I don’t make it a habit to go meeting comedians, especially American ones who live far away, and especially funny ones who have the power to embarrass and slight me on my little voice recorder. But I made the exception for Eugene Mirman, a long-standing cornerstone of the New York comedy circuit. Because he was nearby, in the town of London, where I live.
As well as an actor in person (Flight of the Conchords) and in voice (Bob’s Burgers, Aqua Teen Hunger Force), Mirman is currently shooting his very own show, and will also soon be seen taking down The Dictator in Larry Charles and Sacha Baron-Cohen’s latest collaboration next year.
I strolled on down to meet him downstairs at the Soho Theatre before his new show, Pretty Good Friends, which stars him, and his pretty friends Josie Long, Daniel Kitson, Kurt Braunohler, Demetri Martin, Tom Allen and others. It turns out no one knew I was coming. A hairdresser said he might be “in there”, pointing to a door. Behind that door were ongoing rehearsals, a stage of actors who turned to look at the idiot in the dark. “Is Eugene here?” Then they continued practice acting without answer.
Turns out he was upstairs all along. So we chatted for a bit. It was good.
Tell me a little about your London show, Pretty Good Friends.
The show is me, and Kurt. Well, the show is something that we do weekly in Brooklyn and it sort of spun into other events we put on, and touring. So we kind of thought it’d be fun to do it here. But it’s mostly what it is; a night of informal sort of stand-up and videos and, sometimes, sketches and bits.
How did you choose the friends that are involved in Pretty Good Friends?
Well, some of them like Kurt Braunohler perform a lot on shows in New York. And he’s very, very funny. So I asked him to do it and he was available and came. This is a show that me and Julie Smith and Caroline Creaghead produced in New York, so they’re just two people who I work with. But yeah, we asked Kurt because he’s very funny. Jon Benjamin who did the first week — also very funny and he’s someone I work with a lot. I’m on a cartoon called Bob’s Burgers and he works on that and he’s just someone who does sort of unusual stuff on stage, which is very funny.
And then the other acts, like Josie Long or Daniel Kitson, Tom Allen, are just sort of British friends that we asked to do this.
They certainly didn’t come and say: ‘Please let us do this!’ But we asked them and they very kindly agreed.
How’s it been translating over here in London?
It’s really fun. The first few days we were trying to figure out how it was working, and the format and stuff, and then it sort of clicked together. It’s going very well now. Pretty full shows, sold out and fun.
Everyone asks you about your comedy degree.
Yes. Do they?
In the interviews I’ve read.
Yes. So you’d hate to pass that chance up.
Exactly. Did you put it on your resumé?
Sure. When I was doing jobs that it would be irrelevant to having a Comedy degree, I did put that on there. Because… it’s a Bachelor of Arts which is the same as if I majored in History, or English, or Social Studies, or whatever.
You sort of put the degree together yourself.
Yeah. With professors. So I did papers on physiology of laughter, the history of… the rise of mass culture. I took classes in writing, and documentary film and acting and did a weekly radio show and wrote a weekly humour column. And then eventually put all that into different levels of school, and then eventually did a one-hour stand-up act that I wrote and produced and promoted as my thesis.
So what mostly what it was, was the sort of things that I do now to succeed in comedy, so in a certain sense it’s very helpful. But it was obviously unconventional. But it’s no more or less useful than a degree in playwriting… I mean actually I guess it’s more useful. To me. But meaning if someone were to major in playwriting and become a playwright, it’s about that useful. So… it’s good?
I wanted to ask you if the ‘comedy world’ is a very competitive, feuding one.
Every time Josie Long gets cast in something I’m always like, ‘Why wasn’t that me?’ (laugh) Does that answer your question? Good… The answer is no, I don’t think it is, at all.
You’ve always been kind of doing your own thing anyway, so you’ve avoided and been outside of the mainstream.
I just feel like I’m not going up for the same things that other people are and it’s sort of irrelevant because it’s so much more about you personally connecting with an audience than it is, you know, anything else.
There’s nobody who’s extremely funny who does great in front of audiences who doesn’t really succeed because somebody else took his role as a presenter. That’d just be a dumb way to look at it?
Are people competitive? Probably. But I only hang out with self-actualized comedians (laugh). So it’s not a problem for me.
I guess you don’t go down to open-mic nights then.
(laugh) I just go to self-actualized comedy luncheons. That’s it. Where everyone is well-behaved and artistic.
When you talk about connecting with an audience, what do you mean by that?
Blowing their minds through sex… talk. No. When they laugh at the weird things you tell them about. Basically.
So you know it’s good if they’re laughing.
I mean nothing could ever be quite that simple. You definitely know that it works if they’re laughing.
Maybe they’re laughing for strange reasons.
