Nov 14, 2022
Eugene Mirman is getting some pretty good friends back together
The comedian and "Bob's Burgers" actor is at the Bell House this week with Bobcat Goldthwait and company — to launch a record label
Eugene Mirman is coming back to Brooklyn. The comedian and actor will be at the Bell House on Wednesday, November 16, to host a launch show and party for his new comedy record label PGF Records. Bobcat Goldthwait will be there, and so will Maeve Higgins, as well as other special guests.
The night will be a callback of sorts to the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival — a festival that made fun of other festivals and which ran for 10 years. The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival was the subject of the 2020 documentary “It Started as a Joke” which explored Mirman’s role as a galvanizing force in the alternative comedy scene in the borough starting in the early 2000s.
Mirman, who has voiced middle child Gene in the excellent animated series “Bob’s Burgers” since 2011, is this week’s guest on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast.” He joins us to talk about, among other things, the comedy scene he helped foster in the early 2000s as one of its most innovative and collaborative voices.
We also discuss getting a little more personal in his comedy. Mirman’s wife, Katie Westfall Tharp, who passed away shortly after documentary came out, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, a tragic circumstance that both were coping with during the filming. It is a wonderful and wonderfully touching movie.
Mirman, who was born in Moscow and now lives in Massachusetts, talks about coming up in Brooklyn, the Bell House show, and of course “Bob’s Burgers.”
The following transcript of this podcast episode has been edited for clarity and flow. For the full conversation, click play to listen above or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
The reason we’re here and talking today is because you’ve announced a launch show and party for your new comedy record label, PGF Records, at the Bell House. Let’s talk about that. PGF, that stands for Pretty Good Friends, a callback to your weekly comedy show that you did with Julie Smith Clem back in, it started in 2006. What is PGF? What are you doing with it?
It’s sort of a continuation of collaboration, but we’re not physically in the same cities anymore, but we can still work and are working with friends all over. So, our first record coming out will be Maeve Higgins, who’s an Irish comic who performs in Brooklyn all the time, every week.
She’s very funny.
Yeah, she’s very, very funny. Her album is very, very funny. So, I’m very excited for that to come out. Again, putting up Bobcat Goldthwait’s new record. Just basically continuing to get to collaborate with friends. I’m making Christmas songs with friends, with guest singers. One will come out this holiday season.
And a podcast with Ophira Eisenberg.
Yes, she’s doing a podcast with Julie.
You’ve announced, like you said, that Bobcat and Maeve are going to be performing on the 16th. Is the rest of the lineup gelling yet, or are there going to be surprises? What can we expect?
Expect surprises. We can all expect surprises. I think it’s all coming together, but definitely me and Maeve and Bobcat.
I was a huge fan of Bobcat’s stand up when I was in eighth grade and ninth grade. I guess he was just coming up. I had it on cassette. I don’t if it changed my conception of what standup could be, or if it was really my first visceral connection to it. For me, it was him, it was Steven Wright. Do you see yourself as a sort of spiritual descendant of his, or those almost outlaw comics?
I mean, I do like “outlaw country.” It’s funny, I think about, because I had his album, “Meet Bob,” and I watched all his specials, and I did have Steven Wright’s records and Emo [Phillips]’s, and what’s funny is I don’t know that you draw a line from that to what I do. Though I guess elements, some of the absurdity, and then some of the anecdotal elements, possibly. But I think that the sort of common thread is probably, in a sense, unique in itself, it is. There isn’t another Bobcat.
Or Emo, who just opened for Weird Al at Carnegie Hall.
Earlier on the tour, I saw them. It was really fun.
I bet. Okay, so you wouldn’t draw a direct line necessarily?
Not to the actual material, but I think to the spirit of things, probably would. I feel like Bobcat has a very punk rock spirit to his standup and his career, and I probably do in a certain sense as well. So I think it’s more like to how you think of standup, or how you think of putting things out or putting things into the world. I think in that sense there is quite a direct line.
Yeah, he’s gone on to direct movies, he’s directed his friend Robin Williams. He’s much more than a standup comic, and you’re building on what you’ve been doing historically. How closely do you pay attention to what’s happening now? If you could say that there’s a spiritual connection between them as predecessors, are there spiritual descendants that you’ve got an eye on, or anything like that?
No, I don’t know. I think in a sense, as happens to anybody, I moved, I have a 6-year-old now, and then there was also a pandemic.
I’m sort of just starting to get back into the world and into the world of standup and seeing people. So the answer is probably.
You were the driving force of the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival for 10 years, which started as a joke. It was chronicled in the documentary, “It Started As A Joke.” Is this upcoming show a reunion of sorts?
