Born in Soviet Russia, Eugene Mirman and his family moved to the United States when he was 4, settling in suburban Boston. His relatives instilled in him a desire to achieve the American Dream his way, and that’s what the comedian has been doing. Never taking a traditional tack in his 20-year career, Mirman has gone from doing shows at Chinese restaurants to performing standup at traditionally indie-rock venues to starting a comedy festival as a goof. In the meantime, he’s achieved alternative-circles fame for small roles like Bret and Jemaine’s nosy landlord Eugene on Flight Of The Conchords and inept Russian mobster Yvgeny Mirminsky in Delocated. In March, the second season of Loren Bouchard’s Fox series Bob’s Burgers debuted, with Mirman playing 11-year-old Gene Belcher, a kid who’s obsessed with farts and all fart-related humor (who nonetheless shares some of Mirman’s adult comedic sensibilities). The A.V. Club spoke to Mirman about his unorthodox career, whether his service from Time Warner improved after he took out an ad to publish a complaint letter, and taking the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival out of New York; it will be in Seattle from March 29-31.
The A.V. Club: When you set out to do this career, what expectations did you have? Did you expect to be doing all the various things you do?
Eugene Mirman: Well I started at a time when comedy as a career had just slightly collapsed. Not to say that I’d even know or not know what that meant, but in the ’80s, standup was huge. You could work so much and there was just so much work and money sort of everywhere. But I don’t think I had any expectation, really. I just was like, “This is a thing I’d like to do, and I’m told that if you keep doing this thing, you could become it.” We immigrated from Russia and stuff, and I feel like the American Dream was just something that we were told in a very realistic sense. I also had no Internet—not that the Internet didn’t exist, but YouTube or social media, even websites that will pay you to do coverage or whatever, make videos for them, that’s all very much today. Even the channels like Comedy Central, when I first started, none of that existed really. So I think it was as much an expectation of what would happen as an expectation of what I really wanted to do.
AVC: When technically would you say that you first started? During college?
EM: My first set was the summer after high school. But then it would be like, months before my next set. And throughout college I’d perform, but again, there’d sometimes be four months between shows, which isn’t really how you become a professional. But in terms of ways to work and make money, when I started, the idea was you would literally get on Letterman or The Tonight Show, and even before then, that was much more true. When I was in college, Conan started up. You know, there were a few avenues, but right now it’s just diversified. There’s tons of things you can do. You can just make, in a sense, your own career. It’s not dissimilar to what bands have always done.
AVC: At what point did you say to yourself “Okay, I don’t have to go to the Chuckle Hut anymore?”
EM: In general, I always found it easier to start my own thing than to pursue the Chuckle Hut. And part of it is I was in a rural place. I was in Amherst, Massachusetts. There was a comedy club in a Chinese restaurant, and I would perform there sometimes. I ended up starting a night in my dorm. I ended up trying to start my own comedy nights in the summers. Even when I moved to Boston, I performed at the Comedy Studio, which is this comedy club on the third floor of a Chinese restaurant. I would do that regularly, and that was sort of the place. Me, Brendon Small, and Patrick Borelli had a weekly show, and I started my own thing. In general, I think maybe it’s easier to do that. It certainly was for me. Also, you find the audience you really want. Why try to figure out the middle ground of what tourists like?
AVC: Or people who are just going for a night out.
EM: Yeah. I mean, there’s totally nothing wrong with pleasing them, or them enjoying it. And the truth is, I want people who come to like it. It’s more like just trying to match yourself up to an audience. Like, there’s no reason for Fugazi to play at a folk club. But if it’s just advertised as music, what does that mean?
AVC: I like the fact that your character’s name in Bob’s Burgers is Gene. Except for Delocated, most of your characters are named Eugene or Gene.
EM: Actually, Yvgeny is “Eugene” is Russian. All my names are Eugene. That is not my doing. That is literally everyone else’s doing. Like Conchords, [Jon] Glaser [of Delocated], Loren, they all chose to have me named by my name.
AVC: So this isn’t like a Charlie Sheen thing where it’s just easier for you to be addressed as Gene or Eugene?
EM: [Laughs.] No, it isn’t at all. I mean, it certainly is easier, I guess. In a sense, I wouldn’t know, since I’m literally myself in everything.
