Over the last couple of weeks, the comedian Eugene Mirman, star of the new documentary “It Started as a Joke,” has added a much-needed dose of absurdist wit to Twitter feeds with his “Daily Quarantine Routine.” No. 12 begins: “7am: Wake up, churn butter wrong and throw it out. 8am: Make a list of other things to fear once this is over. 12pm: Lunch of boob-shaped pasta thrown at you by drunk bachelorettes from a party trolley 2 years ago.”
In fact, his real routine starts with making breakfast for his 3-year-old son, Ollie. “I see it as surviving and doing it a day at a time,” Mirman, 45, said by Skype from Cape Cod.
Even before Covid-19 loomed large over the public imagination, Mirman had been living with the specter of death and disease. In 2011 his wife, Katie Westfall Tharp, a set decorator, learned she had breast cancer, and after going through many treatments, including chemotherapy, she died on Jan. 29. Not long after this tragic loss, Mirman found himself shifting from talking to his son about death to explaining the dangers of doorknobs. “We just have to get through it,” he said, sounding stoic and practical. “I think it’s important to find any moment of joy. So when people ask, ‘Is this a time to joke around?’ it definitely is.”
That spirit is at the core of “It Started as a Joke,” available on demand, which chronicles Mirman’s relationship with his wife and the influential comedy festival he hosted for a decade. Funny and elegiac, the movie, directed by Julie Smith Clem and Ken Druckerman, is also the first sustained portrait of a key cultural moment, the birth of modern Brooklyn comedy.
More great comics have come from Brooklyn than any other place, and once you start listing the legendary names (Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, Joan Rivers, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Larry David and on and on) it’s not even close. The borough has never been home to many clubs, with a few exceptions, like the defunct Sheepshead Bay landmark Pips. The first comedy club in New York and arguably the country, it kick-started the careers of Rodney Dangerfield and Andrew Dice Clay. Still, Brooklyn has historically been a breeding ground more than a scene — until relatively recently.
About 15 years ago, the center of gravity of what was once called alt comedy moved from downtown Manhattan to the borough. No one was more important to that shift than Eugene Mirman.
In 2006, Mirman, who had cut his teeth as a host and performer at a regular show at the East Village space Rififi, started co-hosting (with Michael Showalter) the Sunday comedy showcase Pretty Good Friends in the basement of Union Hall, then a new space in Park Slope that was designed primarily for music. The evening, originally named Tearing the Veil of Maya, was the hall’s first regular comedy show. Before they were stars, John Oliver, John Mulaney, Chelsea Peretti, Aziz Ansari and Zach Galifianakis did sets.
What stands out about those early lineups is not just how many future stars performed there early in their careers, but also the remarkable consistency of talent on display. The diversity of styles was evident as well, from musical performers (Reggie Watts, Tim Minchin) to storytellers (Mike Birbiglia, Daniel Kitson) to stand-ups (Sarah Silverman, Jim Gaffigan).
The success of Pretty Good Friends, the only regular comedy show at Union Hall that first year, led to evenings at other Brooklyn spaces. Big Terrific, a popular weekly showcase hosted by Jenny Slate, Gabe Liedman and Max Silvestri, became the hot spot for comedy in Williamsburg.
“We wanted Big Terrific to be the same kind of welcoming, experimental home” as the kind Mirman made, Silvestri wrote in an email, pointing out that Mirman’s use of projector and video was formative.
Mirman built on Pretty Good Friends to launch the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, a spoof of industry events that is the subject of “It Started as a Joke.” The festival began in another new space, a warehouse called the Bell House in a then-quiet area of Gowanus, and featured shows with titles like “Comics We Think Ruth Bader Ginsburg Would Enjoy” and “An Evening of Entertainment from People in Black Glasses.” Union Hall and Bell House (which not incidentally were near where Mirman lived) have become bustling centers of comedy today with nightly shows and comedians regularly developing and shooting specials.
“One of the things that Eugene did was open the door to all types of show formats,” said Jim Carden, who runs both spaces. “We owe so much to Eugene for what he started.”
Mirman didn’t just help establish two landmark comedy homes. He also became a focal point of a community of comics, helping give many their start. (In the documentary, Kumail Nanjiani says Mirman was the first person to give him a big credit.) In 2011, Interview magazine called Mirman the “de facto leader of the Brooklyn scene,” and in the new documentary, Bobcat Goldthwait describes him this way: “He’s the drain in the sink that catches all the weirdos.”
Did this diverse community of weirdos share an aesthetic?
It’s easier to define what that aesthetic wasn’t: club comedy and traditional stand-up. But even that is a simplification, since those approaches were welcome as well. Mirman has always defined comedy as broadly as possible, and while there are still comics with rigid ideas about what constitutes stand-up, Mirman’s more catholic tastes have won the day. What was once alt is now mainstream. Asked if he thought there was a common style to the scene back in the day, Mirman pointed to “a sort of sincerity to themselves, an authenticity, a silliness.”
Mirman’s own stand-up is infused with a warm and cheerful sense of the ridiculous, including satirical bits that sting instead of lash and stories using show-and-tell-style props. He has a prickly side, too, and some of his best-known stunts build on minor grievances, as when he took out a full-page newspaper ad venting ludicrous rage about a parking ticket in a New Hampshire town. The ad closed by turning the state’s motto (“Live Free or Die) back at the town, saying drivers don’t even get “freedom to back into a spot.”
His greatest legacy might be helping build something so successful, its end was inevitable. He stopped doing the weekly show and the festival was over after a decade, when most of his peers moved to Los Angeles for TV and film work. Mirman recalled specifically when he realized the end was near, when Kristen Schaal (who along with Kurt Braunohler hosted Hot Tub, another regular comedy show that moved to Brooklyn) told him she was moving to the West Coast. “I came home and told Katie: The world I am part of is winding down.”
The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival has been replaced by the Janelle James Comedy Festival, and a new generation of Brooklyn comics has filled the spaces he pioneered. And while his reputation has faded among young comics, you can see echoes of his influence in the bustling, vital Brooklyn scene today. Video is common as is his off-kilter, multi-hyphenate aesthetic. Compare his advertisements for shapes like squares and triangles on his debut album with the surreal meditations on shapes in the recent HBO special of Julio Torres. But also, the mood of Mirman’s shows — amiable, casual, a bit chummy, as the title Pretty Good Friends suggests — is common.
Mirman still does stand-up, has released a handful of specials and is a star of the sitcom “Bob’s Burgers,” but he did not become as famous as many of the comics he booked. Instead of moving to the West Coast, he went to Massachusetts, to be closer to his family. “If Katie hadn’t been sick, would we have stayed in New York or gone to L.A.?” he asked himself at one point in our interview. “Maybe. Over all, what I wanted to do is make things with friends, which I do. And I incredibly appreciate it.”
Late in the documentary, his wife is at home reflecting on the fact that despite the fact that she spends so much of her time with her son, he will be too young to remember it. Trying to comfort her, Mirman responds that Ollie will be able to see her in this movie. Her sarcastic response: “I really want him to know about comedy.” In a movie packed full of comics telling jokes, this might be the best line, with a perfect dry delivery.
By early January, on the advice of doctors, they decided to stop treatment. In her final month, Tharp moved to a hospice, where many friends visited to say goodbye. Mirman told me about these experiences with gratitude, saying that when he thinks of people dying from the coronavirus, isolated and unable to see their families, his heart breaks.
“Nothing is a cure for death,” he said. “But connection is a salve.”
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