A reunion of sorts, in the sense that it’s friends of ours doing a show at the venue that we did the festival at. Julie is producing it and hosting. So it’s very much in that spirit. We’ll probably think of fun, kind of weird surprises to do, as we would have during the festival. Yesterday was the first time I was in the Bell House in three or four years, and it was so great to be back, so I’m so excited to go back for our show.
The documentary sort of chronicles how you and the Bell House opened together, came up together.
I think there was one or two shows before our first festival, I think, that we had the idea of the joke around the time they were opening the space.
And you had been performing at Union Hall in Park Slope, when I was living just blocks from Union Hall. My kids were very young, and I knew that this scene was burbling up, but I couldn’t make it out as much as I would’ve liked to. That moment is gone and it’s too bad. As the movie showed, you were there when so many of the biggest names in comedy today were starting out and in that scene. Whether it was Reggie Watts, Mike Birbiglia, John Mulaney. Is it too early to think about your legacy in comedy at all? I know. You’re laughing.
Also, all those people had careers very independent. John Mulaney, I think from the first time I saw him, I was like, “Oh, he’s going to be the best person at talking and joking.”
And he is.
Yeah. It’s very exciting being a part of that and having everybody of grow up together, and it’s really fun to come back. It’s really fun to see people, especially after the strangeness of the last several years and the isolation. The thing that was so great about it is this community sense, the camaraderie. I think a lot of people think of standup — and acting and probably various arts things — as sort of competitive, and I kind of really don’t. I genuinely think no one’s beating anybody to the story of their life, or to their way of looking at the world. And I do think in standup, if you are funny and you can make people laugh for 45 minutes, you’ll be a comic, generally.
It’s this cliche of comedians competing for stage time or fame or whatever, almost as if there was one piece of the fame pie that everyone’s going after.
And maybe in 1972 there was, but now, on the other hand, it’s just so much stuff and there’s so many ways to sort of be in the world, that it is also hard to figure out. That’s hard with a gatekeeper. It’s probably hard without in its own different ways. But everything’s a puzzle you can solve.
You’re coming out of this pandemic, you’re kind of reconnecting with friends again. We can talk about Katie, your wife who was featured in the documentary and passed away shortly thereafter. You have this young son, you’re living in Cape Cod. Has your style continued to evolve? In the documentary you’re seen as trying out personal material more for the first time. Was that a moment in time in your back?
It was a mix. It’s a moment in time. I think the thing about it is that in terms of my standup, it’s always had stuff that was more personal. My standup has always been in a certain sense kind of referencing things that are actually happening in my life, or actual experiences, and then from there, kind of these odd bits. And I think that the standup continues to be that. The difference being is, some of the facts of my life are I have a son and my wife died, and other than I have a son, those things aren’t necessarily in the show itself, but I think it’s also, I’m now getting back into it. I’m now starting to tour again. So I think it’ll be more like I wonder what will happen in a year or two as I do it more.
Do you feel out of shape at all?
Yeah, I mean, you have the material that works. When I was in Brooklyn you could go up several nights a week and really hone things and try a bunch of different stuff out. It’s harder to do that outside of New York, or probably L.A. So in a sense it’s like I have to organize more of the things to get to try to do stuff. And then, the truth is, as you were saying with young kids, you can’t go to standup. It’s not as easy to just go out five nights a week when you have a family. So some of it is like, yeah, feeling like a little rusty. Where before the pace of doing stuff could have been much faster. Now it’s sort of like, “Oh, I’ll do a handful of shows over a period of two months and then I’ll be like, okay, this works, that works.” Where before, I could have maybe figured out a joke in a week or two. It takes maybe a little bit longer. But it’s not like I’m in a rush. I don’t have a deadline.
You have a pretty good day job too, right?
Yes. Even after this, I have to go record “Bob’s.”
You mentioned your son. Is he funny?
He is very funny, yeah.
Your style is really lovely. There’s a warmth to it, and that especially comes to the forth in “Bob’s Burgers.” It’s joking, it’s sincerity and silliness. So, it’s not mean spirited. It’s also not earnest, which is a very tricky line to walk. Do you see that as a tricky line to walk, sort of being sincere and silly?
It’s so funny you say that, and I actually think I just view everything as both, as often two things at once. Things are both funny and sad, happy and sad. I actually think of it not as much a tricky line, as things are perceived as one thing or another as opposed to two things at once, which is what I think most things are. I think you can make a silly joke and it doesn’t mean it isn’t poignant as well. So yeah, I think I see a lot of things as being more than one thing.
How much of you is in Gene, in the show, ‘Bob’s Burgers?’
[Laughs.] Wouldn’t it be really funny to be like 63 percent? What’s funny is, I think Gene is sort of not what I was like as a kid, but what I would be like if I was a kid now.
