The Thing That I Think is Funny: An Interview with Eugene Mirman

Declan Tan surprises comedian Eugene Mirman and asks him a lot of personal questions.

Photo by Howard Walfish

Eugene Mirman arrived at the Soho Theatre in London in a black cab. He got out as I watched him through a window. I approached him and surprised him from a corner. We then sat outside and spoke.

Everyone asks you about your comedy degree.

Yes. Do they?

In the interviews I’ve read.

Yes. So you’d hate to pass that chance up.

Exactly. Did you put it on your resumé?

Sure. When I was doing jobs that it would be irrelevant to have a Comedy degree, I did put that on there. Because… it’s a Bachelor of Arts which is the same as if I majored in History or English or Social Studies or whatever.

You sort of put the degree together yourself.

Yeah. With professors. So I did papers on physiology of laughter, the history of… the rise of mass culture. I took classes in writing, and documentary film and acting and did a weekly radio show and wrote a weekly humor column. And then eventually put all that into different levels of school, and then eventually did a one-hour stand-up act that I wrote and produced and promoted as my thesis.

So what mostly what it was, was the sort of things that I do now to succeed in comedy, so in a certain sense it’s very helpful. But it was obviously unconventional. But it’s no more or less useful than a degree in playwriting. I mean actually I guess it’s more useful. To me. But meaning if someone were to major in playwriting and become a playwright, it’s about that useful. So… it’s good?

Is the “comedy world” a very competitive, feuding one.

Every time Josie Long gets cast in something I’m always like, “Why wasn’t that me?” (laugh) Does that answer your question? Good… The answer is no, I don’t think it is, at all.

You’ve always been kind of doing your own thing anyway, so you’ve avoided and been outside of the mainstream.

I just feel like I’m not going up for the same things that other people are and it’s sort of irrelevant because it’s so much more about you personally connecting with an audience than it is, you know, anything else.

There’s nobody who’s extremely funny who does great in front of audiences who then doesn’t really succeed because somebody else took his role as a presenter. That’d just be a dumb way to look at it?

Are people competitive? Probably. But I only hang out with self-actualized comedians. So it’s not a problem for me.

I guess you don’t go down to open-mic nights then.

(laughs) I just go to self-actualized comedy luncheons. That’s it. Where everyone is well-behaved and artistic.

When you talk about “connecting with an audience,” what do you mean by that?

Blowing their minds through sex… talk. No. When they laugh at the weird things you tell them about. Basically.

So you know it’s good if they’re laughing.

I mean nothing could ever be quite that simple. You definitely know that it works if they’re laughing.

Maybe they’re laughing for strange reasons.

Are you telling me there’s a scenario where someone does an hour of stand-up and at the end of every joke the audience is always laughing but “for the wrong reasons.” I would absolutely adore seeing that show. That would be a cruel audience making fun of a handicapped person. Something that maybe happens here [in London], but not in the States.

I mean, yes, obviously if they laugh it works. I think that the thing of it is, if you’re doing something that’s sort of unusual and then people are laughing and it’s working then you feel like you’re really getting yourself across. And that’s what feels good about comedy.

So is that why you do it… self-expression?

I guess but… I mean…

Actually that would be kind of a pretentious answer, wouldn’t it?

“I do it for self-expression and the ability to buy almost unlimited fish.” (laughs)

I mean I enjoy so many different aspects of comedy. I don’t do it because it’s the only way I can get my soul onto the page (laughs). But I do like traveling and telling jokes and making silly things. And putting on fun events.

That sounded a little bit like an online dating ad.

About what I like to do? Yes. I’m trying to take the world on a date and FUCK THEM IN THEIR FACE. Write that. I apologize. I guess I could probably say “cunt.”

Is there a type of comedy you don’t respect, that when you see it, maybe a man standing on TV doing very basic observational humor…

Yeah, I mean I guess that if something feels either false or… Ultimately if it mostly feels false more than anything, where either it seems like pandering or somehow insincere. I mean there’s certainly probably lots of comedy that I think is terrible but in honesty I just don’t really pay attention to it.

I’ve certainly turned on the TV and been like, “That’s terrible.” But I didn’t go like, “I gotta remember this person because I really didn’t enjoy it.” Like the way you hear a band and you’re like, “I don’t like this band. I should make sure to buy all their albums.” (laughs)

So there’s tons of stuff that is definitely terrible but I am slightly… I would go to a club and see a person and literally don’t know their name. And they might be famous or not. And just be like: “That is some terrible, broad stuff.”

There’s a lot of basic stand-up comedy on television, do you think that’s because…

Because it’s very cheap to make? Yes. That is the answer. That is literally the answer. (laughs)

It is very cheap to make. I mean the answer is that it’s one person and a microphone and you can fill a half-hour of television. And so the production values, you know, it’s very easy to make.

In the ‘80s, stand-up was hugely popular on television. Then it became over-saturated then it sort of went away. And it had a crash.

Has performing in front of people ever been a problem for you?

Yeah! Like when I first started I was extremely nervous. And even now, you know, you don’t know how it will go. In a sense, I’m much more comfortable. I’m much, much more comfortable now than before. But yeah, I think that it’s always something you think about.

You can always fail.

And the possibility of failure never leaves you.

That’s quite a grim line.

Yes, but you can’t get on stage without knowing that things might fail.

How do you deal with it if things aren’t going well? Or don’t you really care?

I’m just such a good person that I know that my kindness will carry through (laughs). I don’t know you just do it. I mean it’s what I do now. Like now I’m a comic. I mean the way you deal with it is by trying to do a good job. Basically, is the answer. You try to be well-prepared, you work out your jokes in lots of different places until you think it almost always will work, or always, essentially. Unless the audience is full of terrible people. No, I’m just kidding.

You seem constantly in development of your show, your act. Is that how you see it?

Well it depends. Here, I’m just sort of trying to figure out what works best with the audiences here. And then in some shows, if you’re trying new stuff, or working out jokes, then yeah.

Each show has its own different purpose. Meaning I could be trying to work out new stuff or I could simply be trying to hone the best way to do a particular ten minutes or twenty or thirty or whatever.

Do you consider the audience when you’re preparing?

They like the same stuff. You know, the funny thing I found touring or opening for bands was whatever works best in front of a band is the same thing that’s going to work best, actually, down here in the theater in front of older theater-goers. Mostly. I mean, within reason.

I’ve certainly done shows where it’s a real mismatching of me and an audience, where I’ll mention the internet or something — this was maybe ten years ago — and you can see in the eyes of the audience that they really didn’t know about it. Which is unusual. It was in Las Vegas. It was a terrible mistake where I was in LA and somebody said, “You should do these shows because you’re so close” and I said, “OK.” And it was just a terrible experience and I only did two out of the eight. Because it was a real mismatching.

I had things where I was talking about technology and admittedly not complicated technology, and they were just like, “We literally don’t know what that is.” And it’s fine that they didn’t. It was just that I should not be performing for them. (laughs)

Not slightly disappointed in your audience there?

Well they’re not really my audience. That’s like saying I told a cat a very funny story and he didn’t like it and I’m so mad at this cat. How dare he? It’s such a clever story! Not to say that these people are cats. They were much smarter than cats. But both cats and them didn’t know about the internet.

I think that my goal is to figure out how to convey the thing that I think is funny to an audience. And to have them like it. I want them to. But I won’t… it’s not like I would do just anything they would like (laughs). But it is about me trying to figure out how to convey what I think is funny to an audience. And have them like it.

Photo by Howard Walfish

Declan Tan is a freelance journalist from London, currently living in Nuremberg. He has written for AOL, Little White Lies, Spike Magazine, and others.