Talking to Eugene Mirman About The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, ‘Bob’s Burgers’, and the NYC Standup Scene
It’s going to be an exciting weekend for Eugene Mirman. Not only is Bob’s Burgers, the Fox animated comedy he lends his voice to, returning for its fourth season Sunday night, but also the sixth annual Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival is happening in New York from Thursday through Sunday. This year, The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival will feature the return of some influential New York standup shows, like Kurt Braunohler and Kristen Schaal’s Hot Tub and Mirman’s own Invite Them Up, with Bobby Tisdale, as well as a bouncy castle with a therapist in it and delightfully-titled one-off shows like “Comics We Hope Don’t Move to LA (Though We Understand There Is Much More Work There)” and “Comics Marc Maron Will Probably Resent in the Next Couple of Years.” I recently had the chance to chat with Mirman about the ever-shifting New York standup scene, co-hosting astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s radio show StarTalk, and the fun stuff he’s wanted to do at the festival but hasn’t been able to yet.
So how’d the idea to have your own comedy festival originally come about?
I said it as a joke after a show once at Union Hall to Mike Birbiglia and Julie Smith. I was just kidding, and they were like, “Nope, you should do it.” And then Julie and I decided to do it, and we put it on maybe six years ago when Bell House was first opening.
And it just evolved from a joke festival into its own sort-of-real thing?
Yeah, I mean it’s sort of still as much real as a joke. Last time, the shows we did were all really fun. The first year, we had a mashed potato bar and did like random stuff.
Do you have any favorite memories from past years of the festival?
I think the first time, we did a pig roast. That was very exciting. We had an awkward party bus that was very fun, where we had a bus and I made mix that every other song was Harry Chapin and then we had an actress who was a friend of ours that we hired to sit on the bus and cry. And people could come and hang out it. That was very fun.
Can you tell me a little bit about this year’s festival?
Just a bunch of shows that are going to be very fun. A Bob’s Burgers premiere sort-of-show and party. The Urbane Comedy Hour, with a bunch of fun comics. Hot Tub with Kurt and Kristen. I’m very excited that they’re coming to town. Invite Them Up, [the live show] that Bobby [Tisdale] and I used to do at Rififi. A lot of it is either a show that’s a little silly or has a satirical element or something that is just meaningful and a bunch of friends.
Has Marc Maron reacted to you naming one of the shows at the festival after him this year [“Comics Marc Maron Will Probably Resent in the Next Couple of Years”]?
I mean, I emailed him, and, yeah, he was totally fine with it.
Do you have any plans for future festivals, for weird things you haven’t been able to do yet?
I mean, [for] a lot of them, there’s things we wanna do that we can’t always do. I forget what those goals are. I think it is actually to have an ice cream limousine bus thing. Some sort of, basically, ice cream truck -based party bus that Julie and I really wanna do, but I think that it would cost like, I dunno, 50 to 100 thousand dollars. We’ve never been able to do it, and we’ve never gotten a company that would spend that kind of money on reaching only the people at Bell House. We would tour with it. We could tour in our ice cream limo bus! So yeah, that’s something that we’ve always wanted to do that we’ve never done.
Is it tough trying to get companies on board with that kind of stuff?
No, I mean, it’s not that hard to get a company to help out with something like a bouncy castle. Like, JASH is sponsoring the bouncy castle with a therapist in it. It’s a very reasonable thing. Converting some sort of large vehicle into a bus/ice cream truck is just an extraordinarily expensive thing. It would be like me being like “No one will buy me a helicopter.” People will pay for a eye contact booth that’s made of cardboard.
So wow has your standup act evolved over the last few years? Are you finding new things to explore?
Yeah! I think that so much of it is either weird thoughts or anecdotal things that happen. It’s still that. I think I just recognize a lot more of “Oh, that will work” or “that won’t work.” I think once you do comedy for a while you just sort of figure out what works for you more, but a lot of it is the same sorts of things I’ve always done. You know, like it’s still all stories and things that involve weird pictures and sometimes letters. Sometimes, just sort of odd things that come to mind.
As far as that muscle of recognizing what works and what doesn’t work, how have you gotten better with that? Is there a trick to that?
No, I mean you just do it, the truth is. There’s a bit I’m doing now, this letter thing. There’s a bunch of jokes that work and some stuff that works okay and then you evenually have to discard it. The hardest thing is that you have stuff that kind of works but not really, so then you have to either fix it or get rid of it. But most of it is trial and error. Comedy has a very strong element of science.
Do you ever get surprised with something that works that you’re not as fond of as other stuff but it ends up doing very well?
No, I mean I really have a thing where I’m like “That’s okay,” and then it just destroys. I think more often, you have a thing that you think is weird thatt people are not going to think is funny and then when they do, then you’re very excited because then you really connect with an audience with this really specific weird thing. That’s much more common.
