‘I think that being from Russia makes me a bit of an outsider, but I also appreciate America in a certain way – it is an odd combination of being an outsider and insider at the same time‘ – Siobhán Kane spoke to Eugene Mirman ahead of his shows at the Vodafone Comedy Festival this weekend.
Moving from Russia to America as a small boy perhaps set Eugene Mirman towards comedy, and his gift for observation mingled with a slightly surreal approach has brought him to feature in Bob’s Burgers and Flight of the Conchords, write a parodying self-help book The Will to Whatevs, and feature on Neil Degrasse Tyson’s brilliant radio programme Star Talk.
“I think that being from Russia makes me a bit of an outsider, but I also appreciate America in a certain way – it is an odd combination of being an outsider and insider at the same time. With my stand-up I don’t have tonnes about my family, though it comes up sometimes, but I am not really a comic who talks about his heritage.”
So much of Mirman’s success has been very organic, and comedy was something that he felt connected to from an early age, feeling that it could be within reach.
“Yes, it did. It totally did, but it’s partially because everything is so slow and incremental. When I wrote the book The Will to Whatevs, I had first, for several years, written a weekly blog for The Village Voice, so I just started writing more and through that came about a situation where I ended up being able to write a book. I think I didn’t know unrealistic it might be [laughs], and I also thought that if I wanted to do comedy, it meant I would probably have to live in a studio apartment, and I would have to travel in a frugal way and it seemed okay, as there were little bits you could accomplish. I thought maybe I could write a column for a local weekly newspaper, or maybe I would be a radio talk show DJ. I thought of comedy as so vast, and in a sense it is, I mean now I do this science podcast, and I am on a cartoon, and I do stand-up, and so it is as varied as I had always imagined. At any given point there are little things you can do, like a little show at the smallest comedy club, where you make something funny – it always seems possible somehow to do it and have a freelance life, I guess.”
At college Mirman’s major was comedy, with the practical as well as more theoretical aspect a kind of apprenticeship.
“An apprenticeship is actually a great way to put it. I went to a college where in general everyone designed their own majors, so I designed my major to be comedy, and for my thesis I did a one hour stand up act that I wrote, promoted and produced, and to do that I had to run a weekly comedy show that I had to find other acts for, and to try out jokes and stuff, but in general I took writing and video and science and history and combined it all with elements of comedy, and it was a general liberal arts college, so people end up doing similar things, but I focussed on comedy as it was what truly interested me.”
After he graduated, he went on to co-found The Weekly Week, a satirical local newspaper in Boston (think The Onion), which sounded like a particularly satisfying period in Mirman’s life.
“It was, it was delightful, and I was working with a lot of friends. I went to college with a lot of them. I think I always had an entrepreneurial kind of DIY spirit, so when I left college it seemed natural to start this humour paper, and weekly stand-up shows, and I think I have always been of the mind that if you do 10 things, then maybe 3 of them might pan out [laughs].
I spent many many years being reasonably broke, but I think at some point things stabilised. When your job is basically freelance and things can go away at any time, I think you have this fear that the show you are on now could easily go away, anything can always disappear, that’s why I think I am always working on so many things [laughs], but I don’t think I have the same kind of anxiety that I had when I was 27 or 28, but at that time also I was very happy sleeping on a futon [laughs], and then when I got older I was less happy with that, and then it seemed I got regular work.
You start off doing things that you want, and then some things come from that. Star Talk came up because the woman who produces the show came to a show I did, and she asked if I would be interested. A lot of these things are from meeting people over the years, like the way the Conchords happened, or meeting David O’ Doherty through Demetri Martin, and it is all a slow, organic process. Bob’s Burgers was made by someone I knew in Boston who went on to make more and more shows, so there is a lot of that, and you end up, over time, collaborating with people that you like.”
We talk about the rich collaborations between musicians and comics, a relationship that continues to deepen and evolve, and Mirman has toured with some interesting musicians, from The Shins to Modest Mouse. There is such a sympathy between the two fields, so it makes sense that Mirman’s comedy albums are now released by Sub Pop.
“Yes. I think also my career is probably much more similar to a band, you put out records, and do a lot of stuff on your own without necessarily any help! I had actually known Sub Pop for a few years through David Cross, and also through my agent, but I had probably known them for a few years before it occurred to me that it would probably be a great place for my second album.
There is a huge crossover, and a lot of comedians go to a lot of music shows, and a lot of musicians go to comedy shows – Yo La Tengo famously put on their Hanukka shows where they have a comedian on every show, so in general there is a large crossover of those worlds.”
This brings to mind comedy’s sense of community, and I wondered when Mirman was looking at comedy more academically, if he thought that a sense of community was strengthening over the decades or receding?
“I don’t know. I think there has always been a strong community there, even when you think back to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. I think because of the internet and technology, any person can basically make a movie at home, and put it online and sell it in countless ways. Anyone can record their own record fairly easily. At the very least people can make stuff and put it out there and get fans, and you don’t need 10 million fans, so in that sense technology has made things quite easy to get the word out, but it also makes things cluttered – there are now 10 million bands that are on the internet, as opposed to 10 million bands that are secretly around and people don’t really know them, so I don’t know – I think there are ups and downs.
I prefer the fact that before I had a special on television I could record an album and put it out, and it wasn’t insanely difficult, and I do think that there is such a warm community out there. Some people talk about it being competitive in entertainment, but I don’t think it is, I don’t think someone is casting a role and that David O’Doherty and I are competing for it, I think that each person has a thing that they do, and if you do it well, then you can perform stand up on stage for an hour, and you are going to be fine. There is a lot of warmth and a lot of support in the comedy community.”
Mirman adds to this sense of community by hosting his Brooklyn comedy club night Pretty Good Friends, which has an earthy and inviting reputation.
“Absolutely. I have always sort of enjoyed organising things, and collaborating with friends, and it is really fun to put on those shows – and it is very supportive. And I am sure there are places that aren’t as supportive, and are unpleasant, but I don’t spend time in those places! [Laughs] There is a lot more camaraderie with us than anything else.”
With this in mind, I ask him who he has always admired in comedy, and I mention Bobcat Goldthwait in particular, as someone he has referenced previously.
“He was someone who was very popular in the ’80’s and continues on. I have done a bunch of shows with him, he’s so wonderful. Emo Philips is someone else who I really love, and as I heard more stuff I came across this comedy team from the ’60s, that did pranks, called Coyle & Sharpe – basically they would pretend crazy things. They were sort of parody news men, except they would go out on the street, and come up to people and be like “we know some scientists who have developed a way to grow coins in people’s heads”, then they would say, “actually we are the scientists and we’d like to cut your head open”, and say things like “we’d like to erase your knowledge of language and sell you a new language” – really neat and wonderful – I really love them. One of them became a radio personality in Los Angeles, and one of them moved to London to study philosophy, but he sadly died. I think they maybe made a TV pilot, but after that one of them decided they didn’t like showbusiness and moved away. They have a lot of recordings, and were really great. I don’t know if they were before Candid Camera or around the same time, but you should look them up, they were really interesting, silly, and absurd.”