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Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

That's a Thing: How Eugene Mirman Cut His Own Path in Comedy

Eugene Mirman's first hour-long Comedy Central special, Eugene Mirman: An Evening of Comedy In a Fake Underground Laboratory, will be arriving on your television sets this Friday at midnight. Who is Eugene Mirman and what does it take to put together an hour of broadcast-worthy standup? Earlier this year I decided to find out. So for a few months, beginning in March, I followed Mirman as he prepared for his special in venues around Brooklyn. I tracked down his life story as well, to get a picture of a comedian's career in progress. I started at Pretty Good Friends, Mirman's weekly show:

Hello. How are you guys? How's it going… what's, uh… what's your favorite thing?"

Eugene Mirman, the host of this comedy show, takes his time, not compelled to start in with his material yet. He's a big presence on the tiny stage: his slightly roundish midsection hints at an amiable but not unwholesome relationship with food and drink.

"What do you think of my crowd work? Not bad so far: broad… awkward… ineffective…"

Self-deprecation evokes some chuckles. His bulging blue eyes scan the crowd, framed by grinning cheeks, which, after 37 years, are just beginning to lose hints of his former baby-face. He saunters on.

"What's in the news? Limbaugh… no, I don't have any-…What if I just mentioned a topic and we all thought of a mean thing and then went on?"

He twists the clutch, midway up the mic stand and adjusts the mic’s height.

"Don't worry I'm not doing anything that I've prepared yet. Hmmm… that would be rough. Just a couple hours of me going, 'Limbaugh… not a fan…'"

He’s building up the pace and the crowd is warming up. He asks about their weekend; apparently nobody did anything exciting. Still, Mirman shifts into full comedian mode when someone says that he was accepted to Berkeley and had a celebratory steak dinner with his girlfriend.

"Are you guys going to move there then? Or was it kind of a breakup steak?"

"Congratulations! Here's a steak… See you in four years!"

You can tell when Mirman is enthused on stage by the way he shifts his weight back and forth on the outer edges of his feet, like a shy eight-year-old with his hands in his pockets — though Mirman's hands are usually gesturing or holding (and constantly adjusting) the mic stand. The arches of his feet tilt upward as he goes into his prepared material, which has been sitting next to him on a stool, a rumpled stack of loose-leaf computer paper.

His set lasts only five minutes, less than his opening chat with the audience. He's workshopping bits for his upcoming appearance at South by Southwest, which will be followed by a tour with Andrew Bird, the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, a final cross-country workshopping tour, and the taping of his first hour-long Comedy Central special. His less successful ideas — the reason FDR said, "The only thing to fear is fear itself," was because he didn't know about snakes — occasion an on-stage self-critique, "that's a dumb thing to say." And on a bit that worked: "that was fun, that was a good time… that's a thing."

That thing was a news article whose headline, "Does Rick Santorum Hate Ricky Martin?" asks a spurious question which it then disproves. Browsing the web, Mirman saw the article, printed it out, and now it's in his set. His loose-leaf stack isn't just his notes: Mirman is known for bringing found comedy — little bits of absurdity from his daily life — on to the stage.

This show is home turf for Mirman. He hosts Pretty Good Friends on Sunday evenings in the basement of Union Hall, a Brooklyn bar near his apartment. And — in dark jeans, his usual untucked black long-sleeve shirt, with an untucked blue t-shirt underneath — he's comfortable in front of these hundred-or-so people. He addresses the crowd as though they are all pretty good friends of his (the show's newer title is more descriptive than Mirman's original nonsensical conceit, "Tearing the Veil of Maya," though perhaps less entertaining).

The informal show gives the impression of a grown-up version of your high school best-friend's basement rock show. “Backstage" is a four by eight foot area next to the stage, sectioned off by a red velvet curtain. Alternating blue and beer-stained yellow curtains adorn other walls. The venue is tight, dark and low-ceilinged, packed with those school-assembly-style metal folding chairs, though half the crowd is standing, lined up along the walls. A few minutes before Mirman started the show, a baby mouse scurried across the back wall, hesitated halfway, and then attempted to climb the blue velvet on the other side.

