Eugene Mirman Is Ready to Get Back on Stage
Eugene Mirman radiates the energy of a warm, silly camp counselor. Talking on Zoom from his home in Massachusetts, the deadpan 49-year-old comic rocks a beard and a T-shirt while talking about the record label he co-founded last year, PGF Records, which puts out stand-up albums, including Bobcat Goldthwait’s excellent Soldier for Christ. Mirman is telling me about the label’s next release, A Close Shave With Heaven, the album debut of poet and author Derrick Brown. “It’s great,” Mirman enthuses. “Very, very excited for it. Derrick Brown I’ve toured with now for many years — one of the things I always wanted was to start a label, literally, to put out an album of Derrick’s. So, it’s very much like a dream coming true for me.”
Beyond being a superb stand-up and the voice of Gene on Bob’s Burgers, Mirman has long loved gathering people around him, championing new voices and masterminding memorable comedy events. For a decade, he organized the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, which became a who’s-who of Brooklyn’s funniest comics. (The 2019 documentary It Started as a Joke got its title from the festival’s modest initial aspirations.) Mirman sees the label as an extension of the festival’s ethos, but he rejects the idea that he’s a mentor. He just likes putting cool people together.
“When I think about how much David Cross or Patton Oswalt or Stella helped me (when I was starting out), I don’t really think of it as mentoring,” he says. “It’s lovely to discover people and then help them and share them with the world — I’m a fan of that.”
Mirman’s response is indicative of his humility. During the hour that we talked, he constantly deflected any sort of praise, downplaying his contributions to, say, the burgeoning alternative-comedy movement of the 1990s or, later, the success of Bob’s Burgers, giving the credit to the show’s writers. It Started as a Joke was a look back at the festival, but it was also a portrait of Mirman, whose friends and loved ones talk about him in convincingly glowing terms. He’s just one of those people that everybody likes. Of course, the documentary was also infused with sadness, chronicling the struggles his first wife, Katie Westfall Tharp, faced while battling cancer. As a result, It Started as a Joke proved unexpectedly moving, observing Mirman as he tried to integrate her cancer fight into his stand-up, not always successfully. Sadly, she died in 2020. (Mirman remarried this year, wedding Therese Plaehn over the summer.)
Between these major life changes and the pandemic — and, of course, also raising his son Oliver, who turned seven this month — Mirman has gone through a lot in a short amount of time. Understandably, his first love, stand-up, has not been his primary focus lately. But that’s about to change as he prepares for some upcoming dates and tries out material. How is that going? We talked about it — as well as how much his late wife may factor into his new bits. Mirman was honest about being unsure of what it will be like returning to the stage, but he’s excited to find out — in part because he’s missed the comedy community that he’s nurtured around him since the early stages of his career, wondering how his absurdist routines could fit in a world that didn’t always seem to be on his wavelength. The good news for him, and us, is that he figured it out — just like he’ll surely figure out how to incorporate grief and joy into his new work.
Below, we discussed growing up as a Russian immigrant in Cold War America, how his son is like Gene (or not) and finding the humor in picking out a grave. And he’s got some thoughts about A.I. replacing him on Bob’s Burgers.
You have this label, PGF Records, which puts out stand-up albums. In terms of economics, what is the value in releasing albums at a time when most bands don’t make much money on record sales?
There’s different ways that you can make your money back. One of them is when it plays on XM radio and things like that. There’s something called SoundExchange, and it divides the money between the label and the artist — so, even before the album has traditionally recouped, both the artist and label make some money from that. If you make an album that’s not too expensive — recording a live comedy show and editing it is not probably as much as going into a studio (for a band) — you have to be frugal, but it is possible to make it effective over time. Patient and frugal is how it recoups.
I heard you on Do You Need a Ride? joke about not being a genius at math. But obviously whether it’s the comedy festival or the label, you have to be able to deal with numbers.
I am from a family of mathematicians, so when I say I don’t do math, (it) isn’t that I’m incapable of math or budgeting — it’s that I don’t know calculus. I can’t figure out if you drop a phone, how do you engineer it so it doesn’t break? Julie Smith, who I’ve worked with for years, does a lot of the business end. A lot of it is figuring out how it will recoup and how it would make sense.
(Like with) the festival, you can make a thing and then it can sort of break even — it depends how much you’re paying yourself. As some things do better over time, it might be that you make the money in three years, not now — unlike a show that sells out (and) you make what you make.
When you started the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, did you discover that you just really like organizing things?