Are you telling me there’s a scenario where someone does an hour of stand-up and at the end of every joke the audience is always laughing but ‘for the wrong reasons’? I would absolutely adore seeing that show. That would be a cruel audience making fun of a handicapped person. Something that maybe happens here, but not in the States.
I mean, yes, obviously if they laugh it works. I think that the thing of it is, if you’re doing something that’s sort of unusual and then people are laughing and it’s working then you feel like you’re really getting yourself across. And that’s what feels good about comedy.
So is that why you do it… self-expression.
I guess but… I mean…
Actually that would be kind of a pretentious answer, wouldn’t it?
“I do it for self-expression and the ability to buy almost unlimited fish”. (laughter)
Um… I mean I enjoy so many different aspects of comedy. I don’t do it because it’s the only way I can get my soul onto the page (laugh). But I do like travelling and telling jokes and making silly things. And putting on fun events.
That sounded a little bit like an online dating advert.
About what I like to do? Yes. I’m trying to take the world on a date and FUCK THEM IN THEIR FACE. Write that. I apologize. I guess I could probably say ‘cunt’.
Or we could do a drawing of you fucking the world in its face.
An animated gif. Do that.
I might try. Is there a type of comedy you don’t respect, that when you see it, maybe a man standing on TV doing very basic observational humour…
Yeah, I mean I guess that if something feels either false or… Ultimately if it mostly feels false more than anything, where either it seems like pandering or somehow insincere. I mean there’s certainly probably lots of comedy that I think is terrible but in honesty I just don’t really pay attention to it.
I’ve certainly turned on the TV and been like, ‘That’s terrible’. But I didn’t go like, ‘I gotta remember this person because I really didn’t enjoy it’. Like the way you hear a band and you’re like, ‘I don’t like this band (laugh) I should make sure to buy all their albums’.
So there’s tons of stuff that is definitely terrible but I am slightly… Like I would go to a club and see a person and literally don’t know their name. And they might be famous or not. And just be like: ‘That is some terrible, broad stuff.’
What would that sort of thing be?
It’s so hard to describe because anything can be good or bad. I can tell you comedians who talk about relationships, who are brilliant and it’s moving and insightful. And I can tell you, or you can see, comedians that talk about relationships that are absolutely not moving or brilliant or insightful. It’s just like, about… I don’t have any examples. Though I do like the idea that I’d have examples of terrible comedy.
But I do think it’s hard to very specifically say what’s good or bad in that any topic can be done well or poorly. Certainly nobody would ever go like ‘Ach! Another love song!’ because of how many love songs there are. Then you’d have to be mad at the Beatles, or Bob Dylan. And they’re very good. They were very good.
They were very popular.
They were very popular.
What British comedians do you like?
Well, I like uh… Apart from the ones…
Well that would be too easy.
(laugh) How many do you want me to name?
Five other freelancers?
Five other freelancers? Um… I don’t know but they’re all so very nice and so funny and so British.
There’s shows like Brass Eye, and Peep Show. There’s lots of very funny British stuff and there are lots of very funny British comics. A lot of the ones I know we’ve had on the show because that’s who I know.
I mostly know the comics that I’ve met through friends. So Kitson and Josie Long, Claudia Doherty though she’s Australian. John Oliver, probably here he’s construed a failure but in America we’re very big fans of his. Tim Key, we had him on, he was wonderful.
There’s lots of great people. I’m sure there’s endless terrible people and maybe I’ll go somewhere and see them later tonight (laugh).
And bang them in the face.
Yes. Until their comedy gets better.
I don’t know if you’ve switched on the TV while you’ve been here…
I actually literally haven’t. I haven’t turned the TV on yet.
It’s not good or bad. It’s just something I haven’t done yet.
How long have you been here for?
I’ve been here for 2 weeks.
That’s a good record.
I went to tea. So that’s good. Afternoon Tea. I’m just saying, I’ve been doing stuff. I do watch TV at home. I often end up like not watching TV when I travel just because I end up doing other stuff. And I have friends here. So we’ve been doing stuff.
I’m not mad at your TV. Your TV is fine. And your news is so impartial. It’s great.
Do you really think so?
I don’t know. I’m not being facetious. Uh, no I’m being half serious, and half… not.
But you haven’t turned the TV on.
I’ve turned it on in the past. I’m not like mad at TV. I don’t want this to be like, ‘Eugene Mirman thinks TV is for the base…’ I don’t know do you have a word for people… You have posh, and what’s negative… for poor people?
Chavs? Yeah. ‘TV is so chavvy’. No. I don’t think that at all. I just happened to have not watched it. Just like I haven’t gone to the zoo but I love animals. You see that? That’s not the best analogy.
I didn’t see that one coming.
It’s not a good one but it almost makes sense.