NPR personality Kurt Anderson once called Mirman the "king of standup hipsterville," and to judge by the Brooklyn crowd, the appellation isn't completely bunk. And Mirman's name comes up along with peers like Todd Barry, Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, and Zach Galifianakis in discussions about "alternative comedy.” Mirman has produced three comedy albums and been a cast member on three television shows: the runaway hit Flight of the Conchords, the culty Delocated, and Bob's Burgers, a hit FOX animated comedy where he voices Gene, the loveably obnoxious son. He's published a parody self-help book: The Will To Whatevs. He's performed at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl.

But “King” Mirman’s approach to comedy, and the business of comedy, is anything but regal. He works this small, $7-cover basement show and gives his "pretty good friends" — often lesser known aspiring comedians — more set time than he gives himself. He does projects with friends (and often organizes them), but is barely capable of mustering the will to do some of the standard show-business chores, the kind that often lead to steady, well-paying gigs. For example, Mirman doesn't like to audition; his TV appearances are the result of being cast by his friends (all of his TV characters are named Eugene, or some variant thereof). He’s like Kyle MacLachlan’s character on Portlandia: friendly, collaborative, a little weird, and seemingly casual about the business side, even though now he is kind of “the establishment” in Brooklyn comedy. He's not the “king of standup hipsterville”; Eugene Mirman is the hipster mayor of standupville, Kings.

* * *

Recently, Mirman found some school materials — report cards, notebooks, letters to his parents — that his parents had saved in the attic. He’s been working them into a bit for the special. One letter from his school guidance counselor to his parents states, “He is of average or above average intelligence and does not appear to have a learning disability.” “Which is a very great thing…” Mirman responds now, “meaning that I act as if I have a learning disability but they can’t quite tell — no tests will truly figure it out.”

Mirman with his high school notebook

Yevgeny (Eugene) Mirman was born in Moscow on July 24, 1974. His parents, Boris and Marina, emigrated from Russia to Massachusetts, with Eugene and his brother, in 1978. Eugene was four. The Mirmans were Jewish and the KGB had wiretapped their home, suspecting Boris of possessing subversive books, magazines, and sympathies. Boris and Marina had relatives outside the Soviet Union, and since raising their family in a country where you couldn't be wiretapped without a warrant sounded better than the alternative, during a momentary easing of Cold War tensions, they moved here (joke's on you, Mirman family). They eventually settled in Lexington Massachusetts.

These days, Mirman isn't sensitive about his origin, incorporating it into his standup and portraying a struggling Russian mobster/comedian, Yvgeny Mirminski, on Delocated. Every joke his character tells is stereotypically Russian; the punch line is always about vodka. But being an immigrant child, just learning the language and trying to navigate through a new country's school system, life was difficult for him. Mirman tells of his first school day on the podcast You Made it Weird. When his first grade teacher asked the class, "Who went to kindergarten?" Eugene says, "I raised my hand — for whatever reason — and went, 'I wasn't, I didn't live in one!'"

And being a Russian immigrant child during the 80s Cold War intensified the strain. From the start, kids picked on him and called him a "commie.” By junior high school, Mirman was an outcast — a weirdo. Even though the “commie” edge wore off, by then, his status from elementary school had been cemented. Mirman was a nerd by the fact that he was a bully-plagued outsider, but not academically. Though "of average or above average intelligence," he was a terrible student and hated school. "I remember crying all the time and being kind of miserable," he says. At the same time, Mirman began to listen to comedy albums after school. “In elementary school it was mostly Cosby, and in junior high I started listening to Emo Phillips, Bobcat Goldthwait, and Steve Martin,” he says.

Mirman's rebellious weirdness made its way into class when, in 6th grade, he lip-synced a Bill Cosby stand-up routine instead of presenting a book report. His teacher recommended him for "resource room," which was a certain kind of special education. “I was in special ed. in the way that people who had disabilities were,” explains Mirman, “but I was just never diagnosed with anything but being terrible at school.”