I love the community aspect of comedy. I love the camaraderie. I, in general, think of (comedy) as not competitive as much as collaboratory. So, yeah, I do like that (organizational) part. And the label, I’m no longer in New York, and Julie isn’t — we work with our friend Areti (Papazoglou), who is in New York. It’s a few of us running things together, but the label is a version of the festival, just sort of recording things and putting them out and working with artists we love.
I think there’s two types of people: those who like organizing stuff, and those who just like being a part of things that other people organize. You seem like you’re definitely in the former category.
I am, but as I’ve gotten older and have a child and other responsibilities, your life and your time-allocation changes. In comedy, there’s different ways you can work. There’s clubs where you could call in your avails — you are an opener, then you’re a middle, and then maybe a headliner and you’re touring. That’s one avenue. But I — in probably a way that’s more similar to bands — always found it easier to organize my own events to find the audience that I believe existed, at first in Boston and then in New York, and bring them to me where I could then do comedy and develop the kind of material I wanted.
When I started in Boston, a lot of the (clubs) that existed were attracting tourists — that was totally fine, but just wasn’t a great fit for me. What was easier for me was finding all the people who also wanted something different — and as that grew, then you find your audience. A lot of that stuff now is very much in the mainstream — a lot of the weird videos that I made in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it’s all of Instagram, TikTok. At the time, nobody sat in a room and weirdly made videos into a camera — but I found it much easier to do that, put it on the internet and have the people who found those videos then find me at shows, and create my own ecosystem.
Does it feel strange to see the “weird” stuff you did now become so mainstream?
I mean, I think it makes sense — when I started doing it, I was like, “Why aren’t more people making these weird videos to camera?” (Laughs) You use the tools that are at your disposal — I couldn’t put myself on television, but I could put myself on the internet. I remember the transition of people being like, “Oh, I know you from YouTube!” — I always thought, “You (get) on TV and that’s a thing that’s hard to do — anyone can put themselves on the internet.” But to a certain generation, it’s simply awareness — (audiences) don’t care where they’re aware of you from.
You came up after the time when getting to do a set on a late-night talk show instantly made you a star. That world no longer existed.
There’s comics I love who’ve been on Letterman 30 times, but if you were on Johnny Carson in the ‘70s, you became a household name — your career would be launched. At some point by the ‘90s, unless you just were a star from a show, a huge number of comics became successful by piecing together a hundred things — you were on this and you were on that and you did this. On the one hand, you didn’t need access to a gatekeeper as much, but at the same time, you also had to do a hundred things to create a career — which I prefer. Even when I would get on certain things or get into festivals, I remember people being like, “You’re very funny, but I don’t know what to do with you” — as if somebody had to figure out how to make me a “weird neighbor” (on a sitcom) and then everything would fall into place. I was like, “It’s fine, I’ll do stand-up.” You piece it together. There is now so much (comedy on) TikTok and Instagram — there’s such a flood of stuff — but everyone has access to becoming a comedian.
You grew up watching Emo Philips, Bobcat Goldthwait and Robin Williams. When you started doing stand-up, did you find yourself emulating any of them in particular?
I just simply don’t have Robin Williams’ skillset: “Oh, you get to see my 50 characters in one minute.” Emo and Bobcat both had characters. Bobcat’s material is very anecdotal, and he did it as a character and did ludicrous things. And then Emo’s joke structure is so incredible — it’s so perfect.
I think that mine was absurd and anecdotal — I would just try things on stage, and if something got laughs, it would become my act. If it was a short joke or it was a letter or it was some weird bit, as long as it got laughs…. It’s a thing I love about stand-up. If you can get on stage and make people laugh for 45 to 60 minutes, chances are you can be a professional comedian.
Those early days when you’re cultivating like-minded comics who also wanted to do things differently — how easy was that?
You just gravitate to the people who make you laugh and you enjoy being with. Everybody is sort of jokey and flamboyant in their own ways, but you end up finding the people you gravitate toward.
People are like, “How do I start?” I’m like, “Find your group of people, find the people that make you laugh, find the people that you make laugh, and grow with them and work on things together and work on a scene together.” I worked with Bobby Tisdale and Holly Schlesinger, who’s now an Emmy-winning writer for Bob's, but she booked our show in New York. It was much easier having this small group of people and then this greater group of friends that did stuff and then finding new people outside that — that was a very fun time. Now with the label, it’s me and a few friends working with a lot of either new artists we like or friends that we’ve known for a long time.
You haven’t done a lot of stand-up over the last few years. Are you developing material now?
I’m starting to try to do more again. Obviously, my wife was sick for a long time, died, and I put my career as much as was reasonable, in terms of touring and stand-up, very much on a backburner. And then there was a pandemic. (Laughs) A lot of this is not ideal for touring.