It made sense. There’s a lot of basic stand-up comedy on television, do you think that’s because…
Because it’s very cheap to make? Yes. That is the answer. That is literally the answer. (laugh)
Will it get to the point where no one is interested in watching TV stand-up?
Is this the first time in England that you’ve had lots of stand-up on TV?
Maybe since the Nineties, I would say.
It is very cheap to make. I mean the answer is that, it’s one person and a microphone and you can fill a half-hour of television. And so the production values, you know, it’s very easy to make.
In the States we don’t have quite as much stand-up on TV as we used to but there is a whole comedy channel. That airs comedy, obviously. But still there used to be just so many shows. But yeah once it becomes over-saturated and people stop watching it, it’ll go away. If they don’t stop watching it then it won’t go away.
In England they have an X-Factor-style TV show where it’s comedians…
It’s called Show Me the Funny as well.
Yeah, there used to be a show called Make Me Laugh where comedians would yell at somebody in a chair. It never seemed like a good idea.
But cheap to make.
Has performing in front of people ever been a problem for you?
Yeah! Like when I first started I was extremely nervous. And even now, you know, you don’t know how it will go. In a sense, I’m much more comfortable. I’m much, much more comfortable now than before. But yeah, I think that it’s always something you think about.
You can always fail. And the possibility of failure never leaves you.
(laughter) That’s quite a grim line.
Yes, but you can’t get on stage without knowing that things might fail.
How do you deal with it if things aren’t going well? Or don’t you really care?
I’m just such a good person that I know that my kindness will carry through (laugh). Uh, I don’t know you just do it. I mean it’s what I do now. Like now I’m a comic. The way you deal with it is by trying to do a good job. (laughter) Basically, is the answer. You try to be well-prepared, you work out your jokes in lots of different places until you think it almost always will work, or always, essentially. Unless the audience is full of terrible people. (laughter) No, I’m just kidding.
You’ve got a following now, it doesn’t seem to matter as much if a crowd of strangers…
Uh. I guess. Meaning: how long do you think I could travel around failing in front of ‘my following’ and how big do you think this ‘following’ is? (laugh) No, you always want to do well. Within reason.
I would like to write new jokes and try out new things and obviously there’s a certain risk of failure but that’s why often those things you generally do at these shows where you charge very little and the agreement is ‘you’re pretty funny’ but you don’t know how this will work out. And they paid very little, you know. And that’s sort of the exchange. And there’s lots of shows like that in New York. This show, theoretically, would be like that. Except for, we brought it here and are now charging four times the amount that people should really pay.
No! It’s actually probably 2 or 3. But it’s a little bit more of a proper show here.
You seem constantly in development of your show, your act. Is that how you see it?
Well it depends. Here, I’m just sort of trying to figure out what works best with the audiences here. And then in some shows, if you’re trying new stuff, or working out jokes then yeah.
Each show has it’s own different purpose. Meaning I could be trying to work out new stuff or I could simply be trying to hone the best way to do a particular ten minutes or twenty or thirty or whatever.
Do you consider the audience when you’re preparing?
They like the same stuff. You know, the funny thing I found touring or opening for bands was whatever works best in front of a band is the same thing that’s going to work best, actually, down here in the theatre in front of older theatre-goers. Mostly. I mean, within reason.
I’ve certainly done shows where it’s a real mismatching of me and an audience. Where I’ll mention the Internet or something, this was maybe ten years ago, and you can see in the eyes of the audience that they really didn’t know about it. Which is unusual. It was in Las Vegas. It was a terrible mistake where I was in LA and somebody said ‘you should do these shows because you’re so close’, and I said ‘OK’. And it was just a terrible experience and I only did two out of the eight. Because it was a real mismatching.
I had things where I was talking about technology and admittedly not complicated technology, and they were just like, ‘We literally don’t know what that is’. And it’s fine that they didn’t. It was just that I should not be performing for them (laugh).
Not slightly disappointed in your audience there?
Well they’re not really my audience. That’s like saying I told a cat a very funny story and he didn’t like it and I’m so mad at this cat. How dare he? It’s such a clever story! (laugh) Not to say that these people are cats. They were much smarter than cats. But both cats and them didn’t know about the Internet.
I think that my goal is to figure out how to convey the thing that I think is funny to an audience. And to have them like it. I want them to. But I won’t… it’s not like I would do just anything they would like (laugh). But it is about me trying to figure out how to convey what I think is funny to an audience. And have them like it.
I take them into consideration in the sense that I’m performing for them and that’s, you know, a relevant aspect. I don’t know if it necessarily shapes it in the sense that you can fail or succeed. Like you can think of a funny way to tell your joke or not. Or to convey yourself or not.
Declan Tan is a freelance journalist from London. A list of words he has chosen can be found here. (Don't worry, it is not a blog).