The Erudite Absurdist: Eugene Mirman



Among those who keep up with the New York stand-up comedy circuit, it’s generally agreed that Eugene Mirman is the de facto leader of the Brooklyn scene. From his early days with “Invite Them Up,” a stand-up staple until 2008, to his weekly “Pretty Good Friends” shows at Union Hall in Park Slope, Mirman is king and a kingmaker in the so-called “alt comedy” world.

The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival spawned from a joke with comic Mike Birbiglia and producer Julie Smith one night after a show at Union Hall, with the realization that it would be ridiculous and hilarious to have a comedy festival named after Mirman. Thanks largely to that joke, the festival was born and has been going strong four years running, and all signs point to it being a yearly staple going forward.

Mirman was sent to special ed in sixth grade after lip-synching a Bill Cosby routine in lieu of doing a book report—possibly his first live comedy performance—but later went on to actually earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Comedy at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where he studied Sociology, The Rise of Mass Culture, The Physiology of Laughter for Science, and the cultural impact of Lenny Bruce, among other topics. During his time there, he organized weekly comedy shows in the basement of his dorm, hosted talk radio shows, and wrote a weekly humor column in Hampshire’s school paper. After college, stand-up would be his main focus (with three full-length comedy albums under his belt to date), but he would also produce an Onion-esque newspaper covering local topics in Boston in the late ’90s, and has more recently appeared in shows like Flight of the Conchords, Delocated and the animated Bob’s Burgers.

And then there’s the festival. This year’s kicked off with a live taping of Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Star Talk” radio program, with Tyson discussing scientific topics that were quickly lobbed back by a panel of “experts” that included comedians Mirman, Kristen Schaal, Scott Adsit, and actor Alan Alda. The festival would also host a revival of “Invite Them Up,” with absent host Bobby Tisdale hilariously and masterfully impersonated by Jon Glaser of Delocated. Another highlight (or lowlight, depending) was “The Drunk Show,” featuring John Hodgman, Ira Glass and others. A special edition of Mirman’s weekly “Pretty Good Friends” show, featuring Hannibal Burress, Michael Showalter, Marc Maron, and others, capped the festival. We spoke with Mirman the day before it all started.

AUSTIN NELSON: The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival started as a joke, as all comedy festivals probably should. Can you tell me a little bit about its origins?

EUGENE MIRMAN: I forget exactly, but I know that after a show at Union Hall, I think I was joking around with Mike Birbiglia and Julie Smith, who produces the weekly shows I do. The thing about it is that I don’t remember the context, I don’t remember the reason, but I think it was just like a ridiculous idea that came out of something we were probably talking about and then we were like “Oh, that’s funny. We should do that.” …And then we did it.

NELSON: How has it evolved over the past four years, and where would you like to take it in the future?

MIRMAN: It’s evolved in that I guess we have more and more organization and things involved and various ridiculous things. You know, a few years ago we had a pig roast and last year we did a lamb. This year we’re going to have a goat and a lamb [laughs] and some other things outside the venue. We’re going to have an awkward party bus. We used Kickstarter to raise the money to actually pay the people who organized it. Meaning, Julie and I hired this woman Caroline, who does a lot of the coordinating, and so this year we sort of tried to raise money to both pay her and also do bigger dumb things, basically.

NELSON: Is being funny expensive?

MIRMAN: It is if you want to rent a party bus for six hours. [laughs] It’s very expensive. And it is if you want to have free animals cooked for people. [laughs]

NELSON: Other than the obvious—Steve Martin, Steven Wright, Lenny Bruce—who were some of your early influences?

MIRMAN: Well, I think that Bob Goldthwait was someone who I loved a lot. Later, in college, I found out about Coyle & Sharpe, which was a prank comedy team in the ’60s. There are also things like music and probably movies and culture, so like Robyn Hitchcock, who I thought was a very personal and very funny musician. I guess a lot of different sort of things.

NELSON: You studied comedy at Hampshire College (where you create your own curriculum), with your studies culminating in an hourlong stand-up routine for your thesis. How easy or difficult was that whole experience, and how did your comedy develop during your time there?