As they say, it gets better. During high school, Mirman began volunteering for a teen counseling hotline, made friends, started a mythology club, and joined an after-school creative writing group. “Everyone wrote on a typewriter and I would hand in a crazy weird story, handwritten — or a ransom note,” he says. Extracurriculars were his strong suit, and while he was still weird, he now had people to collaborate with. At the same time, classroom and social pressures slowly abated. “School, in general, was not great” says Mirman. “Children are just mean to each other… but by high school, I probably stopped being annoying to people, and people stopped being mean. By the end of it, it was wonderful.”

By senior year, Mirman had turned his weirdo status into an asset: he went from ridiculed to ridiculous. He was infamous in Lexington High School, performing comedy sketches for the talent show and running for class president. (Despite running under a campaign slogan suggested by his friend David Clark, "Eugene Mirman: it's not just a change, it's a mutation," he lost the race.) He graduated with a 2.1 GPA, but more importantly, with Lexington High’s "Class Clown" superlative.

In 1992, Mirman went to Hampshire College, which offers a make-your-own major program. Mirman chose comedy. Mirman says this turned out to be incredibly practical: "it's certainly wiser than majoring in playwriting." For school credit, he studied such topics as the physiology of laughter and the social impact of Lenny Bruce, as well as practical skills like writing and video production. He was still not a great student. “He did the bare minimum to get by,” says Mirman’s college friend Brian Spinks. But again, Mirman had an after-school focus, and there he worked hard.

Hampshire didn't have a much of a comedy scene (besides occasional comedy at the local Chinese restaurant), so Mirman created his own weekly standup gig in the basement of his dorm. "It was a rec. room of a crappy dorm," says Brian Spinks — and the stage: "I think it was probably just a plywood riser." Mirman would promote the show around campus and persuade everyone he could to perform, including coercing Spinks and inviting people from town. "We'd often just get real weirdos — like an old man that performed in a burlap sack and sang songs," says Spinks.

In the basement, Mirman experimented with many comedic forms, like reading absurd letters to institutions, telling short stories, and performing with found objects. "I used to have a thing with a Teddy Ruckspin, where I switched up the tape and he was like a dirty comic," Mirman recalls. "I accidentally left that on the subway in Boston, in a trash bag with a fake gun," (the early 90s kind that looked real), "so somebody found a trash bag with a Teddy Ruckspin swearing and a gun, and that person is a lucky person," says Mirman. At Hampshire, he also wrote a weekly humor column for the school newspaper and ran a radio show. For his senior thesis, Mirman wrote, produced, promoted, and performed an hour-long comedy set, parts of which would make it into his set for the next few years.

Mirman moved to Boston after college. He worked day jobs at an ice cream parlor and later at an internet advertising company. Meanwhile, he performed standup at small venues — mostly bars (and another Chinese restaurant), promoting his shows the old-fashioned way. "I would just stand in Harvard Square and hand out like 1,000 fliers to try and get people to come," he says. But sometimes barely anyone would show up. “It’s depressing performing standup to a half-empty room,” recalls Spinks. Later, Mirman organized a weekly standup show at the Green Street Grille, and got a friend from work to build him a website. Mirman created videos for the site to promote himself. This was around 1999, long before YouTube and ubiquitous viral videos: “They would literally be an inch or two, square, and people would have to download them with dial-up," he says. (Mirman, an early adopter of comedy for the web, continues his presence today with a website, YouTube videos — including a hilarious series of his faux-advice — and Twitter.)

Another promotional device Mirman used in Boston was a pseudo-press release, full of bombast, declaring himself the pioneer of a brand new comedic genre: “Absurdo.” “He sort of became a darling of that press because of doing things like that,” says Spinks, who collaborated with Mirman on a local Boston-centric parody newspaper called The Weekly Week. Mirman also auditioned — and he won spots in the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, in Aspen, and on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. But eventually, Mirman says, "I realized if I wanted to work, I had to move to New York."