In terms of my stand-up, I’m hoping to (start up) this fall — I (have been) doing it, but (I want) to start doing shows more frequently to write new material. I have one coming up in September, and I have a few shows in New York with friends. I’m starting to try to do some of that stuff more with the hopes of developing an hour in the next year or two. I do miss the camaraderie and miss performing and trying things.
Are you worried about being rusty? Or are you just excited to get back up there?
The great thing about life is everything is always both. I do miss it, but I also might be terrible. (Laughs) I used to perform so many more times a week that, in a week or so, I could figure out if a joke worked or not. Now, it’s like a month or more between stuff.
Do you know yet how personal the new stand-up will be? Obviously, everyone knows about you losing your first wife. Or will it be more in the vein of the absurdist material you’ve done so well?
I think it’s a little of both. I had to go shop for a grave — I went to different places to get grave prices and joked around with people who sell graves who are like, “I’m not used to a lot of joking.” (Laughs) There’s stuff that’s funny, but I don’t know where it’ll fall. I’ll probably at some point try stuff — if it’s funny, great.
To me, comedy has this science element where it’s like, “Here’s the hypothesis, what do you think?” Sometimes, people are like, “No, no, no, that doesn’t work.” (Laughs) Or they’re like, “This is very funny.” I think I will still have letters of mild grievance about random things that have happened to me, as well as weird bits (and) a lot of my stories. Everything starts from a place of something that’s happened to me or something I saw — it’s not exactly personal, but it’s not exactly impersonal, either. It’s this middle ground. This is where I’m excited to go and try stuff and see how it lands.
Other comics, like Patton Oswalt, have built whole specials out of losing a spouse. Do you watch those in terms of seeing what works and what doesn’t?
I think it’s not like, “Oh, I hope my-wife-died material isn’t the same as the other comics’
wife-died material.” (Laughs) I think (mine) would be just more, “Here are my experiences and here’s what happened.” I’ve found, sometimes, if I’m talking to other people who’ve been widowed, they’re like, “That’s very funny” — but if you talk to someone who hasn’t, they’re like, “That’s very dark.” I’m like, “Okay, well, how do I bridge that?” If I present things that are sad in a slightly warm way, I think it would work — if it feels too sad, I don’t know that it would work for me as a comic. I do think everything is both at once — you can be happy and sad at the same time about different things.
It’s my job to figure out how to make the thing I think is funny funny to people. If I don’t or can’t after trying several versions, then it doesn’t totally work. I’ve had jokes where I’ll return to a thing two years later when I figured out the joke portion. A lot of times, you’ll have a funny situation, but it’s not funny enough to just present that alone — you have to add a joke. Sometimes, it takes time — or a thing will come to you where you’re like, “Oh, that’s the joke. That’s the way this thing connects.”
Have you watched It Started as a Joke recently? I can imagine that might be hard.
I saw it a bunch, but I have actually not watched it since it came out toward the start of the pandemic. I do intend to watch it again but, yes, I have not really been able to watch it yet, but do hope to and think of it quite warmly.
In the film, Katie mentions that maybe Oliver will be too young to remember her — that the movie could be a way for him to know who she was. Do you want to show it to him?
Definitely, but not when he’s seven. I don’t know if it’s when he is nine or 13 or 15. I also recently got remarried and, again, you live in a constant duality where (Oliver) definitely thinks of Therese very much as a mother. We talk about Katie all the time, and we have photos of her and there’s videos and a lot of photos of them together. We live in both the sort of sadness of the loss as well as the joy and hope of the future and present.
Is your son old enough to watch Bob’s Burgers? Does he watch Bob’s Burgers?
Those are two separate questions. One, is he old enough to watch? I don’t know. (Laughs)
He started watching Bob’s Burgers (because of) the albums. There was a mix of Gene songs, and there is a fart song on there and it’s connected to my Spotify — it came on and he heard me singing, “Fart, fart, fart.” He was like, “Okay, this is very good — what is this?” He, for a while, thought that Bob’s Burger was just my favorite TV show — I have Bob’s Burger stuff (around the house) — but from that (song), I was like, “Oh, do you want to see this song on an episode?” From that, he started watching it.
The stuff that’s over his head goes over his head. Sometimes, stuff will come on that I’m like, “Oh, I don’t know if this is totally appropriate,” but sometimes it’s incredibly sweet. I know people whose kids are younger who definitely watch it — I think, ideally, he’d be older, but we don’t live in a perfect world.
My understanding is that Gene was somewhat based on you. How much is Oliver like Gene?
