AUSTIN, Texas—Eugene Mirman was hanging out with some of his comedian friends one day when they started joking about starting a comedy festival in his name. Over a decade later, the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, which ran for 10 years at the Bell House in Brooklyn, is the subject of a new documentary called It Started as a Joke.
Mirman, best known for voicing Gene on Bob’s Burgers, acknowledges the irony of premiering the film about a festival that, in comedian Mike Birbiglia’s words was initially invented to “make fun of other festivals,” at the South by Southwest festival.
“Yes, you become what you make fun of,” Mirman tells me. “It’s fine.”
In addition to stand-up showcases with silly themes like “An Evening of Entertainment from People with Black Glasses,” Mirman’s festival included irreverent stunts like putting a licensed therapist in a bouncy castle for one-on-one sessions or a getting an accountant dressed as a clown to give tax advice. They gave attendees the chance to ride an “awkward party bus” that alternated between fun dance music and sad Harry Chapin songs. Mirman even hired an actress to sit on the bus and cry for hours.
It Started as a Joke is directed by Julie Smith Clem, who also helped produce the festival and before that ran a weekly comedy show in New York with Mirman and Michael Showalter. They originally thought it would be a one-off joke but people seemed to enjoy it so they kept it going until ultimately deciding to end it after a solid 10 years. The documentary chronicles how that final festival served as a capstone of sorts on New York’s alt-comedy scene.
Over those years, many of the comedians Mirman came up with started moving to Los Angeles and became so successful that it wasn’t always easy to get them back to Brooklyn to perform for the festival’s relatively small audiences. Mirman himself moved his family to Cape Cod a few years ago, a decision that coincided with the film’s unexpectedly dramatic plot twist.
Shortly before Mirman married Katie Westfall Tharp, who has worked as a set decorator on shows like Human Giant and Inside Amy Schumer, she was diagnosed with cancer. The couple ended up having a son using a surrogate and the film shows how Mirman has struggled to find a way to joke about those experiences on stage.
Originally, he didn’t know if he even wanted to acknowledge the cancer in his stand-up, but the documentary gave him a platform to explore it in way that felt more nuanced and respectful.
“In general, I feel like it helps me to have a goal,” he says. “So being like, I’m going to try to come up with material about cancer for this documentary—it is a sort of crazy way to be like, I’m going to do this thing that really terrifies me and I guess I’ll document it?”
In the film, Mirman’s wife seems generally uneasy about his cancer jokes, but he tells me there is one she loves. The basic premise is that now when people invite them to things they don’t want to do, he gets to tell them, “We’re only allowed to do stuff that’s necessary and enjoyable.”
“This movie is by far the most personal thing that I’ve done or been a part of,” Mirman, who is not known for being a confessional comedian, says.
Because of his willingness to open his life to the world in this way, the film becomes something much more than simply a documentary about a comedy festival. It’s really about comedy’s ability to heal and bring people together to support each other through the hardest moments in life.
Thankfully, it also features hilarious stand-up comedy from comics like Janeane Garofalo, Jim Gaffigan, Jon Glaser and many others.
“I know it started as a joke,” comedian Jo Firestone says near the end of the film, “but it’s a pretty good joke.”