En Garde, Society!: Eugene Mirman and the comedy of the absurd

NEW YORK (JTA) — “Everyone knows that Jews control the media and banks and stuff,” comedian Eugene Mirman quips in a recent stand-up routine.

“But did you know that when you go to a carnival and you have to be a certain height to go on a ride, Jews control that height? It has nothing to do with safety. It’s just us flexing our Semitic muscles.”

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Mirman, 39, has an impressive list of credits, including opening for popular indie bands such as Modest Mouse and Arcade Fire, and appearing on “The Colbert Report.”

But many of Mirman’s roles — from Yvgeny Mirminsky on the Adult Swim mockumentary “Delocated” to Eugene the landlord on HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords” — are thinly veiled versions of himself.

Which is just fine for Mirman, a self-declared eccentric who has defied convention from his earliest years.

The Moscow native immigrated with his family at 4 to the Boston suburb of Lexington, Mass. His Russian-Jewish family had experienced persecution and wiretapping in Moscow, according to Mirman, who is not above mocking his origins. In an early recording, he claimed to have spent his childhood eating only “government-allotted bowls of cold tears.”

At school, Mirman had a difficult time fitting in with his American peers. In the sixth grade, tasked with presenting a book report, he instead lip-synced an entire Bill Cosby stand-up routine. Afterward he was labeled “foreign and a little special,” and relegated to special-needs education for the remainder of elementary school.

“The only thing wrong with me was that I was a weirdo that hated school,” Mirman told JTA. “I’m sure now there’d be a disorder for it, but I was just an oddball.”

Stand-up comedy provided an outlet. In the 1980s he watched comedians such as Emo Phillips, Bobcat Goldthwaite and Woody Allen. He identified with their “weirdo outcast” personas and was inspired by their work.

After graduating from high school, Mirman attended Hampshire College, which allows students to design their own majors. Mirman went with comedy.

His coursework involved organizing comedy nights and writing a humor column for the student newspaper. His senior thesis was a one-hour stand-up routine that he later used as the basis for his professional act.

“It was the most helpful education I could’ve gotten,” Mirman said.

His parents, Boris and Marina, supported their son’s pursuits. Unlike many immigrant parents, the Mirmans saw a comedy career as a sign of the possibilities of America and didn’t push Eugene toward the more “practical” professions adopted by many immigrants.

“My parents never put pressure on me,” Mirman said. “They brought my brother and me here so we could pursue things we enjoy.”

Mirman is a well-known, if not quite mainstream, comedy figure. His early work included a series of surreal YouTube videos in which, adopting personas ranging from a Kurt Cobain-esque grunge musician to a secret agent, he satirizes sex education, spy thrillers and politics. He has produced four comedy albums, including the two-disc “En Garde, Society!”

He says his current role in “Bob’s Burgers,” a FOX animated show entering its fourth season, has been a “wonderful” chance to reach a new, mainstream type of audience — one that doesn’t necessarily frequent underground comedy clubs.

Now living in Brooklyn, Mirman’s schedule is a hectic hodgepodge of comedy tours, show tapings and miscellaneous projects. He wrote a faux self-help book published in 2009, “The Will to Whatevs,” in which he dispensed dubious advice such as suggesting that new office workers “pretend every day is Bring a Coyote to Work Day.”

Mirman just embarked on a six-city tour with fellow comedians Kristen Schaal and John Hodgman — the “MirmanHodgmanSchaal Sandwich-To-Go Tour.” He also is working on a pilot for a travel show.

After 10 years of touring, Mirman is candid about the challenges of the stand-up life, like hecklers. He struggles, too, with the solitary life of the road.

“You arrive in a new place, do a sound check, do the show,” he says of the nightly routine. “By the time you’re done, most things are closed in a lot of cities, and you can maybe get a meal and go to bed.”

Perhaps Mirman’s greatest asset is his distinctive voice, a flexible instrument that can descend to a deep bass rumble or tic upward into reedy disbelief. His subject matter ranges from observational humor (poor airline customer service and gay rights) to the absurd (talking horses and a sport called “extreme bowling”).

Although Mirman is more often bemused than angry, he sometimes uses his laconic style to lampoon the stodgier elements of society. He regularly makes fun of anti-abortion protesters (though he focuses on their grammar), and his latest comedy album is titled “God is a 12-Year-Old Boy with Aspergers.”

Evidence for this theory? “God wants Jews to wear hats, but only in the middle of their heads. Think about it.”

Emblematic of his signature combination of self-deprecation and self-aggrandizement is an annual comedy event called “The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival,” which this year was held in late September in Brooklyn.

One of the festival’s events was called Star Talk Live!, a live taping of celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s radio show. The show juxtaposes comedians with scientific experts, resulting in long, surreal panel discussions. Mirman is a frequent guest.

At this year’s taping, the beer flowed freely, on and off the stage, as panelists conducted a rambling, digressive discussion of robotics. Lounging between deGrasse Tyson and Jason Sudeikis of “Saturday Night Live,” Mirman offered a stream of sardonic commentary to the audience’s delight.

After deGrasse Tyson mentioned the Voyager probe crossing the border between the solar system and space, Mirman quipped, “I hope it has its papers!”