I don’t think he wants the fanfare attention that Gene likes. He is outspoken at home, but sort of shy in the world.
Were you the same way at his age?
I don’t know if I (was) shy — I just had a very hard time as a kid. I was very disliked as a kid for years. It all works itself out as you get older, I guess — people mellow and kids aren’t as mean. I was certainly a bit like a class clown by the end, but I didn’t have a keyboard. (Laughs) I don’t know how performance-y I was. It was just a hard time as a Russian immigrant in the Cold War.
You have this wonderfully distinctive voice. It’s served you well as both a comic and a voice actor. Was your speaking style there as a kid, too?
I had an odd cadence and an odd way of speaking. I definitely remember somebody bullying me and telling them that they filled me with “pathos” — which is clearly a crazy thing for, like, a 10th-grader to tell somebody. (Laughs) I both see how that kid would be picked on and how the kid is a little funny.
Because you’re so associated with this style of humor, I’m curious: When was the first time you heard the phrase “alternative comedy”?
It probably was in the early-to-mid-’90s. I would perform at this Chinese restaurant in Harvard Square, and I remember organizing a mini-alternative comedy festival, which was simply three nights at a Chinese restaurant that sat, like, 75 people. But I was like, “Let’s call it a festival and let’s send out press releases.” I think it was covered in the news — those were the beginnings of figuring out ways to build an audience. Clearly, it’s not like I came up with (the term) — it was also at a time when “alternative music” was a common term. I know there was a New York Times article about Luna Lounge around ‘95 — somewhere in that time is when I first heard the term used.
Stand-up rose throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, and then it crashed. By the time I was starting in the early ‘90s, the stereotype of stand-up was an insincere person standing in front of a brick wall making up relationships that sounded unreal and doing hokey jokes about them. Stand-up had a pretty bad rap, so there was no expectations: “We’ll do whatever, and if it’s funny, great.”
I remember touring opening for Stella in the very early 2000s and there being people who were like, “I’ve never seen stand-up comedy. I thought I didn’t like stand-up comedy, but this was a very funny show.” So, around the time I was starting, it would probably be like if there was a huge resurgence of mimes, where you saw a mime and you’re like, “Oh, that’s really pretty interesting.” (Laughs) I don’t know if whole art forms go through a thing of “That art form is terrible” — and then people are like, “Actually, I guess it depends on how you do it.” Nobody gets mad at all music. (Laughs)
This was also a time when bands and comedians were doing shows together, all swimming in the same water.
There were the Yo La Tengo Hanukkah shows, where they would always have a comic in the middle. I would do the show Tinkle a lot, hosted by David Cross and Todd Barry and Jon Benjamin, and they would often have a musical guest on there.
There was an agent who would go to that show a lot named Robin Taylor, who was wonderful — this is the very early 2000s, and she was like, “Do you want to open for the Shins?” Garden State had just happened, and I was like, “Sure!” But I went on unannounced at the time the Shins were supposed to go on, so the whole (crowd) was like, “What the fuck is this?” I remember looking at the audience and they were rowdy, but then (saying to them), “I can’t believe I’m being heckled by people who could get beat up by Belle and Sebastian.” That turned them a little (to) my side — I mean, it was only 10 minutes. But after that, Robin became my agent, and then she booked me on the tour with Modest Mouse. And then John McCrea from Cake, he had heard my first album and asked if I wanted to host the Unlimited Sunshine Tour.
Different comics were also doing stuff with various bands — when we did Invite Them Up, for a long time Langhorne Slim would close the shows. My first tour that I did was with Langhorne opening. It was a world where people were mixed together.
Other than making sure the audience knows in advance the opening act will be a comedian, what other rules did you learn about doing stand-up at a music event?
People are pretty polite and attentive at the very beginning. But then as you do it closer to the main band — like when I did the Cake tour, I would do a bunch of time upfront, a little bit in-between, and then when it was time for Cake to come out, originally, there was this idea to do five minutes. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but it actually is if 3,000 people are chanting the word “Cake!” You can’t actually talk and there’s no point in being like, “And another funny story…” when people are just (yelling), “Cake! Cake! Cake!”
I’ve hosted music festivals that are like, “Oh, between bands you can come on and banter.” But the truth is you can’t, because the second someone’s testing cymbals and hitting a guitar at random, you can’t talk — it’s just not realistic. I get why it sounds fun — or if you had an incredibly high-energy person who’s coming out and doing some sort of fun fanfare — but you can’t do crowd work to a few thousand people in a music setting. You probably could in a comedy show, but not when people are hitting random instruments.
We’re in the midst of this writers and actors strike. How are you dealing with the downtime considering you’d probably be doing Bob’s Burgers right now?
