Meet Zach Zucker, the Bad Bi Boy Clown

By Jennie Roberson

July 18, 2023



Is clown work still important? Yes, it is. A variety clown show has been playing in packed venues in Hollywood, New York, the UK (including at the Edinburgh Fringe), and Australia. Zach Zucker is the creator of Stamptown and the new star of the alternative comedy scene. Headliners have been begging to book and perform with his live theater company. The result is a joyous, genius show. After a night of the dizzying, dazzling, unfettered theatrical chaos that is Stamptown, you’ll know why Sacha Baron Cohen is such a fan.

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Zucker about his career trajectory. We discussed his beginnings: attending a one-off workshop that led him to travel halfway across the globe to spend two years training under a famed French clown who taught Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, and Oscar-winners Roberto Benigni and Emma Thompson. We also talked about how his award-winning Edinburgh Fringe act came together; and what it’s like to streak through a US embassy in the name of art.

Image/Dylan Woodley

How did you come to identify as bi or queer?

ZACH ZUCKER: Ooh. Do you mean when did I know, or when did I actually act upon it? 

Whichever most resonates with you, or first comes to mind when I ask that question.

The signs were always there. I used to go to a summer sleepaway camp, like every good Jewish boy. I used to host SGDPs, “super gay dance parties”, and I would just play any combo of Miley Cyrus — she was in her Hannah Montana era back then — and songs you could get down to and go wild, and everyone in our group loved it. Everybody loves an SGDP. We would dance around and go crazy. I started hooking up with guys at that same summer camp when I was fourteen, but “it wasn't gay because we weren't kissing.”

So I had that exploration period, but then, as a conscious adult, at probably around seventeen or eighteen, I realized: “Okay, I'm not just a straight guy.” And when I moved to LA and had a bit of time out here at around nineteen, I started to openly say it. So I was probably nineteen, to be honest.

What has it been like to be out as a bi artist and performer?

Most of the time, it's all right. I predominantly inhabit queer and queer-friendly spaces. I think it's obvious if you look at me or talk to me or spend any time with me that I'm not a normie straight person. I think being straight is a weird choice, anyway. [laughs] And being straight is a choice.

But there are times when I am reminded that there's a stark contrast between that and being in a more hetero comedy space, which most comedy clubs are. Whether or not people are actively problematic, people are less exposed to queerness there. In my world, everyone I know has some sort of non-traditional identity, orientation, gender identity, or sexual preference. So that's normal to me. And when I go back into spaces where that's not normal and where people think it's crazy that I'm bi or can't comprehend it, sometimes I feel that I have to create space for myself because there isn’t necessarily any space for me there.

Most of the time, people are pretty positive and supportive. But there are a few exceptions. I make some jokes about this in my sets. My previous agents, who dropped me — I've got new ones now, so I'm happy — at the beginning of the year, told me — I'll never forget it — that I was “just like every other white guy”. And I said, “Well, I am a bisexual Jew, so technically, I am a minority.” And they said, “Yeah, but everybody's bi, and no one really cares that you're Jewish.” The whole “everybody's bi” or “that doesn't count” thing really upsets me because I spend a lot of my time wrestling with and trying to understand this identity, to be comfortable with it, and to create the space for myself to be okay with it.

So it's frustrating. It's frustrating to have your peers and close friends deny what you're going through or brush it off as no big deal. That sucks.

It's so annoying when people who are supposed to be on your team are dismissive of your intersectional, marginalized identities, which is part of what you bring to the table, part of what helps you to tell your stories in a different way.

That’s right. There’s no benefit to dismissing that. They're not getting anything out of it, nor would they miss out on anything by not doing that. And it creates this weird, unnecessary divide and distrust between me and whomever I'm working with. It’s such a small thing to have a hard stance on. You made me uncomfortable, and you didn’t need to do that.

How do you see yourself as an artist and how does being bi fold into that?

I don't know how to identify as an artist. I just call myself a performer. I don't really call myself a comedian. I know I am more of a comedic actor, a comedic performer, a clown. I guess I call myself a “clown” because of the novelty. The bisexual connection is that I love people. I love to entertain, I love to please, and I love to make people feel comfortable. I like to be the master of ceremonies and make sure everyone has a good time. There's the straight guy who wants to be the center of attention, and then there's the bi or gay guy who just wants to take care of everyone, make sure they're having a good time, and put on this great event.