On October 16, 2000, Mirman moved to a small Brooklyn apartment, temping at a law firm and performing standup in comedy clubs and other venues like Pianos NYC. There he met Robin Taylor, who became his booking agent. She asked Mirman to open for indie band The Shins, and so began Mirman’s early touring career in the indie music scene.

Rock audiences are notoriously uncooperative with comedians, but Mirman, a fan of indie rock, didn't do it for the challenge. "At the time that I was doing this… I didn't have any money — to live my life," he said on You Made It Weird. But performing for rock audiences toughened him up as a performer. For example, his first time opening for The Shins, he wasn't on the show schedule. “So [the announcers] were like, 'Ladies and gentlemen…' and everyone's like, 'The Shins!'" Instead, it was "Eugene Mirman!” The crowd was disappointed and restless: Who? But Mirman remembers the moment where he turned it around. "Somebody was yelling and I just went, 'I can't believe I'm being heckled by a guy who can get beat up by Belle and Sebastian,'” he says. Inventing well-versed, impromptu indie-rock put-downs is a unique skill — to that indie crowd, Mirman was legitimate.

After a couple years in New York, Mirman began looking for a stable place for his comedy. "I just started walking around the Village, trying to find a place to do a show, and somebody suggested this place called Rififi," says Mirman. Rififi was a new bar and venue in the East Village. "I convinced them to let me do a show, and three months in, they offered [comedian] Bobby Tisdale a show. I was like, 'Why don't we do it together because, why try to have two half-full shows when we can work on one show?'" Their show would become the legendary “Invite Them Up."

Every Wednesday night at Rififi, from 2002 to 2008, Tisdale — a cheerful goofball who specialized in unabating poop jokes and started shows with “Yyyyaaaaaayy!” — would host. Every week, Mirman would perform. The show took place in the cramped back room of the bar. At first, they struggled to attract audiences, but the bygone social network Friendster became a way for Mirman to reach people. “You could post this thing and tell twenty friends and they would tell their friends. And you’d have fifty people at your show and that was enough,” says Mirman. “It fit probably 80 or 100 people, but safely? Probably only fifty,” recalls Oren Brimer, who used to attend religiously, and is now a producer for the Daily Show. Eventually, Invite Them Up became a magnet for up-and-coming alternative comics. Bigger names like David Cross, Louis C.K., and Patton Oswalt would randomly perform. “It was the preeminent underground comedy show,” says Brimer, “the best comedians would just drop by and hang out, too.” Tisdale and Mirman had helped create a community.

* * *

A couple of months before the July taping of Eugene Mirman: An Evening of Comedy In a Fake Underground Laboratory, Mirman met me for coffee near his place in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He was about to go on a cross-country tour, the last leg of preparation for the special where he’d round up all of his bits to construct a single hour-long set. (And where he’d also get to shoot a machine gun in Georgia!)

Over the din of roaring cappuccino machines, Mirman told me his views on comedy, among other things. “In general, I found it easier to start things than to break into something that exists.” It was an absurd understatement, considering he'd just returned from running the fourth annual Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival in Seattle. Like his Boston press releases, it’s a ludicrous version of the real thing. At Mirman’s three-day festival, VIPs receive limo rides to the subway station and Mirman puts on shows like “One of Each,” (featuring one comedian from each race) to lampoon racial-niche comedy. Later, in September, Mirman’s comedy festival in Brooklyn would feature a “VIP Herring Room” and a slam poet you could throw water balloons at.

Mirman's namesake festival, and his feeling that it's easier to start something himself, underlines his overall mindset. In both style and venue, Mirman chooses the "alternative" out of a practical and entrepreneurial bent, rather than rebellion against the mainstream, which is the common perception of alternative comedians. In fact, Mirman’s comedy ethic is quite traditional:

People used to make fun of alternative comedy because sometimes it would be someone being funny, and sometimes it was a crazy man with a flute making no sense. And it's very easy to be like, "yeah, that's not really comedy."

For a short period of time, I was like, "I have these jokes and if people get them, they get them." And then eventually, I was like, "Oh no. It's absolutely my job to convey to people why what I think is funny, is funny. The whole point of standup is to get the audience to understand your weird point of view.

