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Rational Silliness: Q&A with Eugene Mirman

Eugene Mirman has been original enough long enough that his voice can live in your head. He’s a performer who’s reached that level in which you can grasp the contours of an essential specific quality, a Mirman-ness, in his trademark leaps of logic, unlikely juxtapositions and far-flung surrealism. He's been one of my favorite comics since back in the “alt-comedy” heyday of the mid-00s. Ahead of his time even then, Mirman posted little video soliloquys on his website that my friends and I passed around endlessly in the heady days of Web 1.0.

In 2015 Mirman put out a ridiculously ambitious album on Sub Pop, I’m Sorry (You’re Welcome). It consists of nine volumes and seven LPs that include a guided meditation, a “fuckscape,” an introduction to spoken Russian, over 45 minutes of him crying, sound effects, ringtones and, oh yeah, a standup set recorded at Seattle’s Columbia City Theatre. The sprawling work is available as a digital download, on vinyl or in the form of a chair or a robe (more on that later). The existence of so many strange and hilarious concepts in one object represents a definitive eruption of Mirman-ness into our physical realm. I can't think of anyone I'd trust more to make such a staggeringly exhaustive thing that manages to be funny and inventive on all levels, from concept to execution.

Lately Mirman stays busy playing Gene Belcher on FOX’s beloved Bob’s Burgers, serving as a regular cohost on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s science podcast Star Talk Radio and producing the annual Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival in Brooklyn.

On May 4, Mirman returns to Seattle, his label home, for a show at the Moore. I talked to him over the phone from Boston, where he was about to record new episodes of Bob’s Burgers, which enters into its eighth season this Fall. We talked about the new album, his absurdist process and his affinity for Seattle.

Your album has been out for over a year, this epic thing you made. How do you feel about it now with a little distance?
It was a fun project. I still hear from people who are finding random things on it and enjoying the different weird parts of it. I’d always kinda meant for it to be this giant thing for people to explore at their leisure and not sit down and listen to all at once—though people are welcome to do that, too.

I saw a review online that called it “batshit crazy.”
I think that’s fair. That’s totally reasonable.

Have you heard from people who have made use of the ringtones?
Yeah, some people have put the ringtones on their phone, they’ve used some of the sound effects in videos they’ve made, they’ve used [my Russian lessons] to amuse their Russian friends.

I’ve heard from a lot of people, oddly, who listened to all 45 minutes of crying. One guy said, “I used it when I went jogging!”

How did you get yourself to cry?
I thought about sad things and I also really didn’t want to have to do it again. When you make an album you have to listen to each thing several times to make sure there aren’t any audio mistakes. As a result, I listened to the crying maybe five times, which was never my intent. My intent was to do a silly thing so I could put a sticker on my album that said, “Featuring over 45 minutes of crying!” Which I got to do. But I had to listen to the crying over and over, which was disturbing and cathartic.

In a lot of your comedy you spin off fictional things that could exist but in this album you made yourself actually make them.
I did. There are tons of outtakes, random ideas that I didn’t have enough to make a full thing of. I wanted to make “Jokes for Animals.” I wanted to have a volume of whispering secrets to my dick—but what is that, actually? I probably have a minute or two of each of these things. If one day there’s a deluxe 10-year anniversary [edition] maybe it’ll feature a bunch of things that weren’t on the original.

Am I gonna see “Eugene Mirman Dick-Whisperings” on Pirate Bay?
Probably not. But every album has at least 10 minutes of stuff where we decided, “That’s not a good enough weird noise.”

A lot of people describe your comedy as absurdist but there’s a rationality to it, too. You’re coming up with these categories of weird things but then you’re actually executing them. Do you think of yourself as an absurdist?
People partially call me that because I put the word in the title of my first album. I think of absurdism as actually quite rational. My album is obviously silly or “batshit crazy” but it is also the exact thing it claims to be. A lot of comedy is a combination of earnest and silly, so I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.

You were one of the first people I saw doing little webcam videos. Do you have any perspective about how the medium has changed or how your approach has changed?
I’ve always been obsessed with making comedy with whatever you have as your means and distributing it whatever way you can. I was making these videos and putting them online probably six years before YouTube was a thing. They were originally really small and low quality because people were still using dialup. I’d make these videos, play ‘em at my shows, put ‘em online. I was doing whatever I could within the general world of comedy to try and become a professional comedian.