I'm trying not to have sex with any straights anymore because I’m bored of it, you know what I mean?

Oh absolutely. I have a “no-straights” policy for at least the next year. I'm over it.

Yeah. And I’ve only really had great sex with bi people, with people like me who feel, “I'm not just this one thing. I don't know what I am, but I'm not simply straight.”

I hope people feel that my performance is enhanced by my being bi and that I’m able to make space for that. It helps that I feel comfortable with who I am and am open to anything and everything. That means that whatever happens on stage, I can roll with it; it's totally fine. I'm happy with it, whichever way it goes. As long as there's love and respect involved, I'm up for anything. I'm open to any way a performance or a project can go.

And I also love the fact that our shows are horny in a cheeky, fun, tongue-in-cheek way. They make people feel saucy and raunchy. To me, it’s a great show if everyone comes to see it, they laugh their fucking asses off, they see some crazy shit they’ve never seen before, they go out and party afterward, and then everyone goes home and gets laid. What a wonderful night! Why wouldn’t you want to curate that experience? I don't want this to be misconstrued. We're not out here keeping a tally. We're not out here asking, “Did you guys fuck? Is everyone fucking?” But I've had fans and friends bring first dates to our shows and they tell me, “Your show's an aphrodisiac; if my date likes it, they're cool and probably down to fuck. And if not, they're probably boring and not the one for me.”

That’s quite a litmus test.

Truly. Truly.

Is there anything about yourself you would like people to know that isn't part of your public persona, or that would surprise people?

I wonder what people think my public persona is. I'm probably way less crazy than everybody thinks I am. I think we're chaotic good.

In real life, I love to fuck around and have fun, but sometimes I prefer to stay quiet. I love those full-on on-stage moments, but I also love that moment when I get to pack everything up in peace and mentally compartmentalize everything. I love to slowly pack things up. I enjoy dealing with the carnage.

I’ve also always been passionate about humanitarian work. During the pandemic, I helped run the world’s largest COVID test and vaccination site at Dodger Stadium in L.A., and I loved that. I know it sounds silly, but I really loved it. Even though our company was stupid and fucked-up, and the whole thing was crazy, it gave me a tremendous sense of purpose. I really enjoyed it.

I just love people, and I love to work with people. That’s something I would like to get into more as I become more financially stable, sometime over the next fifteen to thirty years, when I have some money.

That’s about the size of it, innit?


How did you become interested in comedy and, in particular, in clown work?

I love to answer questions like, “Did you always know?” and “How did you know?” If I look back, I could either answer, “I had no clue” or “All the signs were there.” Because of how I grew up, I'm a product of South Park, Jackass, and Da Ali G Show. And that explains a lot of the things I like and the way that we work.

I moved to L.A. when I was eighteen and interned at the UCB Theater, where I was taking comedy classes as an enthusiastic but unfunny eighteen-year-old, and really loving it. My night manager worked at Sacha Baron Cohen’s production company, and I saw that Cohen’s teacher, Philippe Gaulier, was coming to town for a workshop. It was his first time in L.A. in twenty years. And the good Jew inside me was thinking, “This’ll be good for my interview. I could talk about studying comedy and probably pick up some good tactics.”

I took his class while interviewing for the Sacha Baron Cohen job (which I later got), and it blew my mind. I've never seen anyone speak to people the way Philippe did. He is the funniest person in the world. He gets criticized sometimes for being nasty or mean, but he's just joking. It's just a joke. You have to separate the person from the performer.

I couldn't believe the way he approached stuff and talked to folks. I was blown away by it. After the two-week workshop, I worked with Sacha for six or seven months. At the end of that year, 2013, I said, “Yo, I really wanna go study at this clown school, but this is my dream job. What should I do?" And he said, “Go do it.”

So I left. I was supposed to do only six months, but three weeks in, I signed up for two years.

The name Stamptown comes from the village where our clown school was: Étampes. The word étampes roughly translates as “stamps”. So that’s where we got the name Stamptown, and our logo is Étampes Castle.

What would you say were some of the greatest lessons you learned from your time at École Philippe Gaulier?

He's definitely the foundation of all of the work I create and, in a lot of ways, of the life philosophy I subscribe to — which is that you should just have fun.

