Interview: Eugene Mirman
Eugene Mirman has taken a Field of Dreams approach to his comedy career. Rather than going where the crowds already were, Mirman has made a living doing the kind of comedy he enjoys in the spaces where he feels most comfortable. This tactic has paid off big-time. He has released numerous comedy CDs and appeared in his own half-hour Comedy Central special, not to mention the "Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival," his book The Will to Whatevs, plus roles in Flight of the Conchords on HBO, Delocated on the Cartoon Network, and most recently, Bob’s Burgers on FOX.
Mirman brings his “Pretty Good Friends” tour, featuring Reggie Watts and Kumail Nanjiani, to the Paradise on March 1. He very graciously (and hilariously) chatted with TOB over the phone about the tour, his seafood preferences and much more.
TOB: You grew up in the suburbs of Boston and went to school in Western Mass. What do you like most about coming back to the area?
Eugene Mirman: I love to visit Boston. I get to visit friends and family, and it's always fun to return. I guess I look forward to lots of seafood.
Where do you go for seafood?
East Coast Grill in Inman or Summer Shack. Just around. But also I like bringing friends from outside Boston to Boston. That's one of the fun things.
I like the idea of friendship as a vehicle for comedy. Sometimes people think comedy is such an aggressive thing.
Yes! But no, ours is pretty friendly... but still dangerous. And cutting edge… I'm just kidding.
The lineups of your show are bananas. How do you decide which of your pretty good friends go on tour with you?
It was something with Kumail [Nanjiani], who has moved out to LA but used to live out here in New York. We'd done lots of shows together, and we wanted to tour a little. So basically, we asked friends. Like, Reggie [Watts] was available, and Michael Showalter had his book release here. So we sort of combined it all. I mean the question is: Who feels like traveling for a week together? Since we break all the money down, it's not that much. It's mostly just for the fun of doing it.
The people you get for your “Cabinet of Wonders” variety show seem like heavy hitters from all over the map: Comedy, music, literature. How do you bring that all together?
Oh, you know a lot of that is Wes, John Wesley Harding. He had this idea to combine literature and music together, because he's a musician and writer. And then we had started doing variety stuff together, and from that came this show. And then eventually we added comedy.
But you’re not a musician yourself, at least publicly.
Oh, no. Or privately.
Still, it seems like you're really in tune with the music world. How did you get involved with that?
When I first moved to New York and was trying to do comedy, the agent who approached mostly booked bands. And she was like, "Do you want to open for The Shins?" And I said: "Yes, I would like to open for The Shins." And then from there, she put me on a tour with Modest Mouse, and also there was other stuff. Like Yo La Tengo are just big comedy fans. And then I got onto Sub Pop. I guess ultimately it's just the community I'm in. It's a community with lots of musicians and comedians that are friends.
A lot of your comedy seems to be about giving advice, from your old "Sexpert" internet video, to your book The Will To Whatevs, and even the FAQ on your website. How did you come to that as a medium for comedy?
I went to Hampshire College in Western Mass, where you could design your own major. So I designed the major of "Comedy." I wrote a paper on physiology of laughter, wrote a humor column for our newspaper, did video stuff and had a radio show—just sort of did all sorts of stuff. And similar to my standup, you know, there wasn't really a club. I just started something in the basement of my dorm and whatever worked was what I would keep and would become my act. When I graduated, I would just do whatever seemed fun and funny, and I came to enjoy a variety of things. You can't just put yourself on television, but you can put yourself on the internet. So I started making videos and putting them online, and my website with the singing baby sort of became viral. To me, any format of comedy is fine as long as it's funny.
What was the best advice you ever got about doing standup when you started out?
When I was moving to New York and had gotten a manager, I remember [Boston comedian] Tony V said to me: "Essentially, it doesn't matter if you have a manager. You still have to do everything yourself." I have a manager now that I really love, and that's really wonderful. But there is basically this attitude of, you have to come up with stuff and figure things out. No one's going to do that for you. It's not like you get an agent and they send a letter to someone, and all of a sudden you're on a TV show. Tony was really helpful. He has just a fantastic perspective, and has just seen things go different ways for lots of people. I think he's great.
What was the worst advice?
I once had a horrible show in Las Vegas. I was supposed to do eight shows, but I only did two because I was so mismatched. After I got off my first set, the person who was emceeing was really trying to be helpful was like: "Do you have any fart jokes or Jewish jokes?" And I was like: "No. I really, really wish I did, but I don't." Basically, a long time ago I had just decided that I would avoid that whole club system and just create my own thing.
So you've described yourself in your standup as having been a weird kid, and your character on Bob's Burgers, Gene, is kind of like that. Do you feel any kinship with that character?
You know, in a sense. But the truth is that I was a genuinely awkward, weird kid. There wasn't anything that lovable about me. Maybe from an outside perspective there would have been. It's funny because I don't think that I was that much of a jokey, entertainery kid. Probably not when I was 11, but maybe by 17.
What advice would you give to Gene as a kid if he were a real person?
What's funny is that my advice to anyone is basically the exact same thing, and it's basically to just do it. I would tell Gene that if he really wants to do it, even though he's sort of terrible, to not let that fool him. Blind confidence and tenacity are a huge portion of succeeding. Because if you don't acknowledge that you're maybe terrible, you'll just keep plugging along until you're very good.
You've played a lot of characters with your own name, sort of like an alternative comedy Tony Danza—
Yes, that's exactly what I am, and you have to write that. [Laughs] Yeah, I happen to be "Eugene," but mostly it's because people write that as the character. I've never been like: "We have to change this from Bill to Eugene."
We've heard stories about when you used to run a show at The Comedy Studio in Cambridge. The legend according to Comedy Studio owner Rick Jenkins is that you used to stand outside with flyers and shout: "You made eye contact with me! Now you have to take one!"
That's absolutely true. Once Rick gave me a show, I would make a thousand flyers, and I'd hand them out a few days a week in Harvard Square. Because [laughs] there was no reason to come see me. You know what I mean? So I would just stand out on the street joking with people.