I can’t believe it’s been on the air since 2011. My kids and I have been watching it since the beginning. They sort of grew up with Gene and Tina and Louise. What do you attribute… I mean, it’s a lightning in a bottle situation. I mean, what do you attribute the show’s secret sauce to?
I think a lot of it is Loren [Bouchard], who created it, and his sensibility and his encyclopedic knowledge of animation and life. And then also Nora [Smith], who also runs it now. Basically the people, the writers and creators, have just such a great understanding of family, and then also all the actors and everybody bringing sort of this warmth.
And then most animated shows you record alone. But with “Bob’s,” we would record all together, which is I think very unusual for a TV show. And we would record together, and we’d be in Boston, New York, L.A., but on headphones and talking at the same time with each other doing scenes. And I think that brings about a sort of warmth, the camaraderie. It lets you improvise. Loren once [said] sometimes an improvised joke isn’t necessarily funnier, but the energy that it brings to the moment is so earnest and equally as funny as what was written, but the electricity of it makes it work better.
You alluded a couple times now that you were in the Boston area. You had moved to Cape Cod when all the people who were part of the Brooklyn scene started moving to L.A. or getting famous.
We moved to Cape Cod, and then with the idea also that we were going to eventually move to the Boston area for Katie’s treatments. Along with that’s where our families were and we were having a child, it made sense to. That’s where I’m from, and Katie was from Amherst, and so our families were much closer and could help. So the goal was always to sort of move to the Cape where we had a house where we’d spent a lot of time.
Is Cape mostly home now?
No, it’s mostly Summerville, Mass.
You said you were from that area, and you went to Hampshire? It was such a wildly progressive place. You designed your own major?
Yeah, everyone does there. Everybody designs their own major. I did a one hour special as my thesis that I wrote and performed and produced and promoted, and all the things that led up to it, which were running a weekly show, and did a radio show. I did just all this different stuff that was related to comedy. And the truth is, I found it incredibly helpful. It was a great … Figuring out how to get people to come to a comedy show at college, where basically there’s no reason to come.
You seem to enjoy that process part of it, that building something, that getting the word out. That’s what you did with the Eugene Mirman Festival. A lot of comics, I would imagine, don’t. They just want to be on stage and making jokes. Is that fair?
I do really enjoy it. I also think it’s like, you can either sort try to fit into whatever system exists and try to have a career that way, or you can try to create your own thing, and I’ve always basically found it easier to make my own thing, and also, I enjoy it. I do love putting things together. Also standup is a very individual sort of thing. It’s one thing that’s great about it. If you can make people laugh, then you can have a career. But at the same time, I think it’s really great to get to work with people and get to collaborate and build a community. I’ve always enjoyed the community aspect of standup, as well.
What do you think it is about Brooklyn in that time that it was such a potent incubator for comedy? The 10 years that you were working there, starting in 2006 or whatever. Do you feel like you were reacting to something? This is like, eight questions now. Or what was it about Brooklyn in that moment that was so ready to pop?
A lot of it was that that was where the people were moving as the Village, the East Village or Lower East Side got expensive. I remember when I first moved here and a lot of comedy was there, and I was like, one day maybe I can afford to live there. And then as time went on, I was like, oh, I think actually I really like it here in Brooklyn. And then as more and more comics moved here, and then Julie lived here, and we both lived near Union Hall, had always had a dream of a show nearby where you just kind of walk there, as existed for people in the East Village in probably the ’90s and early 2000s.
You were actually born in Moscow. Do you have any memory of the mother country at all?
I don’t remember Russia at all. I came here when I was 4. When you left Russia in that time, you go to, I think, Austria for two weeks, and then Italy for several months, until you immigrate to either America or Canada or Israel, or wherever you go. I realized I had a slight memory of maybe Italy from when I was 4. I basically recall my life starting in Lexington where I grew up.
Do you remember when you either realized you were funny or realized you wanted to be funny?
I think at some point in high school I realized that, because I listened to so much stand up and watch all these young comedian specials, and I had all these records, and I think at some point I was like, oh, that’s a job. That’s a type of job. That’s something some people do. And so, I started trying to submit plays to our school play festival, and then when I was 18, tried standup, and then realized that comedy was what I wanted to do.
And I think that’s probably something that every immigrant parent loves to hear, is, “I’m going to go and be a comic.”
Yeah. “I have figured out a way to make money in 25 years.” The thing that was neat, and it is very unlike a lot of immigrant parents, is that they were actually very supportive. In a sense, they brought us here to pursue the American dream, to have the opportunity, to have the possibility.In Russia, I couldn’t be a stand-up. The amount of actual government limitation on what you say and the sort of fear you would live under, it doesn’t exist here in the same sense. The possibility and the opportunity, they really believed in it, and I did too, and this is what I get for it. I’m a comedian.
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