I could give you a million different answers. But one is that you can take pleasure in everything in life. If you're not enjoying what you're doing or not having fun, you have the right to stop and change what you're doing right there and then and find a way to make it enjoyable. Because ultimately, whether we’re talking about a performance, a job, or your life, if you're not enjoying what you’re doing, it’s unlikely that we — your family, friends, loved ones, creative partners, audiences — are either. So that's one thing I learned: to always remind myself, “I can enjoy this.”

The second thing is that, obviously, clowns love to be bad, but they never get sad. When you're in the shit, you’ve got to love being there because that’s where all your answers will come from. And it's hard. It's really hard.

He and I have a few philosophical differences. Philippe believes that not everyone has an inner clown or can be a clown. I don't think “deserves" is the right word for how he feels about this, but he thinks that not everyone has it in them to take on the responsibility of being a clown. I haven't spoken to him about this directly, so I don't want to misrepresent what he’s saying, but I believe that everybody is ridiculous and can be a clown. Do I think they can all access that? Yes, the optimist in me does think that. Does that mean I think everyone should do that? No. But I think everyone has an innate inner beauty that they can access — and I think he’d agree.

Also, he’d say that the audience will tell you everything you need to know; you’ve just got to listen, and they will guide you. And I fully believe that. That doesn't come from the head; it comes from the gut. You just have to follow whatever mysterious energy the room holds. He’s not a voodoo, woo-woo, mystic energy type, but he loves theater, he loves performance, he loves the audience, and he loves laughter.

I get all my love for performance, laughter, the audience, and the art from him, and I think we project that in the work that we do — it’s clear that we love it. You can tell that we’re doing it for you. As a clown, when I take my bows, I’m on one knee [demonstrates], [raises arms in a giving motion] my head is bowed, and I’m saying, “This is for you guys. Everything I do, I do for you guys.”

Instilling that feeling in you helps get rid of the ego, of the desire to try to be funny. You have to do stuff because you think it's funny, but also because you have fun doing it. Not because you think it’s going to be funny. That’s the paradox. No one likes to see a guy who thinks he's funny go out there and be like [snaps], “Here's something funny!” The magic comes when the audience sees an idiot like me who loves doing what he’s doing and realizes, “This person thinks this is the funniest thing in the world. Look how stupid they are.” That is a crucial difference in approach. He has instilled that in me.

So if you’re a clown, do you think it's important to jettison the ego for the greater group-mind laughter and emotional journey?

Yes, of course.

I do it because I get fulfillment from doing this. It fulfills me to make a group laugh like this. I love being able to entertain people. It feels like transcending, like floating. When you’re really connected to the audience, it’s a beautiful spot to be in. It’s not that you feel that you have power. It’s not a feeling of “I have you in the palm of my hands and I can do anything with you.” It’s more like, “How beautiful it is that we can sculpt this moment and ride this journey together.” And when they're on board, and you can do anything you want and poke and play with it, it feels more like, “we’re witnessing something special together,” not “look at me.” We — the audience and the performer — are creating this moment together, sharing it. It might never be able to be recreated again, but right now, we have this moment and that rocks.

How did you and Viggo Venn come up with your Edinburgh Fringe act, Zach and Viggo: Thunderflop

We called it simply Zack and Viggo at first, and then we picked a name. We counted to three and then I said “thunder”, he said “flop”, and voilà, that was the name.

We'd never worked together before. He was one year younger than me at Gaulier and way funnier. He was the funniest guy in the class. Philippe said, “Viggo is one of the best clowns of this generation. There are one or two great clowns in every generation, and Viggo is one of them.” I agree. He's the funniest guy in the world, and I love playing with him. (Editor’s Note: On 4 June 2023, Viggo won first place on Britain’s Got Talent.)

I had asked Viggo to be in a show with me a few weeks previously. He and I and our buddy Sammy got together and had a Fringe meeting to talk about registration and what it entailed. And Viggo not only said “no”, but he pretended to be Norwegian and not to be able to hear me. I said, "Hey buddy, it sounds like we want to make the same show.” And he said [in a Norwegian accent], “Oh, sonny, it looks like the registration dates, yeah?” And then I asked him again. I thought he probably just didn’t hear me. But Viggo said, [in accent] “Oh, I heard. I heard.”

On Fringe registration day, everyone who I was supposed to be in a show with bailed on me, and everyone who was supposed to be in a show with him bailed on him. So it was just the two of us by default. And we were like: “All right, well, what should we call it? I guess Zack and Viggo: Thunderflop.”

