For years, comedian Eugene Mirman has made it easy to follow his career without knowing much about him. On stage, Mirman would share details about himself, usually via stories of growing up as a Russian immigrant in the last decade of the Cold War. But when Mirman addressed the present, he mostly focused on the absurd details of everyday life — and usually, his efforts to escalate that absurdity.
Sometimes that took the form of an angry, baffling letter to a gas company (“I will be mailing you a photograph of cows having sex every day because it isn’t illegal”). Other times it’s manifested itself via adventures on an online Christian dating service (“I have a girlfriend and I’m Jewish but you never know…”). Sure, some of the details shifted over the years, as talk of temping at a financial company gave way to casual references to hanging out with Michael Stipe, but Mirman seemed to remain much the same: a warm, welcoming presence at perpetual war with the ridiculousness around him.
The new documentary It Started as a Joke, which recently debuted on VOD, pans back to take a wider view of Mirman’s life and career that might surprise those who only know him through his work. Co-directed by Mirman’s longtime producing partner Julie Smith Clem and veteran documentary producer Ken Druckerman, the film captures Mirman at a time of transition. It documents both the final installment of the long-running, influential, creatively chaotic Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, and Mirman’s life at his home on Cape Cod, where Mirman and his wife Katie Westfall Tharp moved to be closer to family and, later, raise their son Ollie, now a toddler. This wasn’t just an instance of a couple departing the big city for quieter surroundings, however — the choice to leave Brooklyn, the nexus of the comedy scene in which Mirman played a crucial role, was tied up in Tharp’s long battle with cancer, a battle that ended with Tharp’s death this past January.
From its opening moments, in which Mirman feeds his son while his son stares at the camera, it’s obvious It Started as a Joke will showcase a different side of Mirman. But the parental tenderness squares with the Mirman discussed by his fellow comedians elsewhere in the film, who recall the crucial role Mirman’s support played in bolstering their careers and creating a supportive environment, both through his comedy festival and other showcases, like the freewheeling Invite Them Up shows that helped define an alternative New York comedy scene in the 2000s and 2010s.
Just the names in the opening credits speak to his influence and the regard with which others hold him, from like-minded comedy predecessors like Bobcat Goldthwait and Janeane Garofalo, to contemporaries like H. Jon Benjamin and Kristen Schaal (both co-stars on Bob’s Burgers, for which Mirman provides the voice of Gene), Reggie Watts, Mike Birbiglia and Chris Gethard.
As the title of the film suggests, the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival started as a joke, one designed to deflate the pretensions of more established festivals. But that same attitude also seems to have created a different attitude among its participants. Comedy history is filled with tales of competitiveness and infighting and, while it’s hard to imagine those qualities are entirely absent from any group of creative, ambitious people, Mirman’s comedy world doesn’t seem to have been defined by it.
By Mirman’s reckoning, those attitudes aren’t just unnecessary to create comedy, they’re antithetical to it. “It’s sort of what I said in the movie and I genuinely believe it,” he says by phone from Cape Cod. “No one’s going to beat you to writing your own book. No one’s going to beat you to making your own special or to your TV show or movie. I don’t know if you saw Kristen Schaal’s last special. She did an amazing hour special for Comedy Central, and no one else was going to make that special. I don’t really have an answer to why some people are competitive and some aren’t, other than, I personally believe the way you can succeed is by just making a thing that’s funny.”
That approach helps explain why there’s no mistaking the comics showcased by Mirman’s comedy festival for each other. Like Mirman, they seem to regard their acts as an outgrowth of their personalities, whether they’re storytellers or conceptual comics. And for Mirman, changing circumstances have meant incorporating elements of his life he’d previously kept off stage. It Started as a Joke features a running strand in which Mirman attempts to find comedy in cancer by designing greeting cards appropriate for the occasion. At first it doesn’t go well, his creations playing as too grim for the room. By film’s end, however, he’s found a groove.
When I ask if he’s grown more comfortable incorporating autobiographical elements into his act, Mirman replies, “Sort of yes and no. The funny thing is, though I’m not really personal, all of my standup is about stuff that happens to me and then some sort of take on it. So whether I’m taking out an ad or something else, it often is anecdotal in that sense. [And] so much of my life had also become about cancer and those things that, after a while, it was something that I wanted to try talking about.”
“Something being funny doesn’t negate it being sad,” he continues. “So, I think for me, it’s finding the way to convey what’s funny, frustrating or absurd about something that’s either sad or happy. It’s okay to have two emotions at once.”
Speaking of the future, Mirman suspects personal material will remain part of his routine. “If I do stand-up about my life now,” he says, “I’m a single dad, so some of those things would have to be mentioned, just so there’s an accurate framework of where I’m coming from.” But, like everybody else, he’s not certain when that future will arrive. “I would have said, ‘When I start doing stand-up again.’ But, I don’t even know when the world will allow standup again. So, it’s sort of funny to go from, ‘I wonder when I’ll be ready,’ to ‘Oh, I wonder when it will be okay for like, 48 people to be in a room.’”
Any return would have to be different from what Mirman’s done before, but It Started as a Joke suggests that the seemingly disparate elements of Mirman’s life and career have always been of a piece. The same comedic instinct that’s led Mirman to escalate a dispute over a $15 parking ticket into a public battle with the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, lines up with a larger sense of unease found in jokes about the creeping corporatization of online life (Mirman maintains a LinkedIn profile that lists him as “Experienced Senior VP of Pee Pee at Veri?on”) and with feelings of injustice in routines that touch on the barely masked racism of right-wing politics. And the same tendencies that led him to help create a supportive comedy scene suggests he’ll make fatherhood work in the wake of unthinkable loss, and in the midst of this dark chapter of history.
For now, though, Mirman’s not looking that far into the future. “I prefer life not under quarantine but I guess I’m holding up okay,” he says. “I have a 3-and-a-half-year-old son, and we have a yard and a swing set. And some days it’s a little over 50 degrees, so it’s okay. I think as it gets warmer it will be a little easier. But also it will drag out longer and longer. So, I don’t know. I guess we’ll see how it goes.”