Mirman might do quirky things but it has to evoke laughter to stay in the set. Some of those unconventional bits survived the cut and will be appearing in Eugene Mirman: An Evening of Comedy In a Fake Underground Laboratory. For example, Mirman, who always wanted to perform comedy with a musical instrument, finally bought one, learned to play it, toured with it, and incorporated it into the special — the instrument is a Theremin.


In the special Mirman will also answer advice questions, written by the audience right before the show, which he started doing a few years ago when he toured with his pseudo-self-help book. Another bit has Mirman reading the profile he created when, as a Jew in a committed relationship, he joined ChristianMingle.com. Mirman is known by fans for reading absurd complaint letters to companies that annoy him — Delta Airlines was a target in an earlier album — and the new special presents a new letter with a twist: Mirman wrote an open letter to his Brooklyn cable provider, Time Warner Cable, and bought ad space on New York City newspapers to run it. Ironically, Mirman’s complaint bit will be broadcast in New York City – on Time Warner Cable.

Mirman’s style is conversational, anecdotal, and absurd, but not "randomness" for its own sake. For example, this bit: "Alright ladies, tell me if this has ever happened…" he says in a lowered, faux-nightclub tone. Then, in his own kid-like voice and at a rapid, news-real pace, he recites, "1950: Communists from North Korea invade South Korea US backs South Korea China backs North Korea." Back to greasy style: "Well ladies? You know what I'm talkin' about?" The middle is a true Mirman moment, which accentuates, by contrast, his spoof of a stereotypical lounge comedian.

Absurdity is like a precision tool for Mirman: "It's not something that's over the top crazy, it's something with this very specific tweak that makes it ridiculous. It's not like 'it's a purple cow.' It's a cow with one shoe."

Mirman has an intrinsic liberal political bent to his humor, and he mocks religion, too — a new bit in the special involves Mirman mocking Tea Party sloganeering on social media, and his last album was called God is a 12-year-old Kid with Aspergers. But he doesn't have a broad oppositional stance like George Carlin, Bill Maher, or Lewis Black. It’s partially because Mirman comes from a moderately conservative background and doesn't believe the mainstream, right or left, warrants his attack. It’s also because Mirman doesn’t have an aggressive personality — when he’s not overtly friendly, he seems reserved and mildly amused. Also, it’s simply not his comedic focus. "It's not that important to me to point out that Rick Santorum is terrible, but he is. He is terrible," Mirman says. He'd rather mock the outliers: whenever specific aspects of religion or politics become senseless or weird enough, they're in Mirman's territory.

* * *

You can do anything you want, as long as it works," says Mirman, and he's not just referring to the stage, but to the business behind comedy. One reason he plays "alternative" venues instead of mainstream comedy clubs, tours with indie bands, and organizes so many different kinds of comedy shows is because it attracts a larger audience and ultimately pays better. "I do more shows at the Bell House,” (a repurposed warehouse venue in Brooklyn) “than any of the comedy clubs in the city, but that's also a very pleasant 400 seat room. It's the same size as Caroline's," the tourist-magnet Times Square comedy club.

The Bell House was host to a launch party for the second season of Bob’s Burgers in March, seemingly presented by Fox. Mirman's character Gene (whose voice is simply Mirman's, pitched slightly higher and yelling most of the time — it's perfect for a obnoxious little kid) is one of the main characters in the cartoon, but Mirman is neither the show’s creator, writer, nor producer. Nevertheless, when the Bob’s Burgers show started, Mirman came out first, introduced the cast members, and showed clips from the new season off his iPad.

It tuns out Mirman, and producers Julie Smith and Caroline Creaghead, organized the event. Together, they’re the LLC Rich Pregnant Teenager. “I like producing events; I like organizing things,” says Mirman, “It’s not just that I don’t want to perform at comedy clubs, its that I actually like putting on shows… and doing fun silly things and being an active part of a comedy community.” Rich Pregnant Teenager, which produces Pretty Good Friends, the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, and other things like Star Talk Live (where Mirman and astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson co-host a live science/comedy mash-up podcast), perfectly fits Mirman’s style. It’s ridiculous, independent, and thriving — if auditioning for TV shows is homework for Mirman, Rich Pregnant Teenager is the after-school comedy-geek club.