That kicked off what was — and still is — an amazing partnership of eight years and counting, traveling around the world, doing shows.

You regularly teach clown work at major comedy schools like Upright Citizens Brigade. What's the most joyous thing about teaching others about comedy?

I love seeing people find their freedom on stage.

Teaching involves a lot of tough stuff. You have to coach people through some hard moments. It can border on therapy — although I always say, “This is not therapy. This is performance. Therapy should be therapy.” But people go through a lot. It can involve deep, emotional work sometimes, and it can feel very vulnerable to put yourself out there. I like seeing people crack that barrier and then break out in a wicked — not wickedly funny but just wicked — laugh because they're conjuring up their failure, they’re saying “fuck it” to their freedom, and they're living in this moment so hard that they’re getting playful and nasty with it. They’re rebelling against certain things. Philippe would always say, “Say ‘fuck you’ to the teacher.” I always love making them say “fuck you” to me, and I love it when they start mimicking and mocking me because that means that they can let loose and feel safe doing that.

I love every good moment, but obviously, if someone has been struggling and then they're able to have a really good moment, that’s a beautiful arc. You get an amazing feeling of accomplishment from seeing somebody who consistently bombed achieve major success in front of the same group of people. It's a great feeling.

How did you come up with the character act Jack Tucker?

Tucker came from a point in my career in 2018 when I saw a lot of bad comics getting booked. I felt that we were way funnier, but we weren't getting those opportunities. I find bad comedy and cringe comedy extremely funny. Acts like Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, who does Neil Hamburger, were big influences on me. In 2017, I saw them do a double act at the Soho Theatre which changed my life. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. And that was a huge inspiration for this character.

I felt it was funny to be deliberately bad. I personally find it funny to ask, “What is the biggest waste of time, and how can I make that the funniest thing possible?” So we just started doing that. I would go to Paris and ask the crowd, “Has anyone ever been to Paris before?” I just kept saying that over and over again. It was funnier than it sounds.

And then, in 2017, I had to host Stamptown in Edinburgh by myself for the first time because Viggo left early — we knew he would be leaving early to do a Norwegian job he had lined up. And I thought, “Well, I'll host as a stand-up. Stand-ups have beer.” It was a classic clown thing: one idiot misunderstanding another idiot's misunderstanding of something, thinking “got it”, and then doing it with full confidence, but wrong.

I had only done one gig at that time. I was in London, and I came out wearing a “Mind the Gap” shirt. I was really nervous because I'd never even held a microphone before. I was five years into my comedy career, but I’d never done comedy with a microphone, or indeed anything, with my hands before — only freehand physical comedy stuff, mostly Zack and Viggo, and my first solo show, Human Person, which was just more physical comedy. But I thought, “Stand-up comedians have a microphone, and they have a beer.”

I was so nervous that I was shaking and the beer was spilling, and then the crowd started laughing at the beer spill. So I thought, OK, clown, keep doing it. So I kept finding ways to do it until, eventually,the beer was all gone. I got excited and asked for another beer, threw it up into the air and kicked the can, and that got a laugh. And I thought, “Okay, well, I'll keep spilling this beer. It's funny to be wet and ugly.” So I used my friend's suit jacket, which was much bigger than mine. So I had this big suit jacket, and my pants were undone. I had a tie with ink that was leaking onto my chest so that it looked like I was bleeding, which was great.

All we had was this one joke: “The weatherman said there was a 70% chance it was going to rain. I think we agree that 70 is bigger than 30. But it didn't rain. This fake news is out of control.” That was the premise of it. The audience was laughing so hard, and I was clowning so hard when I first did this that we just kept running with it. I hosted the whole night, and the beers kept getting larger: from a can to a glass to a pitcher until, eventually, we shot off a fire extinguisher. It was a crazy show.

I then improvised five nights as Tucker at the end of that Fringe run, started doing works in progress, and built a ten-minute routine. Then we took it to Australia, and eventually all over the place.

Developing it was brutal, but ultimately it’s been life-changing.

Stamptown has drawn some of the biggest names in the alternative comedy circuit — everyone from Reggie Watts, Atsuko Okatsuka, Flo & Joan, Moses Storm, Natalie Palamides and David Cross to SNL cast members Sarah Sherman and Please Don’t Destroy. What do you think draws these headliners to perform in your show? Is it because you built your own table when you couldn't get a chair, or because of some sort of je ne sais quoi?

