interview by Corbett Cummins
photos by Heather Christianson
Eugene Mirman not only defies convention, he defies it unconventionally. As a Russian immigrant he moved to Lexington MA when he was four. He earned a degree in comedy from Hampshire College thus putting him into the unconventional minority of people who use their undergraduate education in real life. As a successful comedian, he often tours with bands like Gogol Bordello and the Shins. And finally, he has one the most pleasant personalities of anybody you will meet in show business.
Comedy fans know Eugene from festival shows like South By Southwest and Bumbershoot as well as his tours with comedians like Patton Oswalt and David Cross. Super-geeks love him for his voice work with cartoons like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Home Movies. HBO subscribers will recognize him for his role as Eugene, the oddball landlord from the comedy Flight of the Conchords.
We caught up with Eugene at a fancy hotel lobby in downtown where he was completely obsessed with their mesmerizing Google powered, table top/touchscreen/computer/web surfer/pretty display thingy and exclaiming how he felt like we should be solving a mystery in the future.
Eugene Mirman: That’s funny because if you lived in Austin you would be saying ‘you’ve been to South by Southwest for the last blankety blank. So yes, I like Seattle a lot, my records have been put out on Seattle labels Sub Pop and Suicide Squeeze and my booking agent is from Seattle…
But there’s a handful of cities that I like a lot and they are Seattle, Austin, Chicago…and Cape Cod.
Now what is this about you getting a degree in comedy? Can you expand on that?
I will! I went to Hampshire College in Western Mass, where you can design your own major. So I designed a major in comedy.’ Cuz I figured I would do something that I enjoyed.
Amusingly enough, what seemed sort of a frivolous major at the time became very practical. That’s what’s so funny about the fact that I majored in comedy is that, in a sense it was an extremely practical decision. And a lot of the things I did, and the experience I got, absolutely helped me for what I would do later, when I graduated college…
It was really fun and I enjoyed it. I did papers on all sorts of things to do with comedy. My thesis was a one hour stand up act. For science I did a paper on the physiology of laughter. For social science I did a paper on Lenny Bruce and his affect on culture. I took writing classes and history classes, stuff about the rise of vaudeville and burlesque and mass culture. I took sociology classes and theater…
I loved Hampshire, and it was sort of hard in the sense that, it’s sort of unstructured in a way. You have to find your own way. But the truth is, that’s extremely similar to what you need to do in the entertainment industry. And in a sense the sort of unstructuredness of Hampshire prepared me for trying to just figuring out ways to succeed in comedy in unconventional ways.
So thumbs up to…
And to the often maligned Liberal Arts degree.
Exactly, the liberal arts degree and what is also often maligned is the idea of majoring in English or some sort of vague history and then it comes out comedy.
I mean at the time, when I told anybody, especially grownups, they would be like ‘well one day you’ll get a real… job in computers.’
Yea, (smiling) we’ll see.
You’ve done a lot of rock and roll touring and few bands that stuck out to me were Modest Mouse and Gogol Bordello and I know those are real crazy funhouse acts.
Yeah, so Gogol Bordello is this intense thing. But it was in a large two, three thousand-seat theater and I would do something before Gogol Bordello and then a little bit after.
It wasn’t like somebody would put on the most intense show and then I would come out and be like, ‘I was in the mall the other day and the craziest things happened.’
It was a lot more like I would warm people up and welcome people and then they would perform and I would do a little bit more… When you are performing before a headliner in a room that big and people are just so excited, it’s very fun to do comedy in those sorts of shows.
But it gets progressively difficulter — progressively difficulter… hmm.
I was totally going to let that slide. I was going to edit it out.
I am a monster, a grammatical murderer. Anyway, so the answer is that it’s very fun. The way it worked is it was structured well.
It took like two shows to figure out what made sense with that tour. Each tour has stuff that sort of makes the most sense. And I would do those things (laughing).
So almost more of a ring master.
I was sort of a ring master for that tour. And there was a sharp learning curve…
Like for instance, it turned out that playing a video, an ironic video about dating before Tegan and Sara, infuriated their audience.
By the third show I was playing a video about Pot and it was doing great and everything worked out… I had no interest in upsetting the audience but you just learn on the fly.
And of course, you’re gonna do something different for Gogol Bordello than you would for the Shins.
You would think, but not necessarily. The truth is, for me, what works best is what works best. I don’t like when people who say ‘do you have another act?’
And I don’t, I don’t have another act. It’s not like I have one that I think people would love. And like–
And the one you REALLY want to do.
Yeah, exactly, and then like, my poems.
What works in an odd little room the best, is often what will also work with the Shins or Gogol Bordello, or Modest Mouse or in a more mainstream club.
You said that when you traveled with Gogol Bordello it was with the Cake, and did you get to spend time with everybody.
Oh I talked to [Gogol Bordello] a lot because we all speak Russian.
I spent tons of time with Gogol Bordello, we would all hang out in general because we were back stage in theaters
Eugene [Hutz] would pace back and forth and go ‘I am like a tiger, a trapped tiger‘ before he went on stage. It was very funny. Then he would bound out like a trapped tiger. He was very accurate. He was telling the truth.
I’ve heard you mentioned before that your career is more like that of a band or a musician?
