Eugene Mirman on The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival and WhiteHouse.Gov Petitions
Eugene Mirman is a master of incorporating his absurd humor into places you wouldn’t expect to find it. Whether he’s making silly WhiteHouse.gov petitions, like one in which he requested Barack Obama call the Ugandan president a “ding dong boob poopy,” or coming up with amazing things for corporations to sponsor at his self-titled comedy festival, like a bouncy castle with a therapist inside, even Mirman’s ancillary endeavors retains the same irreverent wittiness. So far this year, the Bob’s Burgers voice actor and busy standup recorded his fifth comedy album, brought The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival to Boston (where the mayor made “Eugene Mirman Day” an official city holiday), and did a standup set in A Night at Whiplash, Splitsider’s standup concert film that also includes performances from Sheng Wang, Carmen Lynch, Janeane Garofalo, Jared Logan, Michael Che, Sean Patton, and host Leo Allen.
I interviewed Mirman a couple months back, just prior to him recording his new album and bringing his festival to Boston:
How’d the Whiplash movie taping go? Were you doing new material or stuff you’d done before?
It was very fun. I think it was mostly new material, maybe a few old jokes. The truth is, I don’t remember the set exactly.
When was the first time you did Whiplash, the live show?
I don’t know. I’m assuming probably when Leo first started it. But before that, it was Aziz’s show. There had been a standup show in that slot for a long time. Aziz used to run a different show in that slot. It was called Crash Test, and then Whiplash took over. But I do lots of shows with Leo, in general.
How does doing Whiplash compare to other shows around the city?
It’s a very fun show. It’s free and also all ages, so it gets a lot of people who can’t necessarily go to a show in a bar. There’s a looseness and a fun to it, and I like Leo a lot. You also get to see neat acts.
Did you and Leo come up at the same time in the standup scene?
No, he was a little before me. I was in Boston, so I moved here around 2000. By the time I moved here, Slovin & Allen were pretty established as a thing. We’d started I think probably at different places around the same time, but he’d been in New York longer. He’s 92 years old, so he’s been around much more than me.
[Laughs] What was the comedy scene like when you first moved to New York?
There were just a lot of smart kids in tattered shorts, looking to sell a joke.
Who were your peers at the time?
Leo and Eric [Slovin] and Demetri Martin and Andrew Donnelly, Eddie Pepitone. There were a lot of different people around. Kristen Schaal.
And most of that crowd has moved out to LA these days, right? Or is there still a good portion out there?
Everyone has moved to LA, except for 19 people. And by 19, I mean about 19. And there’s also new comics coming up who are very funny.
Do you have any favorite new comics you’ve seen lately?
No, I try not to watch any of it. No, I’m just kidding. There’s a comic who just moved to New York from Ireland, Maeve Higgins, who I’ve done a bunch of shows with in the past and also recently and she’s super funny.
How often do you get to do standup these days?
It just depends. I happened to do it yesterday and then I was in Boston with Brendon Small and Larry Murphy and Andrew Donnelly. We did shows in Boston this weekend, but it’s sort of random. If I’m going on tour or something or if I’m working out an album or a set for a show, then I’ll try to go out more and do more stuff. It used to be more frequently, where I’d go out most nights and do standup, but I have other stuff I’m doing now. I don’t do like, “You can see me seven nights a week!” I do sort of two-to-five shows or zero-to-seven shows, closer to two or three. If there’s a week where I feel I’m not doing any shows, I realize I did three shows. I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I thought I wasn’t performing, but I actually did three shows.’
I imagine having done standup for as long as you have, you don’t have to do it quite as frequently as you did when you started.
Well, if you want a new joke to work, you do. Also, you simply have other responsibilities, meaning I just have other stuff I have to work on, so I divide my time. But [next month], I’ll probably have a show virtually every night, but that’s what’s kind of great about shows like Whiplash and stuff like that. There’s a bunch of places where you can drop by and try things out. And also for comics, when you do a set, you’re just seeing if a new joke or a new part of a joke works, so it’s kind of great to be able to drop by places and tweak something.
Are you going to start putting together a new special soon?
Yeah, I’m actually going to record a new album in Seattle.
How’d you go about selecting Seattle or the specific room to record it in?
The room I’m recording in, [The Columbia City Theater], a lot of people told me it’s an awesome room. And it’s also a recording studio that’s sort of built for that.
Do you have a name picked out for it yet?
No, I don’t have a name, but I’m going to start brainstorming soon.
Do you enjoy that process, or is it tedious?
Yeah. It’s fun coming up with names. It’s funny because inevitably naming an album starts with me just being like, “What I want to call it is Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits Volume 2, but I know I can’t do that because that’s against the law.” And then going through titles that probably make more sense or are legal.
[Laughs] How do you go about putting together a new album? How long do you take testing out that material?