AVC: In Bob’s Burgers, you’re an 11-year old, but he acts and sounds a lot like your comic persona. Was that the idea when Loren created him?
EM: Yeah, I mean, what Loren really did is cast us, and then we would all go in—I mean, it really is like the little show that could, in the sense that we must have spent a year and a half or two years on a 10-minute demo pilot, going in every few months. And at the time, it was just like, “Come on in and we’ll record some more.” We didn’t know if it ever would really become a thing. The reason the whole first episode is about there being human flesh and stuff is because originally it was going to be a family of cannibals. Then it was like, wait, that’s not actually a thing you want to keep doing. So I think like in terms of our tone, it’s a merging of each actor’s sensibility, and the writers’ sensibility, and everything sort of coming together.
AVC: What do you think you’ve brought to Gene that’s different from what the character originally looked like?
EM: There’s a lot of just silly, I guess like dopey, savant-y—I think in the second episode, they kept some joke I made about Salman Rushdie. I mean, clearly it’s ridiculous for an 11-year-old in 2012 to be aware and making these jokes, but it’s sort of really funny. There’s something really funny about a kid being obsessed with Hardcastle And McCormick for no reason. I don’t even know if any of these jokes were ever in any of the episodes. But periodically, I would just keep mentioning ’80s action-comedies.
It’s funny, because Jon Benjamin [the voice of Bob] would just play it like, “How do you know about that?” He would engage it in a really funny way. But then as a result, writers start writing these sort of weird, quirky things, and it’s funny seeing scripts that are like, “Oh my God, that’s literally the joke I would have made on the fly, and someone else has written it already for me.”
AVC: You’ve been writing your own material for so long, how weird of a feeling is that for you, that someone gets your voice?
EM: Well, I mean, I am also still a kid. It’s partially my voice and then partially Loren’s and partially the writers. It’s not like I came in and was like, “No, I see Gene like this.” It’s not like a movie set and I’m the most famous person telling people what to do. It’s very much a collaboration, but it is really great when what I think is funny, when it all sort of comes together, when there’s someone who’s writing for your sensibility.
AVC: Now that there’s a second season, are you still thinking this is the little show that could, or do you think Bob’s Burgers might be around a while?
EM: In a sense it’s both. I mean, certainly, until a thing happens, I never believe it’s real. But yeah, it’s a second season. Who knows? There’s so many things that happen, and so many possibilities, that I rarely believe anything is in any way permanent. When it first came out, there were so many mixed reviews. They’d only had one episode done, and I think some people were like, “Oh, this is just crass.” And then a lot of people, in the middle of the season, started writing reviews that are like, “Actually, this is really pretty good.”
AVC: Were people just not used to the show’s quirky tone?
EM: I don’t know. I think the first episode, because it was about eating people, and the family was called the Belchers, some people were like, “Oh, this is actually a really interesting tone,” and then other people were just dismissive of its crassness. But it’s not actually that crass. And it’s certainly not that crass compared to so many things. To me, it feels like a warm family comedy. Also, I’d known of many more episodes than the first one that was talked about, so I knew that it grew into this warmer thing. I think you’d have to ask people. Because the things I’m used to watching are maybe just different. To me, this is more broad than something I’d maybe watch.
AVC: Between the first and second season, how have things developed?
EM: The second season, it’s like the whole town expands. A lot of the drama is just bigger. It’s all heightened, but in a very reasonable way. I’m actually really excited. When we started reading the scripts and coming in, we were all just sort of like, these are really good. It also felt before like it was good and it was coming together. But then you see something that’s more than it coming together and you get excited.
AVC: With Delocated, when Jon Glaser first created Yvgeny, was he pumping you for information about Russia?
EM: No. He was writing it, and he was like, “You can speak Russian?” No, he would come up with, like, the whole first episode—I forget if this was even in the first episode. It probably is. But the very first thing was just this five, 10-minute pilot thing he made for Adult Swim. And it was basically me running into a store and shooting Paul Rudd by accident, and then him listing all the movies Paul Rudd had been in, mourning him. I think the whole thing was just Jon thought of this silly thing. It might have been a character he’d done something like it on Conan. I think that when I’m on set and we’re shooting, I help some of the other actors with speaking Russian and stuff like that, and then sometimes if there’s a phrase they’re looking for—maybe in the very first episode, when he was first writing it, he’d be like, “How do you say ‘My God’ in Russian?”