So how did you become involved with StarTalk?
I met Helen [Matsos], who produces StarTalk at Union Hall. She came to a show and then she talked to me about StarTalk and that they were thinking of doing this show with Neil. Then, probably six months later , she emailed me [to see] if I wanted to meet up with Neil at The Museum of Natural History, so I went to his office. We must have talked for like two or three hours. They were still sort of figuring out the show. At the end of the whole thing, Neil was like, “Okay, let’s record something.” He brought out this microphone and we just sat and bantered. Then, a few months after that, they had me come in and co-host and then I sort of would come in and co-host it a bunch. Then, I suggested we do a live one, and we started doing it live.
What was your background? Was it always something you were interested in?
Science is something I’ve always loved, but I was a horrible student in school. Science isn’t necessarily something I know well, but it’s something I really enjoy.
Have you learned a ton from doing the show?
You know, I have. I forget some of it, but yeah. I do learn lots of things about just anything from academics to space travel to time travel to exploration and lots of stuff like that. It’s very interesting. I mean, it’s very fun doing a comedy show where you’re talking to a person who was out in outer space, like fixing the Hubble Telescope.
Yeah, that’s a pretty weird thing.
Yeah. Or Buzz Aldrin. We did one with Buzz Aldrin. He walked around on the moon a bunch, which is very awesome. A part of it is even just it’s amazing to get to meet these people who have affected history. It’s just sort of wonderful. It’s one of my favorite things to do, Startalk.
What has New York’s comedy scene been like lately? I mean, it seems like it’s sort of a transitional time with a lot of people having left recently.
Yeah, you know, a lot of people have moved to LA. Certainly a lot of people that I started with or even who were here before me. But actually, a lot of New York people and New York shows are popping up. I think that’s sort of what it is; it’s sort of a transitional time. But also, there’s a bit of a pendulum where sometimes people move to LA and then they end up moving back. So I think it’s hard to say until maybe a few years from now to see what happens. I know a lot of people vaguely intend to return.
Who are some of your favorite newer comedians that have emerged on the New York scene?
I feel like the people I would name, everyone knows about. I don’t know. I mostly know the people that I see at the things that I do. I did shows with Michael Che, but everyone’s aware of Michael Che. There’s no need for me to tell you about him. You know, everyone knows Nick Turner. There’s a lot of very funny comics, but often, I end up seeing more of the people who are doing those shows. I actually see a lot of new, very funny people. Ahmed Bharoocha. He had a really funny set at Wyatt [Cenac]’s show [Night Train], but he actually lives in LA.
Would you ever move to LA or are you firmly planted in New York?
I would probably not. I could one day move to LA if there was some reason to do it. I like New York; New York is sort of my home — or really the east coast. My family lives in Boston, and I went to school in Western Mass, so I really like going back up to Massachusetts a lot and it’s much easier from here than it would be from LA.
Do you record Bob’s Burgers in LA or is that in New York?
We record it at the same time in both New York and LA. That’s the other reason I don’t move to LA is that I have work in New York. I like working in projects with friends, but I don’t necessarily want to audition to just be in random stuff. I’d rather work on projects with friends and my own projects. So a lot of the advantage of LA is that you’d just be in tons of stuff. And also, you’d be with a lot of friends who have all abandoned New York City for the glory of Los Angeles.
So the whole cast records Bob’s Burgers together?–
We’re all together online, half in New York and half in LA, so we’re actually recording it live all together.
That’s gotta be way different than other voice recording, right? Where you’re just recording by yourself.
I mean, it’s different. It’s very fun and it certainly allows us to do the scenes as written and improvise a bunch. But yeah, I think normally, you can just go in alone and record your part or record it with someone. The other stuff I’ve done is, yeah, you’re reading along with a director or something, but this we actually all do the scenes together, so it is very fun and kind of different.
Do you get to work with the guest actors too or are they recorded separately?
Yeah, they generally come in. I recorded with Jon Hamm for the episodes where he plays the talking toilet. Kevin Kline comes in and records with us. Zach [Galifianakis]. Everybody who’s — I mean, not always, but often they come in to do it. I think that if they’re doing the show, it’s generally because they’re a fan of either the show or the style or the comedy, so they’re happy to come in.
Do you have a favorite episode from the new season you’re excited about?
We record them like nine months out, so there have been a bunch that have been reall,y really funny. I think the one that will be the season finale next year, we just did. But I also don’t know what I’m particularly allowed to describe and not describe, I know there’s an episode where I’m a cheerleader that was really fun to do. There’s a bunch of episodes in the new season that I really, really loved.
Do you have any plans for the future TV projects of your own?
Yeah, me and Julie Smith, who produces the festival [and who] I’ve done lots of shows with, are working on a travel show that we really wanna do. And then, me and another friend of mine, Will Graham, are working on another show idea. So yeah, I’m working on various things.