, 2017