Comedian Eugene Mirman has a funny name. He draws attention to this frequently during his comedy routines, drawing out the syllables in a low voice and self-inflicting cheap shots about male mermaids. He is kind of funny-looking too. His eyes are startlingly blue, set too deep and too large for his face and bear an astonishing capacity to appear both wild and sad at any given moment. In photographs he frequently makes them look even bigger, opening them up wide so that he looks a little deranged. His demeanor, like that of many stand-up comics in the legacy of Lenny Bruce, Steve Martin, Woody Allen, and Richard Pryor, is hyperactive and neurotic, portraying a sense of active discomfort that somehow makes the job of coaxing laughs out of an expectant audience a little bit easier. Yet all of these elements of awkwardness and eccentricity are belied by his voice, which comes across as remarkably relaxed. In fact, as you listen to Mirman deliver his bits to an unseen audience on The Absurd Nightclub Comedy of Eugene Mirman, one gets the sense that he is not only comfortable in front of a crowd, but is actually enjoying himself profoundly as well. That is because Mirman, like many of the smartest comedians, has taken on humor itself as an object. In viewing it as a cultural product that can be understood, apprehended, and perfected upon, Mirman has been able to fashion an image and a career for himself that uses outsider status to find an entrance into the worlds of both independent and popular celebrity.
With frequent appearances on popular shows like Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Comedy Central’s Premium Blend, as well as touring with such indie crowd-pleasers as the Shins, Modest Mouse, and Yo La Tengo, it seems as if Mirman has been able to forge a bridge between traditional comedic audiences and kids who would usually go to rock shows rather than their local stand-up venue. This blurring of the traditional cultural boundaries may seem like a random convergence, but Mirman’s history lends a more exacting explanation. Mirman has known at least since he was a freshman in college that he wanted to be a comedian. He attended Hampshire College in Massachusetts where the hands-off curriculum allowed him to design his own major in comedy. There he wrote heady papers on the philosophy of humor and organized stand-up events on campus for his projects. This combination of removed intellectualization of the comedic and straight-up dues paying of night after night improv is what makes Mirman’s comedy relevant to a wide variety of audiences.
Like fellow comedian David Cross, who is also much more likely to sell out a rock venue than a comedy club, and who incidentally wrote the liner notes to the CD, Mirman’s humor is cultivated to resonate with an audience that is too postmodern and jaded to chuckle along with the laugh-tracked babble that populate the mainstream comedy outlets on television and in the movies. In fact, Mirman and Cross’s comedy could be viewed as a kind of assault on this kind of comedy. Seinfeld variety laughs come from a gesture of universalism, everybody erasing their differences to laugh at the other, whether that other is a woman with a weird laugh or a soup Nazi; the presumptive quality that generates the laugh is one of sameness. Mirman and Cross, on the other hand, are at pains to define themselves in terms of their difference from normative culture. Cross is famous for a bit where he talks about being the only Jewish kid in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. As he tells the story of being ever-so-tactfully questioned by a friend’s mom after a sleepover (“Do y’alls’ people eat oatmeal?”), he zooms in on a normative culture that is at once absurd and terrifying, as the mom’s comments go from innocent inquisitive to anti-semitic slander (“All I know about y’alls’ people is that you have seven Jew bankers that live deep in the earth’s core and control the world’s money supply”).
Mirman takes a similar approach in his own self-disclosure. He is also Jewish, and when he drops that fact in the middle of the bit, he pauses for a moment and comments that no one claps at this fact like they do whenever he names cities that they are from. The audience immediately applauds, and he uses this moment to tokenize himself. “Jews want to be clapped at? It’s not enough to be chosen by God to be the most special people in the world?” He does the same thing with the fact that he is an immigrant who moved to the US from Russia when he was a small child. He uses this bit to tap into the stereotypes of immigrants from communist countries, making cracks about how all they did was sit around and cry about not having any property and eating cold tears at every meal. Although Cross and Mirman both use self-deprecation to highlight thinly veiled prejudices and contradictions in popular culture, they depart from each other in their overall comedic character. Where Cross’s routine gets laughs by launching a venomous critique that centers around popular hypocrisies in mainstream American culture, Mirman takes a more absurdist approach. Many of his jokes are funny simply because they don’t make any sense. He is good at juxtaposing seemingly disparate images and ideas in clever ways. An example of this is his website which shows a picture of him as a small child, dressed in what looks like a baptismal costume, eerily singing the words to classic rock tunes. His videos, some of which are included as a DVD bonus with the record, are also surreally funny. One more coherent instance makes fun of the slew of hyperbolic anti-pot ads that have been frequenting TV stations, taking them to their next illogical step. Another less coherent but strangely hilarious video has two Mirman cops playing a bizarre game of chicken, yelling macho threats to each other in muffled voices.
There are many drawbacks to living during a time of social polarization and moral controversy like the one we’re living through now. But even as the political landscape seems to grow more humorless by the day, comedy seems to be thriving. As the popular successes of John Stewart, the Onion, and stand-up acts like Chris Rock, David Cross, and Eugene Mirman can attest, satire and irony increasingly act as the spoonful of sugar that Americans crave to make the medicine go down. Perhaps this is because comedians are in a privileged position to poke and prod at hot button issues with considerably more freedom than someone who tows a straight partisan line. Or maybe it’s just because they’re really funny. Either way, you can’t do wrong by settling down with some friends, cracking open a beer, and letting yourself have a good laugh.