I meant that I sorta became more well known in a similar way to a band. I didn’t put out records once I was famous to sell them. I put out records as a band would, like to become more well known.
And then on top of that I tour rock clubs, I have a rock booking agent, I’m on a rock label. So sort of the things I do are just more similar to a band.
I also meant that it was more grassrootsy. A lot of what I have done has been a grassroots process… Starting shows and doing them every week.
You have a really wide breadth of stuff that you do. You have characters that are kind of desperate. But on En Garde Society, your on-stage presence, I describe it as goofy-magnanimous, and your also have videos that are fiercely political (and I know you try not to be partisan). What is the common denominator for all of those thing (besides the fact it’s you).
I would say maybe tone and spirit of it all. I think the common denominator is that it’s me, it’s things I find funny. It’s probably just like a vague through line of tone and goofiness and sincerity.
I think each one of the things you kinda get a sense of where I am coming from, what I think is very funny about the situation. Whether it’s me getting thrown out of the RNC for having food that cooks itself in a bag. Or having a video, where I am a secret agent. Or interviewing Tucker Carlson or something.
It’s very silly and I don’t know that I would describe it as non-partisan, because I feel that it is fairly liberal… But in a sense it is. You know I thought that George Bush was a terrible president and I’m very excited for Obama. I am somewhat moderate in certain ways.
But uh, I look forward to bombing more countries. I can’t wait, I can’t wait to just bomb. It’s been like 10 days, and Obama hasn’t bombed anything. And I can feel it. I wake up sweating and I’m nervous. Why won’t he just bomb somebody? You know, Micronesia I don’t even know what it is. BUT DO WE NEED IT?
The truth is, it’s all done for the joy of doing it. If somebody wanted to hire me for something I didn’t want to do I just wouldn’t do it. That’s’ one thing that’s so exciting about succeeding in your own way. Is that most of what you do, you enjoy.
Unfortunately, I only had a few minutes to flip through your book. So I am not too familiar with it. But from what I read, the tone of it seems to be closer to En Garde Society, than your earlier absurdist videos.
The tone of it is I know how to live life and solve problems and then have advice that’s reasonable to ridiculous, mostly ridiculous. But it makes much more sense than a book that’s comprised of 80 characters talking about, you know, the CIA insides. So there is a very good reason in which is it makes so much more sense to write a book like. And also I think it’s a funny idea.
So the book is more of a step forward rather than a summation of everything you’ve done before.
Yeah it’s all new stuff. It turned out that the idea of working anything that I had done before into it, was pointless and more difficult than just writing new stuff. So it’s all new.
But I don’t necessarily see it as “here I have gone forward.” I see it as “I made a book.” It was really fun to work on, and I really enjoyed doing it, and I am very glad I did it. I enjoy writing… so that’s a thing.
I forget if I answered your question.
You totally answered it. One other I thing I noticed about the book. Maybe I misread it. But some of your advice is very good. Some of your advice is so unbelievably bad. And you don’t distinguish.
You know it’s the same way that part of the book once you read it there are a lot of true stories. I tell a lot of stories of things that actually happened, and then I make tons of it up and I never in any way distinguish the two.
The rule is, if it sounds like a true story it probably is. And if I claim that I had a magical experience advising Don Heneley the its probably not.
I kind of like the idea that there are facts that are wrong. What’s funny partially to me about the book is that I had to do a great deal of research to get things wrong. So I would find out the exact date of the signing of some bill and then like either get its name wrong and keep the date, or just do random things. But then the irony is that I did an incredible amount of research for the purpose of messing it all up. For the book.
That sounds like fun. That’s like studying for a test you get to fail.
That’s exactly it. I learned a great deal.
There was probably a lot of people who wanted you to write a book, but what was your reason for writing the book.
A lot of people (laughing). Well basically after getting several letters, (four letters), asking me to write a book. I was like “ok, alright four fans. Your wish is my command.'”
Anyway. What made me want to write a book? I think I just thought of it for a long time. I made, when I toured with Modest Mouse, these little booklets that were comprised of all my advice from my web site, and I made these little books that I would sell on tour. And I would sell out of them. And then I was like, ‘oh I should make this into a book.’ And then I didn’t know how to do that.
What I actually did, was I started writing a little column for the Village Voice. Like a little blog. And from that I got a book agent and they were like, do you have any book ideas? I was like here are some ideas and one of them was this little book so we started pitching this little book.
Any last things about the book we should know?
I enjoyed writing it. I think the fun things were that I would spend lots of time reading about lots of random things, like Tammany Hall. I would want to make some joke so I would just read all this stuff about the corruption of the 1800’s and I would make some weird joke about it.
It was sort of really fun. I not completely but slightly wished I had paid more attention in school. Like when I’m not forced to learn specific things I really, really enjoy it.
I was a terrible student. I graduated with like a 2.1 grade point average and I was in special ed. So I was slow… um… and powerful. Which is great that I wrote a book.
So enjoy my wonderful book and keep in mind that I’m a little bit special. So anytime you think “eww, this feels a little retarded,” you can then think “well it’s because I am.”
Eugene Mirman will be at the University Book Store today, February 19th, reading from The Will to Whatevs .