Taking the laugh less traveled
Eugene Mirman breaks free from comedy convention to make his own way
Most comedians spend years hopping from one open mike to the next, slowly working their way into opening slots at comedy clubs. They tirelessly wriggle up the ranks, striving for that elusive TV appearance that might, someday, grant them headliner status.
Then there's a guy like Eugene Mirman, who's taken a more unusual path.
"I've always found it easier to create my own thing and do that until people come to it," says the New York–based comedian, who will take the stage at Subterranean Thursday 16.
He's not just talking about Invite Them Up, the weekly show he does with his friend Bobby Tisdale at Manhattan bar/movie theater/performance space Cinema Classics, or his penchant for touring with bands, playing music halls rather than traditional comedy clubs. The Russian-born comedian's independent streak started long before that, when he was an undergraduate at Hampshire College, a liberal arts school in western Massachusetts where students design their own major.
Mirman specialized in comedy, which rivals philosophy as the major most terrifying to parents who hope their offspring might someday earn a living. He wrote papers on topics such as the sociological impact of Lenny Bruce and the physiology of comedy, a medical field he admits hasn't been covered in too many medical journals. "Nobody really studies something unless it makes people ill," he says.
So does he consider himself a comedic man of letters?
"If what you mean is, 'Do I enjoy thinking about comedy in lots of different ways?' then yes," he says. "But the idea of, 'Come and see the stand-up of America's greatest comedy scholar?' no."
Mirman's studies weren't all theoretical, though. He was training to be a comedian himself, and along the way to completing his final project—writing and performing an hour of stand-up—he picked up some practical knowledge as well. "I did things like send out press releases," Mirman says. "I didn't know what I was doing, but it turns out if you fax a newspaper, they'll write about you. That's a great thing to learn in college. When I left college, I would fax newspapers and they'd write about me. I thought that was amazing."
After graduating, he moved to Boston and started his own show above a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge. People came, and in 2000, he felt confident enough to make the move to stand-up's mecca, New York.
Mirman quickly worked his way up to established clubs, but theplace he has hit it biggest is in the city's underground comedy scene, where he takes the stage alongside comics like David Cross (from HBO's Mr. Show) and the troupe Stella (who take over Dave Chapelle's recently vacated slot on Comedy Central at the end of June).
Winning over audiences at these shows led Mirman to multiple appearances on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Comedy Central's Premium Blend and even a gig providing the voice for an animated boy, aptly named "Eugene," on the Cartoon Network's Home Movies.
With these TV credits under his belt, Mirman could easily get booked at conventional comedy clubs across the country. But his yen for the unconventional route again takes him off the beaten path. When he goes on the road these days, it's frequently as an opening act for indie rock bands like The Shins or Modest Mouse.
Mirman acknowledges that part of the reason he plays music clubs is for the publicity-generating novelty of mixing comedy with music. "Everybody is writing about it," he says. But at the same time, his act better fits the sensibility of the average indie-rock fan than that of the average comedy clubgoer.
"The reason I play rock clubs is that it's cheaper for everyone who goes," he says. "It's less creepy. There's something very artificial about some comedy clubs and rock clubs don't have that. Rock clubs have no drink minimum, and kids go there anyway."
And like independent bands, Mirman is always striving to do something out of the ordinary. His act, ably captured on last year's CD/DVD The Absurd Nightclub Comedy of Eugene Mirman, mixes straightforward jokes with odd stories, the occasional song and even short, homemade films.
So does Mirman chafe at the idea of being labeled as an "underground" comedian?
"If people need a context or it will blow their minds, it's fine. I'm not mad about it," he says. "Whether I necessarily present myself as that, I don't know. It's the same way bands were never like, 'We're going to set out to be grunge.'"
Mirman brings his absurd comedy to nightclub Subterranean Thursday 16.