The Eugene Mirman Interview

November 21, 2003

Today is the day to say the term "good old fashioned" a lot.


What's your Thanksgiving day complaint?

Earlier this year I saw the comedy group Stella perform, and today's interviewee opened for them. I can be kind of picky with my standup comedians, but he made me laugh. Hard. He has appeared on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" and performs regularly in New York, in addition to making some truly funny short films, which I am always fond of. Hooray for smart comedians!

The Eugene Mirman Interview: A Few Less Than Twenty Questions

When I saw you perform in Chicago, it was opening up for Stella. How did you get hooked up with those guys?
I have the same manager as David Wain and Michael Showalter. When I got to New York, she showed them my standup and they asked me to perform at their variety show at Fez here in New York. This was about two years ago, and when they were going on tour they asked me to open.

When did you first start making videos?
I’ve always loved doing video stuff. I used to make lots of music videos in high school. I made videos for everything from heavy metal songs like "Youth Gone Wild" and Dr. Feelgood to obscure Robyn Htichcock songs like "He’s A Reptile" and "The Man Who Invented Himself". I never had a video camera as a kid, but would just borrow cameras from friends or school. I kept doing video stuff in college, but didn’t really start making shorts like I do now until about 2000, when I got a mini- dv camera. For a while, I had no editing equiptment, and so I would do all these videos where I would play a bunch of characters and change clothes from shot to shot. The Secret video, which is on my site, was the first video I made when I got my camera and it’s just one
straight take. And the New Media video was never edited either. It’s something I shot in the woman’s bathroom of The Hong Kong Restaurant (on the third floor of which is a comedy club) in Cambridge, MA about an hour before a show. And about a year ago Showtime bought it and airs it sometimes.

What is ‘alternative comedy’? Is there such a thing?
Yes. Like anything, though, it’s hard to define. It’s an unconventional kind of comedy. It can be a bunch of things. Stella is definitely alternative. It’s not like traditional sketch comedy. Some people often hate the idea of alternative comedy, because it can just be crazies doing weird stuff that isn’t funny. But a lot of it is just different from conventional standup or sketch. It can be more conversational or involve audio-visual stuff or props or reading things or whatever. On the Stella tour I close my set with a Power Point presentation about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I guess that would be
considered alternative. It’s a way of being able to tell jokes, but also have audio cues and video stuff.

What kind of jokes or ideas do you use for video, and which do you reserve for standup?
Alphabetically. M and below I use for video. You’ll notice all my written jokes start with a letter between N and Z. This is a lie. Or is it?

Somebody from a Chicago comedy troupe recently opined to me that he thinks standup comedy is a dying art that peaked in the eighties. True or false?
Both. Clearly standup was huge in the eighties in a way it isn’t now. It’s not really thought of as cool maybe. Most people don’t really think of going to comedy, unless it’s something they’ve heard of specifically. When people think of standup they think of a guy in a t- shirt and a sports coat telling made up jokes about a date that never happened. I think that image of standup was caused by a huge level of over saturation in the eighties. There were tons of people who weren’t that
good doing whatever they could to get laughs and it sort of lowered the bar and then imploded. But there is somewhat of a resurgence now. It’s nowhere near as huge as it was, but there’s definitely been a revival.

Which is harder, writing jokes or performing them?
Maybe writing.

I recently attended an interesting showing of standup comedy class graduates at a club here called Zanies. Why do standup comedy clubs have the worst names?
I have no idea why people do that.

You emigrated from Russia in 1979. Do you think that “Russian humor” will ever factor again into American culture, aka Yakov Smirnov, or has that golden age passed us forever?
I’m sure that kind of thing will happen. It may not be with
Russia, because they aren’t as much our enemy now. It will be an Iraqi or North Korean comedian.

Who are some of your favorite comedians?
When I was growing up I loved Emo Phillips. His jokes were fantastic and he had a totally unique delivery. He also didn’t talk about the same topics as other comics. I really like Louis C.K. and Patrice O’Neil. Steven Wright. There’s a comedy team from the sixties called Coyle and Sharpe which did man on the street stuff that I think is amazing.

I hate to sound naïve, but I’m secretly always surprised to hear comedians perform the same material more than once. About how often to you introduce new material into your act?
I do new material very often, but it just completely depends on the venue. I have a show I do every week in which I try to do new stuff, but if I’m touring I would do stuff I’ve done before. I might try new jokes, but most of it will be tested. Or if I’m working something out for a TV set, then I might go to lots of places around the city and do the same five minutes in slightly different ways until I’ve figured out how to make it work. I personally like doing new stuff, though. There’s a certain degree that if an audience really likes someone, they’ll let them talk about anything. But standup isn’t an accident, it’s figuring out how to say what you want and convey a
specific idea to an audience in a way that seems natural.

You’ve performed with the cast from “Home Movies”. Have you ever done (or wanted to do) television or radio work?
Yes. I used to have a radio show in college which I loved doing. I was also on the hit NBC drama "Third Watch". I fought a cop and got to yell and wrestle. It was great. My shirt kept getting ripped and they kept having to sew it back together. And the cop I fought used to sell drugs to Kelly on 90210, so I was pretty psyched.

In an article written about you in 1998, the reporter
claimed that your hair looked as if you had a bat
clinging to the back of your head. Has it changed into
any other type of animal as you’ve matured?
My hair remains different kinds of rock and roll. It is like a wet fox maybe now?

What’s the highest goal most comedians have? To headline at a big venue? To have a TV show?
It depends on how awful their childhood was. If you have a lot to prove, you might not stop until you get $20 million for a movie. It depends. Some comics really love doing standup and some just use it as a vehicle for something else. Being on TV, making movies, headlining big venues, that all sounds good.

Do you ever get people writing to you with ‘real’
problems in Ask Eugene, on your site?
Yes. And those are my favorite. Most people just send me stuff like, “My farting monkey won’t eat my sex? How can I be a millionaire?” That’s not as fun for me. Though it is a great way to know who is crazy around the world.

What’s the first joke you ever wrote?
What profession has the highest suicide rate? Most people think it’s dentists. It’s really kamikaze pilots.

What’s the worst joke you ever wrote?
I was driving in Germany and I got pulled over for D.U.I.,
driving Und itching. It’s awful, and I used to introduce it when I told it as the worst jokes I ever wrote.

What inspired the marvelous crooning child on your site?
My photo. It happened organically when I used to work in Boston at a web design company. My officemate and I were working on the site, and we first made the picture wink and had random phrases appear and disappear and then we decide to make the baby sing.

How does it feel to be the 82nd person interviewed for
It actually is very nice.