But Mirman’s company is also a first-generation American business. It’s his corner store of comedy: his silly — and sincere — version of the American dream.

“To me it’s very real,” he tells me when I, worried about sounding cliché, tentatively bring up the concept. “I very much literally believe in it, as a very literal thing — and very much appreciate it,” Mirman says, the complete lack of irony evident in the tone of his voice. He says that his parents are proud of his success, but that “it’s funny, because they can’t believe that I broke through in comedy. But it’s sort of like — well, you know what I didn’t do was move to a country where I don’t know the language and raise two children.”

* * *

Finishing his coffee, Mirman told me he was going to perform that night at Littlefield, a small Gowanus industrial building that's been converted into an art/performance space. I thought I’d see a polished version of his earlier set, but Mirman was already working on new material. One is from a recent tour, which he ended up dropping from the new set: “I never really got it to work, so I dropped it eventually,” he told me later. “That is kind of what standup is,” he said, “maybe it will work and maybe it won’t.” The idea begins with Mirman checking into a hotel and being asked for his own phone number (not an emergency contact) "in case of an emergency." He describes his reaction:

On the face it's like, 'oh okay,' but then it's like, 'wait… what do you mean? Meaning you would call me… like no one's calling them, before they… like my parents wouldn't call a hotel first before they called my number… but clearly it's their standard practice…just ask me for a phone number without telling me it's for an emergency…

Mirman flipped this idea around for about two minutes, exploring angles, trying to find his point of comedic attack: I realized he was writing the joke out loud. "Sorry, this is kind of involved… I just go around thinking of these things," he says.

That night at Littlefield, after host Kurt Braunohler introduced him as "The Lord General of Park Slope, Brooklyn!" (people apparently love giving him titles), Mirman walked on stage, loose leaf printer paper in hand, adjusting the mic stand, working the crowd, and trying things out again. Halfway through, he sets up the hotel bit.

Like, would they call me if something was wrong with the hotel? Like, "breakfast doesn't taste good, let's call Eugene" [laughter]. I couldn't imagine… or, like, like I'd left instructions with everyone — "Hey if something goes really wrong, like if someone's in the hospital, don't call me…Call my hotel and have the concierge reach out.”

The crowd starts laughing, ready for Mirman to bring on the absurdo.

“So that I get a call like, ‘Hey this is Jasmine. I'm a male concierge!’"

No reaction.

"… named Jasmine!… That's not what would happen…" he says as an aside, almost to himself. "And they'd just be like, 'Your grandmother's dead and your doctor wants you to know you're HIV positive!'"

Mirman trails off the last line with a signature up-tick of his voice, but to no avail. A few stifled chuckles roll through the crowd, but the most audible sound is a man uttering an "ohh."

Instantly, Mirman matches the consternation with a hummed, "Mmmmm, I know — but you had to try it, right? And by you, I mean me."

He pauses, looks at the crowd, eyes bulging, with a goofy closed-lip smile — his face's equivalent of a shrug — as the crowd's laughter bubbles, and then cascades, building on its own momentum.

He's got them back. Time to try some more new things out. He looks at his papers: "What else have I noticed? That's a thing — oh yeah, this is a thing, Oh that's a thing, too…"

* * *

Eugene Mirman: An Evening of Comedy In a Fake Underground Laboratory premieres Friday night at midnight on Comedy Central.

Top photo by Seth Olenick, second photo by Frank Micelotta, third photo by Brian Tamborello.

Robert Schoon is living in Brooklyn, soon to graduate j-school, and very employable. He writes about media, culture, and comedy.

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  • Ben

    Really cool piece.

  • poop nazi

    it's teddy ruxpin

  • doubtom

    He's almost as funny as a broken leg.

  • Gio

    Just saw him on Conan and ……. yeah that was just awkward…. I feel like the audience was paid to laugh…. Not funny