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Do It Different: Why Eugene Mirman Is The Stand-Up Who Always Stands Out

To mark his new seven-LP set, I’m Sorry (You’re Welcome), comedian Eugene Mirman talks about his nontraditional approach to performing.

The only thing certain at a Eugene Mirman show is that there’s no telling what kind of show you’re going to get. That’s not to say Mirman’s performances are known for the erratic quality of late-period Bob Dylan, but rather that they always come with some kind of a surprise. There will be jokes, sure, but there will likely also be something more, something different, something like a reading of the fake profile he made for a stridently religious dating site–and the correspondence after he was booted off of it.

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Eugene MirmanPhoto: Ben Hider, courtesy of FOX

Sometimes these unusual bits that begin life off-stage, out in the real world, are Mirman’s way of messing with hypocrisy; other times, he’s fighting personal injustices, like an unreasonable parking ticket. Never is it boring. In the past few years, though, he’s blown out the impulse to do more, and do it differently, beyond stand-up shows and Netflix specials. There’s The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, an annual multi-day celebration of humor and absurdity that on any given day might feature a bouncy castle with a therapist on hand, or a mashed potato bar served in martini glasses. More recently, however, there’s Eugene’s mammoth seven-LP audio smorgasbord, I’m Sorry (You’re Welcome), which he’s been working on for years, and which contains a full stand-up set surrounded by oddities like a guided meditation, and Russian lessons.

With I’m Sorry (You’re Welcome) newly in stores, a pilot in the works for TruTV, and Bob’s Burgers, the animated show which features Mirman’s vocals, now in its fifth season, the comedian and writer talked with Co.Create about the virtue of doing things differently.

Trust What Works, Even If What Works Is Weird

“Even in the very beginning, my stand-up was not very traditional. In maybe ’92, I had this bit that involved writing a letter to MCI. There was a fake children’s story I wrote for a class in college that I remember performing for a little while, both during college and after. Some of what I was doing was stand up—stories and jokes and punch lines—but then sometimes it would be something else. It was always just whatever made people laugh. But doing things that aren’t stand-up doesn’t mean abandoning set-up/punch. It just means instead of a punch line, the setup is that I made a fake LinkedIn profile and then there’s 15 punch lines in reading it.”

Think Ridiculous, And Then Make It Reasonable

Photo: Joe Berkowitz

“It was kind of a joke that we were actually doing a festival. In general, my friend Julie [Smith Clem] and I would just do shows where we would have all sorts of stuff from like a band of children doing covers or a giant six-foot sub or something. So we would put on events that had fun ancillary things, and from that grew the festival. We just thought it would be funny—the idea of a comedy festival built around me—and we ended up initially doing it the year we joked about it. With the album, it was different.”

I’m Sorry (You’re Welcome)

“That was something I’d always thought of as a joke—that I’d put out a 100-disc set. Some people were releasing these double-albums at the time. I always thought it was a really funny idea, to have one of the albums just be crying. At some point, maybe it was Daniel Kitson who pointed out I could make a thing that was shorter. I think a few people had been like, ‘You could make something that was like 20 discs.’ I don’t think you can make 100 discs that are funny because you’d just have 15 of them with 10 minutes of nonsense in the middle or something. And then we realized you could probably make a 10 or a 20-disc set. So I started to really think about how to do it. And then I also mentioned it to Sub Pop and, slowly over time, it became this thing where we could make actually a sort of 10-volume, or in this instance, a nine-volume, collection.”

Never Be Afraid To Try a New Format

Reggie Watts and Mirman on stage at Pretty Good Friend’s Presents the Eugene Mirman Comedy FestivalPhoto: David Andrako

“I’ve worked in a bunch of different formats; there’s stand-up, but there’s also acting and then writing books. I just thought of the book [The Will To Whatevs] as a different format, but I wanted it to be my exact voice. I tried to punctuate it largely in the way that I speak. I think just over time, meaning a lot of it was written over a few years, I’d often go somewhere for a week or two to work on and rewrite it. I also had a great editor who helped me refine it and make sure my personality remained intact.”

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Know When Something Is Only Good On Paper

Photo: Jeffrey Neira, courtesy of FOX

“Sometimes you have an idea that’s more funny to tell someone about than it actually is in practice—like a full disc of crying, for instance. If you tell someone you did that, they might laugh but they won’t actually listen to 45 minutes of crying. I remember that I really wanted to have a sticker on my album that said, ‘Featuring over 45 minutes of crying,’ like that was the thing everyone really had wanted. But then to do it you had to really cry for 45 minutes and make it one of the things.”

Gene from Bob’s BurgersPhoto: courtesy of FOX

“I was specifically trying to come up with ideas that could be whole discs on this. Like one of the ideas I had was jokes that would be directed at animals. So it would be a whole album of, play this for your cat, play this for your alligator. But what sounds like reasonably funny, weird ideas, it turned out I actually have no idea what that would be. I don’t actually know what it would mean to try to record even say 17 minutes of jokes for animals. So it’s stuff like that that didn’t totally happen.

“I considered an idea of whispering secrets to my dick, which I think I have maybe two or three minutes of recorded, but it was just also so odd that it couldn’t totally work. So it was a little funny and I’m sure you’d have one or two minutes, but I don’t think you could have 22 minutes. I didn’t want to do something that was just going to be bizarre; it had to actually work, too.”

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.

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