I mean, it depends because I guess at this point, it would technically be two years because my last special came out a little over a year ago but was actually recorded the previous June. It’s not necessarily as much of a “how long it takes” as just how things sort of end up timing out. I’m also working on various stuff. I still primarily think of myself as a standup, but, in general, I have random stuff I’m doing. The timeline sort of shifts as a result of when you can do things.
What other stuff have you been working on lately?
Our comedy festival, Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, that me and Julie Smith put on. It takes sort of a lot of organizing and coordinating. Even for the festival, we have a lot of dumb sponsorship packages that we come up with where we want mimes or we want something silly that people can sponsor. To brainstorm all that weird ancillary stuff that actually makes it really fun is just sort of time consuming. I guess when I say I have a bunch of random work stuff, I mean “brainstorming jokes involving mimes.”
Last year at the festival in New York, we had a bouncy castle with a therapist in it, and people could go in and bounce and get advice. So things sort of like that. I know it’s such an odd answer to what would normally be someone [saying] “Oh, I have a child, so that takes up time.” I’m like, “I don’t have a child, but brainstorming bouncy castles with therapists in it really takes a lot of effort.” And stuff like it. But in terms of putting together a new hour, I used to have a weekly show, so you’d be forced to write new stuff. But I started traveling too much to do that, so now I have to really be like, “Okay, I’m gonna write this stuff and go do a bunch of shows and work it out.”
You mentioned last time I interviewed you that you had a travel show that you were trying to get going.
That’s true. I’m still working on that. That’s actually one of the other things. I know I only mentioned mimes and bouncy castles, but yes, the truth is I have a few shows I’m working on with different friends to try to make something. And actually, we might end up doing the travel show.
Was Boston the first time you’ve taken The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival to a different city, or have you done that before?
We did it once in Seattle. It was very fun but a little hard, but Julie, who I produce it with, lives in Boston and I’m also from Boston, so that’s a place that it really made sense to bring it. She’s based there, so there are a lot of logistical things she can do because she’s there. It would be a very fun thing to at some point take on a tour, if that was possible to do two or three nights in various cities.
Just you in a tour bus full of mimes.
We would probably outsource to local mimes. It’s one of those things, you can’t have a bus of traveling mimes, but you definitely can hire mimes in almost every city in America.
Is that true? I’m not familiar with the mime-hiring process.
Really, you’d have to talk to Julie, but I feel like yes, you can hire all sorts of people to do all sorts of stuff. One of our things this year is that the mime will act out your company’s corporate mission statement if you sponsor [the festival]. And another one, I think, is actually a large trash bucket filled to the top with stuff branded with your company.
That’s awesome. Have you been able to get anyone to sponsor that one yet?
Not that one, but we did get Newberry Comics, who sponsored “I’ll talk about them for 30 seconds at the top of a show,” which happened to be a comic book/record store that I loved as a kid so it’s great. We have a few sponsors who have bought some of the different packages.
Did you ever hear anything back about the WhiteHouse.gov petition you posted?
You mean the one that says, “Tell Uganda to go fuck itself”? That was taken down about three or four hours after it went up because you can’t use swear words. What’s funny is as long as it’s a thing that the president could actually ask, you could make a White House petition that asks him to ask the head of France to finger a wolf. I don’t know if you could ask him to [say] “finger a wolf” but maybe you could. My one example is maybe spurious. You can’t ask him to ask Justin Bieber to put on a shirt, but you can ask him to do something as long as it’s stateworthy. It has to be related to the government. You could ask him to create a tax on people who are assholes. I think you maybe could do that; you’d have to use a different word. As long as it’s something that’s within the government’s purview, which is what I found out after making a handful of weird petitions.
I wonder how far up that stuff makes it within the White House.
Oh, I think if it gets whatever – 100,000 signatures – they respond, but I’ve never made a petititon that 1000,000 people signed.
Yeah, that’s understandable, what with goofy ones getting pulled down.
I did another one that asked President Obama to ask the head of Uganda to kill himself, and that one stayed up.
So that one’s still up as of now?
I don’t know if that one’s still up ’cause I did it a while ago [Editor’s note: The petition did not receive enough signatures and has since expired]. I think I even flagged it because I was like, “I wonder what happens if you flag it,” and it’s like nothing. I think what people misunderstood is that it’s not that I want the President of Uganda to kill himself, it’s that I wanted Obama to ask him to kill himself. The joke is simply in the request, not in the actual action.
Right, I think that comes across.
Yes, I guess I’m commenting on people who would be like, “Oh, that seems really harsh.” I’m like, “No, no. It’s funny to ask someone to kill themself.” I don’t know if that’s still up, but that’s perfectly legal: to ask Obama to ask someone to kill themselves is completely within he government’s abilities.
And they have to keep it on their website.
I mean, they don’t have to. The funny thing is I literally reported it as inappropriate and it definitely still stayed up, so I think it actually has to be inappropriate to be taken down.