AVC: Have you gone back to Russia since your family moved here?
EM: No. Though I really want to do a documentary of going back. But I haven’t really tried to do that. When I first realized that I should probably go back and it would be fun, I then wanted to film it, and then because of that, I haven’t gone back because I don’t want to just go and ruin that extreme possibility. I want to catch my first time reacting to Russia. In a sense, I’m very curious, but you know, as with almost anybody who came here, your family history is just full of terrible stories about how it’s a lawless country. Even now with the journalists being murdered, and no one giving up power, you can tell that it’s vaguely terrible.
AVC: Is your curiosity piqued by those stories?
EM: Well, I just would like to visit. I mean, I love going to Brighton Beach and stuff. And part of it is also, I wonder about comedy there. Here, whether somebody likes it or not, you can make a movie like Fahrenheit 9/11. There, I don’t think you can. Here, you know how comedians always joke about politics; I don’t know if you could have that [there], or if you would be arrested. Or you’d just probably be taxed unreasonably until you went out of business. You would just have the weight of the government crushing your jokes. But I don’t know if that’s the case or not the case. I’m just kind of curious.
AVC: What people know about Russian comedy basically begins and ends with Yakov Smirnoff.
EM: That’s true. I think in Russia, there’s a lot of storytelling and anecdotes. There’s an organization called Comedy Club, with maybe like a “K” for one of the letters or something. They do a lot of weird, sketch-y stuff. So that’s a thing. But no, I don’t know the answer to it. I mean, I’ve seen some of it. There’s a lot of Winnie The Pooh jokes that involve rape. Or maybe just vulgar Winnie The Pooh jokes. That’s literally, I think, a thing. But I’m not totally sure. This is why it needs to be made into a movie! To answer the question, “Are there in fact tons of Winnie The Pooh rape jokes?”
AVC: In your last comedy special you had a routine about writing the district attorney about your speeding ticket, and you recently took out a full-page ad complaining about your Time Warner customer service. Is that part of your upbringing, to publicly stand up for what you feel is right?
EM: I think to me, everything is my weird version of it being personal. Well, with Time Warner, I just couldn’t believe that they just kept doing this thing with no accountability. They were just like, “We’re literally the only people who provide [cable].” And the thing about it is, they provide Internet. Because some people would be like, “Well why don’t you just not have TV?” which would be a solution, but not if I have to work from home and need Internet, and a land line to do interviews and stuff. So yeah, with them, it just felt so egregious, and they just couldn’t care less. I mean, everybody’s had the experience. And I was like, what in the world could get their attention, that would be ridiculous. Writing a letter is only mildly effective when you can read it. But I think the ad, it really worked, and in fact, they are very responsive now. You know, it’s funny. I think FiOS just became available, or is about to on my block, and part of me wants to switch, but then part of me is like, well Time Warner will already reply to me quickly. So I don’t know if I want to take this risk. Because clearly, I couldn’t do another thing where I make fun of Verizon. People would be like, “What are you? The cable company comic?” You have to pick your battles.
AVC: When you discovered Twitter or Facebook, what did you think you could do with those to forward your career?
EM: Funnily enough, Invite Them Up, which was the show I did with Bobby Tisdale, we did it for maybe a year and a half… sometimes people would come, sometimes not. It was all sort of come and go. And then when Friendster began, that was a way we could actually post about a show online and it would spread. And we were only trying to get, whatever, 60 people. Or 100 people or something. So I would say that Friendster was a very early lesson in that being effective. And then MySpace was kind of interesting, because it was sort of effective, but then it just became overrun with like weird Macy’s gift card [spam] and sex. I had signed up for Twitter, or someone actually made me an account so I could tweet and it would appear in various places like my website and stuff like that. And at some point, I finally logged in and looked at it, and I had like, 1,800 followers or something. And I was like, “Oh! People are following this.” I don’t want to just tweet show information about Texas or something. You know? I actually made another account to do that, and then eventually sort of phased that out. But then I just started tweeting jokes and stuff. I will also post things about shows, but mostly it’s either random information or things I think are funny or interesting.
AVC: It seems like a lot of comedians do that these days, using it as a joke-testing system or writing down something that comes to mind.