It’s sort of necessary. The demands are so reasonable. Our show happens to air on television, so that’s great for me, but for everything that’s just streaming, people are not compensated fairly. I don’t think there’s a version where (the strike is) settled without there being some sort of revenue sharing — maybe it’s not traditional residuals, but it’s something where they’re paid in some way, especially if it becomes popular. The deals that the people made for Orange Is the New Black (are) wildly unfair — someone can’t make that much money off of you and then you have to still figure out how to make ends meet because it was not shared fairly, as it is with television.
I get (with) some industries — obviously, you build a house, people keep living in the house and you don't keep paying them — but the way that television works is that a lot of it is hit-or-miss. You audition endlessly for free, you do all this work, and then sometimes you get a thing, and then if that thing continues to make money, so do you. People write a song, it’s put out and they continue to make money from the song — I mean, it used to be that way and it still is, at some capacity.
In the meantime, I can do stand-up. I’m very fortunate because I can still work on things. But in general, I’m used to comedy feeling like a freelance world where everything is a bit like sand you’re trying to hold. So, it’s always like, “Here’s a record label, here’s the show I’m on, here’s stand-up” — I’m doing all these different things and hoping that (if) anything goes away, something remains.
A.I. is a big issue in these strikes. Are you nervous about it affecting what you do either as a stand-up or as a voice actor?
I don’t think I’d want my voice scanned and then for Gene to be a digital character, though I guess I could be paid at 75 percent or something. (Laughs) I don’t really know how it would work, but I think it is insane, if you were a background actor, the idea that you would be scanned once and then used in perpetuity. The idea that you would make whatever it is one time and then obliterate your own career, that feels like an unrealistic thing for anyone to agree to.
I don’t know if I’m personally scared of A.I. replacing my stand-up or my personal acting, though I know that that is certainly possible and that there’s probably versions of that. There’s also (problems) for writers where, if you write an episode of something, you’re paid X, and if you write the second draft as a different person, you’re paid half-X or whatever it is — I know that some companies want A.I. to write the first draft so that, inherently, the second draft is cheaper. That’s an unrealistic thing for writers to agree to — that’s clearly a trick workaround.
(A.I. is) probably a great way to find hotels in Denver or “Name me the five best ramen places in Denver.” I know people who use it to create copy at work for a presentation. But in terms of “Here’s a love story,” I think you really need a personal touch. I think there’ll be a middle ground — the technology won’t disappear, but I don’t think it should replace storytelling or performance.
You talked about this freelance life of a comic, but Bob’s Burgers has been this really steady job for you for a long time.
A hundred percent — it’s probably double as long as the longest job I’d thought I’d ever have. There’s only one type of thing that lasts this length of time — cartoons. I never thought I would have a job as stable as I’ve had for as long as it’s been — and it’s also with friends, people I’ve known for years before it began. We worked on it for two or so years developing it — there’s lots of things that have never been heard of that you spend time working with friends on, and nothing happens with it.
Before Bob’s Burgers got to air, how much did Gene evolve? How much did you change him?
I think they had (him) slightly, I don’t know, dopier — I pushed him into a slightly savant-ier and food-loving world. And also, occasionally, there’ll be random references to things in the ‘80s. It’s just a thing I love: “Why does Gene know about Hardcastle and McCormick?” (Laughs) Gene will occasionally have references that are slightly older, but he’s also 11, so it’s not impossible that things would saturate his world.
That sounds like you as a kid pulling out “pathos” on a bully. But, also, in today’s internet age, Gene is somebody who’d have a wide range of references and be proud of how obscure they are.
Yeah, but it’d be more realistic to have (him) refer to The A-Team. There’s one thing that never made it in, though they animated it, and I wish I still had it that was so close to airing. The kids were sitting at the table talking about why they love visiting their grandparents — somebody was like, “Oh, they’ll give me $5,” and then Gene’s like, “Oh, they give me all the Tylenol PM I can eat!” It was so close, but they were like, “We can’t have a kid saying they take an unlimited amount of nighttime medicine.” (Laughs)
Can you imagine a day when Bob’s Burgers finally calls it quits?
You cross any bridge as it comes. But it’s very much a dream job — working with your friends, it’s just such a joyful thing to have. I know that things stop at some point, but I don’t know if it’s in three years or in 90 years. Through A.I., maybe it will continue forever and my estate will reap .7 percent per episode. (Laughs)
Oliver will live like a king.
The grandchildren will be like, “Ooh, a new episode of Bob’s Burgers with my robot great-grandfather is coming on. It has no heart, but it is profitable.”