Q&A With Eugene Mirman

eugenemirmanIf you haven’t listened to a comedy album since Hello Dummy! (how old are you, anyway?), you might not be aware that you’re living in a golden age of stand-up. Along with David Cross, Zach Galifianakis and Patton Oswalt, Eugene Mirman has liberated stand-up comedy from the zany fratboys and sweater-clad neurotics. Mirman’s latest album, God Is A Twelve-Year-Old Boy With Asperger’s (Sub Pop), isn’t representative of a “new breed” of comedy or a supposedly edgy advancement in humor; it’s a collection of smart, imaginative bits that embody the anger, absurdity and awkwardness of everyday life. You might also say it’s full of guffaws. Mirman, who also published a book this year (the mock-advice tome The Will To Whatevs) and regularly appears on HBO’s Flight Of The Conchords, is guest editing magnetmagazine.com this week.

“Vancouver, Detroit And Bears” (download):

MAGNET: Since MAGNET is the kind of publication read by guys who like to recite the Sub Pop roster in reverse alphabetical order, I wanted to start out talking about how you and David Cross and Patton Oswalt have made comedy albums the new grunge by each releasing comedy albums on the label. You wouldn’t dispute that, would you?
Mirman: Yes, we are the new grunge. That makes David Nirvana, Patton is Pearl Jam and I’m ?????????. I think your readers will have a nice time debating which band I am. I don’t want to take that away from them. Also, like the grunge craze, I hope a man at a giant company panics that he’s missing out on something and gives me somewhere between one and five million dollars. By the way, in alt-comedy, we have our own slang we use that most people don’t know about. They are:
Cum-Rag: the mayor of a small town with a population of less than 6,000.
Pushed It: That’s when you make a joke that breaks certain social boundaries, like calling a Jewish person by an Asian person’s slur.
Disco-Dane: That’s what we call Dane Cook.
Stuffed And Buffed: when an audience is too mainstream to get us.
JazzFace: a black person.
Who-Dun-It: a murder-mystery show that takes place on a boat followed by an after party DJed by someone in Neutral Milk Hotel.

Speaking of grunge, you have something up on Eug-Tube on the subject. Looking back, I guess it was a fad, though it didn’t seem like it at the time—especially if you were a teenager. But my question is actually about comedy, which also has trends (’90s gross-out comedy, pranks/phone calls, ’80s prop-based stuff, etc.) What have been the best and worst comedy trends in your lifetime?
Do you mean the worst comedy trends or the worst trends? Like wearing pants backward? That sounds stupid to me. Comedy-wise, I’m not sure. I think anything is fine as long as it’s funny. Prank phone calls, gross jokes or props can be fine if it’s funny. It’s only a problem if it’s mediocre. Emo Philips does something in his Live At The Hasty Pudding special where he brings someone onstage to tear a piece of paper in half over and over until they get down to an atom (that’s the goal). And then he puts his hands over his ears like there is going to be a nuclear explosion. It’s very funny. The piece of paper is technically a prop, but it isn’t a wig that’s also a pie or something.

Do you have any comedy rivals? It doesn’t even need to be someone you despise; just someone you measure yourself against or try to keep up with.
No, but luckily I constantly feel like I’m not doing enough so that is enough of a driving force. I feel like I do what I do and the idea of competing or even measuring yourself in some vague way against someone else is sort of pointless. Don’t get me wrong—I still want to eat the hearts of many of my comedian friends to take their life-force, but not because I measure myself against them. It’s simply to become more powerful.

Your humor is often called “absurd,” but that seems unfairly … French or something. The new album concerns mostly everyday, real-life situations—an airline losing your luggage or a biling problem with the gas company—that are inherently absurd. Do you find that life just writes some of your material for you?
Yes, life writes the material and I phrase it on life’s behalf. I am like a frumpy, likeable conduit for comedy and life’s absurdities.

What’s the risk factor involved in performing alongside bands and in music venues as opposed to doing the comedy-club circuit? What’s the weirdest (good or bad) thing to happen when a comedian faces a crowd who might’ve come only to see the rock show?
Well, the risk is that people will yell at you, be chatty or, as once happened to me in Florida at a Modest Mouse show, a cunty girl in the front row will keep trying to distract me and then after my set tell me that she was trying to entertain her friends and get me off stage so that Modest Mouse would come on sooner and that she believes in some kind of Ayn Rand-ian objectivism (except she’d never heard of Ayn Rand). So that’s always a risk. I actually don’t perform as much with bands in music venues, but perform in them with other comedians, which is great, because music venues often have a warmer and less hockey vibe. (I would like to apologize for using the word “vibe,” but in my defense it is the right word for what I was describing).

You have two things in common with Elliott Smith: You both went to Hampshire College (where I understand they don’t believe in grades) and released records on the Suicide Squeeze label.
Yes. You missed one, actually. I also did the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting. If you turn down the sound on the movie and start my new album at the same time, you’ll be shocked at all the hidden messages.

If it’s OK with you, I’d like to spend the rest of the interview doing a music-themed Ask Eugene. But first, I wanted to ask: Do you ever get emails to Ask Eugene that are so weird or creepy or disgusting that you can’t even answer them or subject the Internet to their vileness? Please share them here. We’ll publish anything.
No. What I get are emails that sometimes don’t make any sense and it’s someone trying to be funny, but instead they either don’t make sense or are weird, sexually violent jokes involving a dog and bats or something. Mostly, though, I get emails from nice people asking me real questions, which is what I prefer.

So here goes: Eugene, I have just heard about the Monsters Of Folk (Jim James, M. Ward, Conor Oberst). Is this a Halloween album? Do you have a favorite Halloween album?
I’m pretty sure it’s not a Halloween album. I don’t think I have a favorite Halloween album. Are there any Halloween albums? Did the Troggs ever do one? Does Bob Dylan have a collection of spooky songs about various injustices or inter-personal relationships? If so, then it’s easy—it’s probably Blonde On Blonde or Desire.

Where is reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum?
Holy shit! Can you believe I mentioned Neutral Milk Hotel earlier and didn’t even know about this question yet?! I don’t know if you’ve already looked, but most likely he’s on Cape Cod.

Do raves still occur? Are they so secret that we just don’t know how to find them anymore?
I think people only do that in high-end Russian dance clubs now. So, no, I don’t think they’re too secret. I think they are simply far away and mostly organized for 30-something business men and their (for now) hot wives.

What is the Native American translation of Coachella?
It means “Oops, I didn’t mean to get pregnant.”

And finally, a Flight Of The Conchords inside scoop: Is it true that Jemaine is very small, and Bret must always let him be in the foreground so as to create the illusion that they are comparable in size?
They are actually both about the size of two babies. On set they are encased in a living gelatin that magnifies their appearance and makes the show possible. When we were on tour together, I’d generally carry Bret in a large Baby Björn.

—Matthew Fritch

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