Eugene Mirman on Losing His Wife Right Before Coronavirus: ‘It’s So Strange Going Through This Without Her’
On this week’s episode of “The Last Laugh” podcast, “Bob’s Burgers” star Eugene Mirman opens up about life under quarantine, losing his wife, and new film “It Started as a Joke.”
When I reach comedian Eugene Mirman on Zoom about two weeks into his stay-at-home quarantine to see how he’s holding up, he offers a hesitant, “I mean, OK, I guess.”
The stand-up comic, perhaps best known for voicing Gene Belcher on Bob’s Burgers, is currently riding out the pandemic on Cape Cod with his young son. With new episodes of that animated show on hold and clubs shuttered across the country, Mirman is on somewhat of a comedy hiatus. “I’m obviously not touring,” he says, “however much it would be fun to kill your own fan base.”
Amidst all of this comes the premiere of It Started as a Joke, a new documentary that chronicles the Eugene Mirman Festival, which literally started as a joke between Mirman, fellow comic Mike Birbiglia, and friend Julie Smith Clem, who directed the film. Originally intended as a one-off gag, the festival ended up running for 10 years in Brooklyn.
“The truth is the festival was half ironic and half sincere,” Mirman tells me on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast. “It sort of made fun of festivals but it was also a celebration of the comedy community in Brooklyn.”
In addition to stand-up performances from comedians like Jim Gaffigan, Maria Bamford and Kumail Nanjiani, the festival offered absurdist experiences like therapy in a bouncy castle and a clown giving tax advice. The infamous “Drunk Show” led to This American Life host Ira Glass blacking out on stage.
“Everything is weird in an unprecedented pandemic,” Mirman says when I ask if it’s strange putting out this film in the middle of a global crisis. “But I think the truth is that the more things that can be done that are normal are helpful because everything is terrifying.”
Midway through the documentary, we learn that Mirman’s wife, set decorator Katie Westfall Tharp, has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Earlier this year, she passed away.
“I’ve just been in a place where I’m trying to make sure my son is as OK as he can be,” Mirman tells me. “And we talk about her and remember her. And then the world all of a sudden is on hold and you go from just making sure he’s OK to being like, by the way, door knobs are very dangerous now. I think there’s a lot of just getting through each day.”
“It’s so strange going through this without her,” he adds. “But all you can do is go on to the best of your ability at any given moment, so I guess that’s what I’m trying to do.”
When I ask him if he’s worried about the future of comedy, Mirman says, “I worry that the federal government isn’t doing a good enough job on a large enough scale. I worry that people are going to lose loved ones.”
“So, yeah, I mean, I hope to do shows again, but I think one way or another things will get back to some version of normal. I imagine that live events will return,” he continues. “My more immediate concern is that there won’t be enough ventilators. But I can’t order Ford to do anything about it. So I can buy gift cards to restaurants I like and donate to various GoFundMe’s, but the amount of money and effort that’s needed to make things better is not something, I think, any voice actor—even a Simpsons voice actor—could do alone.”
Highlights from our conversation are below and you can listen to the whole thing right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.
On writing jokes about cancer
“You kind of don’t know, Is this going to be sad or funny? until you read it and people laugh or you read it and people are like, that’s very upsetting. The subject matter is inherently heavy. But part of what makes it work is this heavy thing delivered in a lighter tone. But I went about it the way I’d do anything. The thing that’s hard is that if I just tell some joke about a thing that happened on the street and it doesn’t work then kind of, who cares? But to me if I tell a joke about something I’m going through that’s really hard, like my wife’s illness, and it doesn’t work, then it’s particularly upsetting.”
On the incredible longevity of ‘Bob’s Burgers’
“It is amazing because there’s a handful of animated shows on Fox that have done this specifically. It’s not common for any show to last this long. So did I expect a thing that is incredibly rare to happen? Probably not. But we worked on this eight-minute demo for Bob’s Burgers for two years. So it’s amazing that it’s still going. And like a lot of shows that I’ve gotten to be a part of, it’s a show of friends, people I’ve known forever.”
On doing the ‘drunk show’ with ‘This American’ Life’ host Ira Glass
“Ira had, I think, come up with the idea of the ‘Drunk Show.’ He had this idea that it would be this incredible story that unfolded. But [This American Life producer] Elna Baker used to be Mormon and didn’t really drink until that year or the year before. So she came up with all the games, but didn’t really have a sense of ratio. So everybody got pretty drunk. But Ira was just nervous to perform so he had a glass of whiskey before he went on stage and then also more shots on stage. He had never had this before but he blacked out. And then was such a sweetheart. He had to explain gerrymandering and did a pretty good job.”
Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: Stand-up comedian and author of the new memoir Save Yourself, Cameron Esposito.