EM: I think that people think of it as comedians testing jokes, but the truth is, the stuff I tweet almost never ends up as a joke. A lot of it also is of the moment. It’s not like I’d ever get onstage and be like, “Okay, first of all, you have to understand that the governor of this state was trending at this time.” That stuff is much more like a throwaway or whatever. My act barely mentions Rick Santorum, but I probably tweet about him.
AVC: It seems like the other big thing these days is podcasting. For the most part, it seems like you’re more a guest on other people’s podcasts than doing one by yourself. Did you ever think about starting a podcast on your own?
EM: Sure. I always loved doing radio, and I’ve certainly considered it. But after I saw the article on The A.V. Club that said, “No more podcasts,” I was like “Okay, nevermind.”
AVC: Do you agree with that, that it’s gotten saturated?
EM: You know, I think there’s an element of saturation. But I think its point was like sort of, I can’t remember, but I think it’s still fun to see Louis C.K. drop in a thing. Like, I don’t care if you heard him on a podcast. I think it just depends on so many random things. There are a lot of podcasts, but it’s not like I listen to all of them.
AVC: Your comedy festival’s coming up at the end of the month, right?
EM: In Seattle. We’ve never tried it out of New York, but yeah, we’re doing one for fun that’s a small one in Seattle.
AVC: The festival started as a bit of a goof. What were the origins of it and how has it morphed since you started it?
EM: It started as—I can’t remember what it was that led to the joke, but it was after one of our shows at Union Hall. I was talking to Mike Birbiglia and Julie Smith, who I’ve worked with now for 10 years or whatever on various shows, and she was the executive producer of all the Onion TV stuff and started their video department. I forget how, but I just said something like, “I’m going to do a Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival.” There must have been something in town that was similar. I just thought it was really funny. Then I was like, I’m not really going to do that, because it’s like a combination of ridiculous and self-aggrandizing. And then Michael Birbiglia was like, “No, you should do that.” And Julie, who I put events on with was like, “We should do that. That’s really funny.”
Our first year, we did a show that was called One Of Each, that had one of each kind of minority on the show. There were reunions of shows that people didn’t really remember. We had badges that we made that were like VIP badges that we gave out to everybody. One year, on the last night, we hired a stretch limo to just take people from this inconvenient location to the subway. It’s just things that, it’s all kind of dumb jokes involving industry things. But all the shows themselves are really fun. Like the show One Of Each was all comics we really love. But it was making fun of how comedy festivals will be like “Uptown Comedy!” “Jewish Mama’s Boys!” or whatever it is. There’s so many shows that ghettoize people. And the comics might be fine, but I just think it’s sort of ridiculous. It’s not as much that I want to stop people from doing those shows, it’s that I definitely want to make fun of it.
AVC: What was the opportunity in taking it out of New York?
EM: The opportunity was that my agent was talking to the promoters who do that. And Sub Pop had been considering doing something. I had offered to help, to be like, “Oh if you guys want to book something, I’m happy to reach out to people.” It eventually morphed into like, “Do you want to just do it?” We thought it would be fun to try it on the West Coast. It’s only a handful of shows. I mean, the thing about all these shows is like, in New York you can do it because it’s basically goodwill. The amount of money that you’re making is like, $100 or $200 or something. But everybody’s already out here, so it’s just like, if they’re free and they want to do this, the same way that we all kind of do each other’s shows. The difference was, we have to bring people in airplanes and put them up and stuff. So it’s just like a little trickier, because it’s people who have to want to do it enough to travel. But it has been really fun. And the community is really, really warm. The comedy community, everybody’s happy to help each other and do these things that are fun.
AVC: If it’s successful, could you see the EMCF, as you call it, as a legitimate business?
EM: I don’t know. Depends on your version of legitimate. I think that it would potentially need some sort of large corporate sponsor. Because even this [Seattle festival], everybody’s doing it for not what they would normally get to perform somewhere. Admittedly, they’re mostly doing 20-minute sets or something, but to assemble the caliber of people we’re getting, I think the only way it could be a business is if either tickets were more or there were sponsors or something. Or we had merch. I guess the answer is, I don’t know how to run a business. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have one. And it doesn’t mean that it’s not called Rich Pregnant Teenager, which it is. Julie and I started a company, and it is, in fact, called Rich Pregnant Teenager. And we have checks and credit cards that say Rich Pregnant Teenager. And the bank laughs every time they call me.