Eugene Mirman: The Strange Days of…

By | September 2, 2006 at 8:55 am | One comment | Features

Eugene Mirman: The Strange Days of…

Rising from from a hip, close-knit scene in New York City, Russian-born Eugene Mirman is twisting traditional stand-up comedy into something incredibly odd. And no one’s safe… not robots, not Star Trek and certainly not Richard Dreyfuss.

By Caroline Stanley

It’s a humid Wednesday night in New York City, and hordes of hipsters are packed into the back room of RiFiFi, a so-rundown-it’s-chic bar in the East Village. In the middle of the fray stands Eugene Mirman, a 32-year-old comedian from Brooklyn who has been co-producing this weekly comedy show, Invite Them Up, for the past four years.

When his friend on stage, comedian Aziz Ansari launches into a story about hooking up while watching the Arnold Schwarzenegger flick Jingle All the Way, Mirman begins to laugh, and then bellows out, “You pussy!” Mirman acts like an excited kid who’s clowning around with a group of drama geeks in his parents’ basement. Part ringmaster, part heckling older brother, he emanates an electric energy that spills over into the audience each time he lets loose with a deep chuckle.

So what does it take to make Eugene Mirman laugh? “I definitely find things that are very sad also very funny,” he says. “Like when a relationship ends. It’s not that I don’t recognize the sadness — it’s just how I process everything — I see the pretty irony, and laugh. And then I cry. It’s just the way I see things.”

Maybe this way of viewing life is a product of his childhood as a Russian immigrant during the Cold War. “We were in this little suburban bubble and I was hated,” he says of growing up in Lexington, Massachusetts, just 20 minutes outside of Boston. “Kids would blame me for shooting down American planes. It was probably a lot like growing up a Middle Eastern immigrant today, but with less Googling involved. Maybe a traumatic childhood makes people look for the comedy in life. I’m sure for me, it helped. It was a defense mechanism, the way I coped with things.”

But Mirman experienced a popularity upswing once Nirvana broke, and “being weird became socially acceptable.” He even ran for senior-class president, under the slogan, “It’s not just a change, it’s a mutation!”

He did not win.

After graduating from high school, Mirman headed off to Hampshire College in Amherst (Which he’s called “a mild Vietnam War with Frisbee”), where he created his own major: comedy. But don’t assume it was easy. His final exam was a one-hour stand-up act that he wrote, performed, promoted and produced.
The summer after freshman year, he had his first stand-up gig at Catch A Rising Star in Cambridge. “No matter how much I try to block it out, I remember: It was July 28, 1992. Brian Kiley, who now writes for Conan O’Brien, was the host,” he says. “I was shaking and talking quickly and was incredibly nervous. I didn’t bomb, but I wasn’t really good either. I think in most cases, the first time you do stand up, you do well because you’re so excited and the audience is excited for you, too. I was so awkward and goofy and weird, but I had a lot of friends there, and they were really supportive.”

The second time? “I was horrible — that made me realize that you can’t just nervously hop up on stage and ramble, thinking people will laugh at you the whole time,” he says. “I discovered stand-up was going to take lots and lots of work.”

Eugene MirmanINDIE ROCK GOD

Over the next few years he put in the work by organizing and promoting his own shows in basements around campus. Performers included an unstable guy from the local half-way house, a crazy political activist wearing a potato sack and fellow students. The shows would later be held at a space on the 3rd floor of a Chinese restaurant in Boston.

Once he moved to New York in 2000, Mirman started Invite Them Up with his friend, comedian Bobby Tisdale. Both were looking for “a fun place to do new stuff, with the people who we think are funny, every week.” His friends, comedians Michael Showalter, Leo Allen and David Cross are still among the regulars. This casual night of comedy garnered national exposure when Comedy Central late last year released a three-disc album bearing the show’s name and showcasing a ton of Invite Them Up’s regular comics.

Mirman likes that the every-Wednesday show gives him a deadline for coming up with new material, and uses it as an opportunity to work out any kinks in his act. “If something doesn’t work, that’s fine; and if it does, it’s exciting because that’s new stuff I can tour with,” he says. “You learn to acknowledge when something fails and move on. Like last night, I tried something that didn’t go over with the audience, so I said, ‘Well, I probably shouldn’t use Richard Dreyfuss in a punch line.’ And I got a laugh. It takes you a while to figure out some jokes. But I certainly don’t have 4,000 jokes that I’ve saved over 29 years that I still tinker with. Or maybe I do. Muwahahaha.”

Odds are, if he does have a secret vault of jokes, more than a few of them are about robots. “I just love a good robot,” he explains. “A lot of the things I like to make fun of are the things I love. Science fiction. Aliens. Action thrillers. Star Trek and Star Wars. Obviously, I’m very cool.”

Cool or not, Mirman’s alternative brand of humor has struck a chord with the indie-music crowd, many who catch him opening for bands that range from Modest Mouse to the Shins. And this brings him to the East Coast leg of Patton Oswalt’s ever-charging, ever-rotating Comedians of Comedy tour, where he, Oswalt and Brian Posehn are playing venues usually reserved for the aforementioned rock outfits.

“It’s nice when someone comes up to me after a show and says this is the first time they’ve ever seen stand up,” he says. “They are surprised when they actually like it because the comedy clubs of the 80s and 90s made most kids assume that comedy was something that is kind of tacky or lame. People became jaded by the insincerity.”

Mirman’s stage show is anything but lame and if it’s tacky it’s done so purposely. If he’s not telling jokes with punch lines, then he’s reading letters— like the ones he wrote not to people but to nouns (Advertising and Arthritis to name a few) on his latest CD, En Garde, Society! Then, sometimes he fires up his laptop to deliver hilarious audio/visual presentations; on his debut album, 2004’s The Absurd Nightclub Comedy of Eugene Mirman, he plays a phone call he made to a creditor he owed $521 where he tries to buy back is debt.

Even when he’s dressed in an angel costume, doing a parody of an anti-drug campaign ad, Mirman comes across as nothing if not sincere, which might explain how he has become a poster boy for the New York City alternative comedy scene and reached a comfortable level of comedic success (he’s even writing a lifestyle book, due out in fall of 2007).

“My advice for people who are just starting out now is, do it for a decade, and then everything will be fine,” he laughs. “Most of the comedians who I really admire have done stand-up for at least 15 years. It’s like a muscle you have to develop. I feel much more comfortable on stage these days. I still have a few years to go before I’m completely confident.” That said, it would probably take a lot to throw him off while performing: “If I saw a bunch of naked people high-fiving in the audience. Or animals that could talk to one another. Maybe.”

Regardless of his confidence levels, after spending over a decade in front of the mic, Mirman feels pretty happy with where he’s at today. “I’m not doing the kind of comedy I’m doing because I want to break through jaded audiences’ hardened hearts. Your humor doesn’t have to seem important to be relevant. I don’t have to notice the most ironic thing about the war in Iraq. I do the things that I find funny, and I’m lucky enough that I have found enough of an audience that I can make a living doing it,” he says. “Now, if I had a family to support they’d be eating meals of Cup-a-Soup and old CDs.”

Not that he’s got any better ways to bring in coin. “The problem is, I have no real skills. If I were no longer performing I’d probably be a wacky entrepreneur, wandering around, hawking stuff on the streets. Like, ‘Folding PANTS! The pants that become shorts!’ Although there’s a chance I’d be able to find an audience for that, too.”
Eugene MirmanFor more information, visit www.eugenemirman.com and the official MySpace Comedians of Comedy page.

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