“There’s a reason there’s a stereotype of hacky stand-up,” says Eugene Mirman. “It’s because it was real.”
The comic speaks of the 1980s and early 90s, when the demand for stand-up comedy was massive. Eddie Murphy and Sam Kinison had become superstars and a whole lot of people decided they were just as funny. Comedy clubs went up like Starbucks; pizza joints and Chinese restaurants staged comedy nights. The saturation, Mirman says, led to an inevitable end. “If the demand [for comedy] is huge, then it all becomes kind of similar.”
Oh, how we know. The onslaught of Def Jam comics and their honky jokes, redneck comics and their redneck jokes, neurotic undersexed female comics and their jokes about being neurotic and undersexed—it was incessant and maddening. But things are looking up.
Mirman is part of a new vanguard of comics (although Mirman wouldn’t be so idealistic as to say so) that hearken back to truth-tellers and innovators like Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce as well as pioneering sketch/stand-up artists like Steve Martin and storytellers like Ron Shock. The movement (too precious a word) can be traced to the David Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s HBO series Mr. Show up through The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Patton Oswalt’s Comedians of Comedy and Invite Them Up, a weekly NYC showcase created and hosted by Mirman and friend Bobby Tisdale.
“Personally, I’ve always found it much easier to create my own show,” says Mirman. “It was both more effective and easier…than going to one of the big clubs and trying to fit in.” Invite Them Up is an extension of this. “The same thing is true here. New York has tons of alternative spaces and rooms, but I was walking around the East Village and found RiFiFi.”
Since January 2005, the club has been the base for ITU’s weekly shows, which have drawn the best of New York’s up-and-coming and established comics and comedy writers. Todd Barry, Demetri Martin (The Daily Show) and Stella’s David Wain and Michael Showalter have all showcased new material or tested weirder stuff with Invite Them Up.
“Everybody has their own distinct style,” says Mirman. “And one of the things that brings these people together is that the spirit is… positive…sincere, sort of silly. There’s a camaraderie. It’s fun, more than anything else. And we got to put out a CD.”
Not just any CD. Comedy Central has released a 3-CD/1-DVD set of the best performances ranging from conventional stand-up (Mike Birbiglia, Jessi Klein) to experimental stand-up (Stroker and Hoop’s Jon Glaser reads letters from his dead father to his old band; Aziz Ansari relates an encounter with rapper M.I.A.) to sketches (a dialogue between David Cross and Jon Benjamin) to music (the faux-Christian happy campfire song purveyors God’s Pottery, Langhorne Slim). With nationwide distribution, it’s practically a calling card for the new wave of unhacky comedy.
Mirman’s own CDs, 2004’s The Absurd Nightclub Comedy of Eugene Mirman and this year’s En Garde, Society! are two more pinnacles of recorded stand-up comedy. Arriving out of nowhere, Mirman is a comic messiah, a beer-swilling, smirking, amiably caustic Russian-born stranger flaying bill collectors and right-wingers while yelling silly pseudo-nothings (“I am bike cheese!”) into our ears. With En Garde, Society! Mirman continues in his role as the slacker’s Bill Hicks, a goofy truth-teller pointing out the absurdity of the world, himself and ourselves, both entertaining and edifying in the process. Amid Mirman’s hilarious observational criticisms of religion, class division and bizarre behavior (like when he got drunk and advised an also-drunk Ace Frehley not to fuck his daughter), he lays out the hysterical “Letters to Nouns,” a comedy guitar solo that wails on everything from tits to nuts—and he makes it sound easy. But his real skill is disarming us as he attacks, dealing out a poignant irony by daring us to put up our dukes but imploring us to lay down our arms.
“My intent is to put on a show that I personally enjoy,” says Mirman, who like most comics, draws from the well of his own self-esteem as well as a seemingly bottomless pit of life’s sometimes infuriating absurdity. “I think the stereotype that clowns are sad is much more prominent than clowns are happy. I guess sometimes people do think comics are so much fun–and we are. We’re a really wonderful group of people. But yeah, obviously, any stand-up is [derived from] something we find infuriating.” It could be stupid people, the disapperance of socks, or the goverment, he furthers. “And combinations of all those things. For instance, Lenny Bruce was probably attacked by a stupid government, so he probably had the best of both worlds.”