I think it's a mixture of both. Our friend Tom Ballard, who's a lovely, super-successful Australian comedian, always said, “You guys have a joie de vivre. People love to be around you guys.” Not that we're not talented, but I think that a big part of it is that people love to hang out with us and we love to hang out with people, so it's a mutually beneficial dynamic.

But I hope it's because the show's fun and funny and people get something out of it. I built it on the ethos that everyone is welcome here, no matter what. That doesn't mean everyone is going to get booked. I’m not looking for stand-up. But if a stand-up comedian were to say, “Yo, I want to try this magic tap-dancing routine I've always wanted to do,” I don't care who they are: I’ll book them. Some people have gotten mad at me over that. They say, “I'm not going to dance. I don’t want to be your dancing monkey.” And I tell them, “Well then, write better jokes, or come and be the dancing monkey. Because if you came out as a dancing monkey, I'd book you.” That’s what a girl told me once when I asked her to do a magic trick and she was mad I didn't book her.

But we always tell everyone: “Do everything on this show you feel you can't do everywhere else. Know that you are fully free to do any of that stuff and we'll come and play.” I'm never going to fuck up your set to the point where we ruin a punchline or anything. But I want this to have an ensemble feel. I want to really lean into why we’re using the medium of live performance. When you’re live, you can make stuff that's not recreateable, so let's lean into that and mesh all these amazing artists together, artists you wouldn't normally get to see, play together. That’s what I hope resonates with people, on top of the fact that it’s a good show that offers fair pay and is fun and exciting to do.

You push the envelope, but you're also part of a team.

Yeah. Ultimately, if you just trust that you’ve been booked to do your thing, it's going to work. The only time it doesn't work is when people think, “This is so weird.” Dude, just do it. Just trust that you’ll be fine.

Have you had any other performances, like the one at the Apollo, in which someone yanked you off-stage?

The police and security have tried to shut us down a few times, and they've always been unsuccessful.

In Melbourne, they tried to shut us down because the venue we were at hadn’t paid their liquor license. The organizer was a lovely person, but a bit of a mess. People were hiding out in other venues for two hours until the police left, and then we ended up partying until seven in the morning. That was a legendary show.

We also ran around naked at the UK Embassy in Prague with the ambassador's permission. But then security started chasing us around...


I told the ambassador it was my dream to run around naked in a government building and asked, "Can I do it? And she asked, “How much?” “Just a little bit.” “Okay, just a little bit.” So I pulled my pants down and was running around, screaming “BREXIT!” in front of all these donors and expats, talking about how they’ll have to move back to the UK and it's going to be expensive.

That was a fun time.

And then, obviously, we got pulled off stage at the O2 in the middle of our performance, which I personally felt wasn't justified.

Your characters mention bisexuality — both your Jack Tucker character and your character in the pilot That’s What He Said. Is it important for you to bring queerness into your characters?

Yeah! I don’t want to be known as just Jack Tucker, although, unfortunately, sometimes people label me as “the gay actor” or “the gay comedian". So while I want to avoid being pigeonholed as “the bi guy”, of course, I am proud of being bi, and also I want people to think, “Yeah, he's bi, but the main thing is that it’s cool that he's doing this thing” and not feel that I'm limited to being this thing.

I think that’s very important because whenever I see people own their sexuality or talk about their sexuality, it inspires me. I find it impossible to believe that anybody is inspired by anything we're doing or thinks of us in any cool way — because we’re the biggest morons in the world. But if it does help someone — and I have to let go of self-hatred here — if seeing that might make someone feel better, then it’s worth it.

So, yeah. It's very important to me.

Do you have any advice for those who are newly identifying as bi or queer, and/or any advice you wish you could have given your younger self before you came out?

Friendships are very, very important. Queer friendships let you know that you’re not alone and that, although your own experience is always unique to you, you’re not as different from other people as you think. There are a lot of other people out there in similar situations. You will find peace by talking to and getting to know them.

That’s one thing I love about the community. Although sometimes the guys can be a little predatory towards young twinks who are just hitting the market, you will find some really lovely people. I came out in L.A. where everyone is ready to feast [laughs] on young gays at all times — which some young gays love! It's not a bad thing as long as you're into it. But remember that you can do everything you want, but you don't need to do anything you don't want to do. Seek out those friendships where you can safely ask the questions you are afraid to ask other people for fear of being judged.

*** This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.