MIRMAN: It was hard, because you have to sort of figure it out yourself and create it yourself. But in a sense, as a result of that, it was massively helpful for what I did after college. It was very much a framework for even what I do today. I mean, to create a comedy major, I ended up starting a comedy night in the basement of my dorm, and I promoted and produced my final project, which meant I faxed press releases from an old Apple IIC, or whatever it was, to newspapers, not knowing if that would work or if that’s how you do things. As a result, I just learned a lot about the process of becoming a comedian, from both publicity stuff and just writing every week and creating and just doing your own stuff.

NELSON: Your jokes are often based on personal experiences and seem to be pretty honest responses to your daily life, even many times revealing embarrassing or awkward moments.

MIRMAN: Yes, I’m known as America’s most genuine comedian. [laughs]

NELSON: Is there something therapeutic about translating those situations into material for a stand-up audience?

MIRMAN: There’s something therapeutic about connecting with an audience—when there’s something really sort of odd or silly that you think is funny, and conveying it to an audience. The truth is, for however much my stories come out of things that have happened to me, they’re not darkly or as deeply personal as someone like Marc Maron or a lot of comedians, but they are essentially my life, and my interpretation of it. But I think the therapeutic element of it would be the connection with the audience.

NELSON: In your Pretty Good Friends shows, in addition to showcasing some of your favorite better-known comics, you get to bring in some of your up-and-coming favorites as well. What are some of the ways you usually find new talent?

MIRMAN: Well, we generally find people by either seeing them or having a good friend—like a friend that we know pretty well—recommend them. We get emails of people wanting to send tapes and things like this, but the truth is, we’re putting on a show for fun with friends for friends, sort of. It’s informal, but there’s also a process, and that process is essentially one of recommendation.

NELSON: You’ve done stand-up for many years now, appeared in numerous TV shows, voiced characters in cartoons, written a self-help parody book, produced the satirical Boston newspaper The Weekly Week in the late ’90s. Do you have a preferred medium for comedy, or do you enjoy having as many outlets as possible?

MIRMAN: I enjoy having as many outlets as possible. I think at first it came from, and still continues to come from, two places. One would be just doing a lot of different things, like when I was essentially trying to become a comedian, like as a job, I didn’t know how to do it, so I think I just tried to do as many things as I thought were possible, but they were also all things I really enjoyed doing. So, I loved writing the book. I really enjoy working on Delocated and Bob’s Burgers. I’m doing a pilot now for Comedy Central, but it’s actually the first show of my own. I really actually enjoy working on all these different things. I mean, this festival is incredibly fun.

NELSON: Do you find one medium more difficult than the others?

MIRMAN: I don’t know. I’ve done more stand-up than I have created TV shows, you know? I should say that I don’t know how to write a book, even though I guess I wrote a book. [laughs] But I had so much fun doing it. It’s more about having the time to focus on things. I don’t know that I would say that any medium… I mean, I can’t sing, so that would be the most difficult, but I also don’t try to, so it’s OK.

NELSON: You’re a huge music fan. You’ve toured as an opener for bands like Yo La Tengo and Modest Mouse, you sometimes perform in a variety show with John Wesley Harding, and you were one of four comedians appearing just this summer at Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival…

MIRMAN: I’m also on Sub Pop. You could have kept going! Yes. The answer is yes. You’ve told the truth. [laughs] Well, part of it is I also have a music booking agent. Part of it is that my career has, in a sense, been more like a band’s, in terms of doing tours at actual music venues and putting out records and putting that together with some TV stuff. I now mostly tour seated music venues, meaning instead of doing like five shows at a comedy club, you can just come to a city and do one or two shows at a place like Bell House. That’s how I started—I got a music booking agent who years ago approached me and asked me if I wanted to open for The Shins, and I was like, “Yes, I would love to!” She asked if I had an agent and I said no, and so she offered to book me, which was great, and she actually got me my record deal with Suicide Squeeze by sending my stuff to Dave Dickenson. And Yo La Tengo go to comedy stuff all the time and they would have comedians open their Hanukkah shows and stuff—a combination of things, one of which is simply New York City itself, led to this sort of connection between music and comedy.

NELSON: Is the new pilot for Comedy Central more of a sitcom-style show?

MIRMAN: No, it would be inaccurate to call it a sitcom. [laughs] Meaning it’s not at all a sitcom. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen… no, I guess in a sense it’s a sketch show? I don’t know what I’m allowed to and not allowed to say, so, you know… I’m sure I’m allowed to say it’s not a sitcom. [laughs]