It Started As A Joke is not just a documentary, it’s also a love story.
It’s a love story about Eugene Mirman and so-called “alt-comedy”; about Mirman almost singlehandedly moving that comedy scene from Manhattan’s East Village and Lower East Side over to Brooklyn’s Park Slope and Gowanus neighborhood after Rififi and Mo Pitkin’s closed up shop in the late 2000s; about Mirman’s self-referential and irreverent Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, which took place for a decade at Union Hall and The Bell House; and about Mirman’s personal love life, navigating the sickness and death of his wife, Katie, remaining present for their little boy, Ollie, and still trying to find some semblance of humor amid it all.
Before I continue, let me get some personal business out of the way.
Couldn’t help but notice that a few moments of footage came from my old Flip cam, as I documented the final moments of the final show at Rififi in July of 2008. That September, the first Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival happened, where I reported the lineups included performances by Kumail Nanjiani, Tig Notaro, John Oliver, Aziz Ansari, Hannibal Buress, Ron Lynch, Michael Showalter, David Wain, Janeane Garofalo, Leo Allen, Arj Barker, Kristen Schaal, Chelsea Peretti, Mike Birbiglia, Fred Armisen, John Mulaney and dozens more.
You’ll get to see many of them in this documentary, plus Michael Ian Black, Wyatt Cenac, Ira Glass, John Hodgman, Reggie Watts, Daniel Kitson, Jim Gaffigan, Jon Glaser, Bobcat Goldthwait and more.
My one and only video I made for My Damn Channel happened at and during the 2011 Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival.
Back to the documentary, though.
Julie Smith Clem (one of Mirman’s festival co-founders) directed with Ken Druckerman, so they obviously enjoyed great access not only to the festival over the course of a decade, but also to Mirman’s home life with Katie Westfall-Tharp as they moved back to Massachusetts, settling on Cape Cod to tend to her cancer treatments as well as the upbringing of their infant son.
It opens with a light touch, as demonstrated in the opening scene of the trailer as well, with Mirman explaining to young Oliver: “That? That’s a cameraman, he’s filming you for a documentary about a comedy festival that started as a joke one decade ago tomorrow.” We’re then thrust into lots of footage from that final edition of the festival, where Mirman joked about going to the sperm banks, because Oliver was born via surrogate. Does Mirman get recognized in the street, he imagines you wondering? “Sometimes in the street, but always at the sperm bank!”
What was the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, in the end?
Birbiglia recalls a drunken brainstorm with Mirman one night at Union Hall where they came up with the bright idea of making fun of all of the other comedy festivals by staging their own. “And then they did it,” Birbiglia said. “And they cut me out. And literally made billions of dollars.” Just kidding. They did make lots of swag bags and posters and laminates lampooning the things you see at other comedy festivals. I’ve got a “Drunk Blogger” badge somewhere in my stack of “real” festival badges. Once Mirman and friends repeated the feat in 2009, he said he realized it was no longer just a one-off joke, and that he’d commit to doing 10 of them.
Outside that 2017 fest, we see Watts describe the annual event: “It’s a comedy festival for comedians. And weird comedians. People that, you know, do their own thing.” Goldthwait said of Mirman: “He’s the drain in the sink that catches all the weirdos.”
That’s such a more specific, more colorful description than the over-mentioned “island of misfit toys” tag.
Seeing and listening to Garofalo describe the alt scene of New York comedy at the turn of the decade from 2000s/2010s, I’m reminded of the Tell Your Friends! documentary from Liam McEneaney and Victor Varnado, which culminated with a big show at…The Bell House. The difference with the Mirman doc is twofold: 1) Mirman really influenced the “downtown” and Brooklyn comedians in the late 2000s and early 2010s in a different way than the other comedians and showcases that were cultivating the scene before or alongside him, and 2) this film wears his heart on its sleeve.
“He was a huge, if not the biggest influencer of all,” Schaal said. “He was a huge influencer.”
Stylistically, the Mirman doc also makes frequent use of a separate monitor within the frame to showcase old clips (including my clip from Rififi’s grand finale).
I don’t mean to suggest a competition among comedy documentaries, much as Mirman believes competition among comedians or comedy scenes is nonsense. “I remember being like, ‘Why did you fly me in to do this set?’ and the producer was like, ‘You know, we’re looking for comics like you as much as you’re looking to be on TV.’” So why worry about what other comedians are accomplishing in clubs or credits? “I think that you come up with a show, you make your show, and you bring in people either that you know or don’t to make it. But a lot of it is, you make a thing. You make the festival. You make a TV show. You write a book.” DIY, baby!!! “Someone else isn’t beating you to your book.”
The final festival Mirman and his Pretty Good Friends staged in 2017 wasn’t the weirdest of them all. A bouncy castle doesn’t exactly qualify as eccentric, even for Brooklyn. Past years included a petting zoo, a party bus that went nowhere, a dunk tank, or a clown offering tax advice.
Then there was the year public radio star Ira Glass got blackout drunk via onstage bartender Rachel Maddow during the festival’s “Drunk Show,” and that’s captured on film here for posterity, along with recollections from Glass and Mirman.
What Mirman, his Invite Them Up showcase with Bobby Tisdale at Rififi, and his festival in Brooklyn all accomplished, though, provided inspiration for avant-garde ideas and challenged comedians to get outside of their comfort zones to reach even greater heights with their onstage performances.
So some of the stand-up sets included in this documentary from the 2017 actually become the least appealing pats of it, because any regular stand-up seems out of place with everything Mirman stood for. Unless that’s the point, that between 2007 and 2017, what once seemed weird is now the mainstream for stand-up. But that doesn’t really apply to some of the stand-up featured here.
But the last half-hour of the documentary opens up the narrative, as Mirman and his immediate family must cope with loss and tragedy. Katie’s chemo, after all, forced them to go to a surrogate for the birth of their son. We’re invited into the intimate inner circle of their lives together, from their marriage in 2015, through the diagnosis and afterward, as Mirman struggles to incorporate the very personal into his otherwise silly routines.
As he says to the camera: “There is a sense of like joking, as well as a sense of warmth, and love and sincerity, but also like a silliness, and I think that permeates a lot of my stuff.”
It’s awkward at times, but very touching and sentimental and heartfelt. His comedy. His love. His festival. All of it. All of his stuff is full of feeling. You’ll feel all of the feelings following him and his personal family and his comedy family. And you’ll be better off for it.