I had a website where there was a [video animation] of a picture of me from when I was three years old in Russia, singing classic rock songs. It went around the internet before the idea of things being viral. I remember getting an email from Pete Townshend from the Who, joking around about the little medley I made. I was like, “I have no idea what I was trying to do with this website but I think I just did it since Pete Townshend just emailed me.”

Now you’ve got a bigger stage and you’re still applying that approach. You have more resources to do things like this big album. What would you do if you had unlimited financial backing?
I don’t know. Even that album, I could make it over a period of years because it was OK for it to take time. If I had unlimited money I would maybe... because the album also came out as a chair and a robe, there’s a chance I’d try and do some sort of mass production of something as crazy as that. Sub Pop literally refurbished chairs—they embedded speakers and an mp3 player in the chairs themselves. People were like, “Oh, does this chair come with the album?” No. The chair is the album.

At one point, if you had a double album you only needed to sell half as many to go platinum. So I had made some joke about how I was gonna make 100-disc album and then I’d only have to sell like 84 copies. Then that turned into, “Wait, I actually could make a seven-volume thing or a nine-volume thing.”

You’re now enabled to do the things that maybe you thought up 10 years ago that never would’ve floated back then.
Yeah. I couldn’t have spent two years recording sound effects because I had to figure out how to survive and pay bills. As time goes on, as you get older, you get more work and you become stable in certain ways.

There’s gotta be some point in your process when you’ve thought of this ridiculous, funny thing that makes you laugh and then you look at the logistics of how to make an album be a chair. What is it that makes you follow through with it?
It’s about collaborators. I brought the idea of this large album that’s also these objects to Sub Pop. It was several years before I began working on it. We figured by the time the album came out it wouldn’t be that hard to sell a digital version of an album that was that big. So, okay, what kind of physical objects can we do? I’d really love to do a chair. So they looked into it and found a person who was a musician who also refurbished furniture and knew electronics. Then they found a seamstress who could make robes that literally had the album sewn into it, with headphones sewn into the robe.

A lot of it is finding people that you can collaborate with, that you enjoy working with. The album I recorded with two friends I’ve known for a long time. It’s finding various people who wanna do stuff. Even Bob’s Burgers—Loren Bouchard, who made it, I’ve known for almost 20 years. Many of the people in the cast I’ve known for 15 or more.

I read that you’re gonna use fan art in an upcoming episode.
Yes, for the premiere. It’s all gonna be animated and drawn by fans.

Do you get fan art? Do people bring you weird stuff?
Some people make art and give it to me. My interactions with fans are largely extremely sweet. Occasionally when I’ve done my own merch after a show I’ll put up a sign that says “No Long, Weird Stories.” But it’s very rare that I have to point at that sign and go, “Okay, I’ve heard way too much about a pair of sneakers that I don’t understand why I’m hearing about.”

So you’ve had to point at the sign?
To be honest, maybe once and kind of as a joke. No, I don’t actually have to invoke a hand-drawn sign telling people to stop telling me a story. [Laughs]

Overwhelmingly, people are sweet. I started making these weird videos that people passed around and connected with. It’s great being at a show and having people say, “I really liked this random thing you made” or “I listened to your crying while I was jogging and it was really interesting.” I think that’s wonderful.

I love that you can make these odd things that will actually connect with people. A lot of the standup I have, I think “That might be too weird.” Then when you do it onstage and it relates to people, that’s really exciting.

Do you feel a special kinship to Seattle?
I feel a massive kinship to Seattle; it’s one of the first places I travelled to and did shows with [comedy troupe] Stella, and then eventually Bumbershoot, then with Suicide Squeeze and now Sub Pop. When I was writing my book I came out for a few weeks. Though I’ve always lived on the East Coast, Seattle is one of a handful of cities I’d consider living in. I often think about how great it is.

I think that’s all the questions I’ve got, unless you think I should’ve asked you about something else.
No, I’m glad that I got to talk about the album. It’d be funny if now I had a diatribe, like, “Would it have fucking killed you to ask me about Chinese food?” 

Photo by Seth Olenick.

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