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Funny friends follow Eugene Mirman to Boston

Eugene Mirman (left), Wyatt Cenac, and Kristen Schaal will perform at the Wilbur Theatre.

Andy Kropa/Invision/AP

Eugene Mirman will perform at the Wilbur Theatre.

Wyatt Cenac.

Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Wyatt Cenac.

At first glance, the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival seems an egocentric enterprise. It is named for its creator, who has booked himself on all four of its Boston shows this weekend. It’s also a yearly festival in New York, where the former Boston comic now resides. But a Eugene Mirman show is rarely about Mirman. “Pretty Good Friends,” the title of Friday’s show at the Wilbur Theatre, tips Mirman’s hand. That show, featuring Bobcat Goldthwait, H. Jon Benjamin, Kristen Schaal, and Wyatt Cenac, is, like the larger festival, a gathering of funny friends and a bit of a party.

The festival’s name is a way for Mirman to make fun of both himself and the idea of comedy festivals while still making a respectable go of it. “The whole festival is half sort of satire but also half very sincere,” he says. “Every act is somebody that I love or that I’ve known for a very long time.”

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Mirman has a knack for befriending talented people. Musician and author Wesley Stace (formerly John Wesley Harding) can’t remember where he met Mirman, but he does recall that they got along immediately. “We just started popping up in each other’s lives,” he says. That led to Stace asking Mirman to be a part of his “Cabinet of Wonders” live shows of musicians, authors, and comedians, which started in 2009. “Pretty much we’ve done hundreds of them now,” Stace says. “You can count on one hand the times he hasn’t done the show.”

The two have a similar outlook on what makes a successful evening. Sunday’s show at the Sinclair is loaded with Boston-based artists, including musicians Tanya Donelly, Jenny Dee, Damon & Naomi, Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz and Chris Colbourn, and author Steve Almond. “Eugene and I just have very similar philosophies, not worked out, just by chance, about the way shows fit together and what will be good together,” says Stace. “ ‘Curating’ is a posh word for it, but ‘throwing it together’ isn’t quite good enough. It’s somewhere in the middle. I just try and make sure that everything’s great.”

Goldthwait, who got his start in the Boston scene in the 1980s, was part of Mirman’s early comedy education. Mirman remembers listening to Goldthwait growing up, and when mutual friend Tony V invited him to tag along to a radio interview at
WFNX, he was thrilled. “I remember them picking me up and us going to Lynn and it being a highlight of starting to do comedy in Boston for me,” says Mirman.

The admiration, by now, is mutual. “I like doing these shows with Eugene because I’m a big fan of his and he’s a nice guy,” says Goldthwait. “It’s a lot of fun, because as a comic, you tour around and you don’t really hang out with other people. So it’s very social. It ends up being like a field trip.”

It’s an oasis for the comic turned director, a star of several “Police Academy” movies, who began making his own movies when he burned out on stand-up and his loud, quirky stage persona. (Goldthwait’s latest, the Bigfoot film “Willow Creek,” is making festival rounds now.) Onstage these days, he speaks in his normal voice and has left the screaming and spit behind to tells stories from his real life. “This gig with Eugene is perfect for me because I get to go out and do the 20 minutes I enjoy doing from my act,” he says. “There’s no expectations for me to talk like Grover in a police uniform.”

‘I like doing these shows with Eugene because I’m a big fan of his and he’s a nice guy.’

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The festival is an extension of the philosophy Mirman espoused early in his career in Boston, when he hosted regular shows at the Comedy Studio with his then roommate Brendon Small (creator of “Metalocalypse”) and Patrick Borelli (writer for “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon”) and at the Green Street Grill. Both Small and Borelli have since appeared on other shows Mirman has created. “It’s all similar, though I guess now it’s at a different scale,” says Mirman. “A group of friends very much came together to try weird stuff and do stand-up and figure things out, and then 15 years later happened to have all sort of become working, professional comedians.”

Mirman extends his reach to current Boston comics with “Eugene’s Friend Ben’s Favorite Boston Comics,” a bill put together by Ben Dryer. That bill will feature comics Mirman knows like Larry Murphy and Ken Reid, but also some Dryer picked from the Union Square Roundtable comedy shows like Guitler Raphael, Lillian DeVane, and Katie McCarthy. “He knows a lot of comics in Boston, where I don’t know people who are coming up as much as I used to,” says Mirman.

Saturday’s late show at the Sinclair is called “One of Each,” a parody of the typical festival practice of organizing showcases along ethnic or gender lines with a “Black Comedy Showcase” or a “Gay Comedy Show.” The Boston show features Mirman, Cenac, Claudia Cogan, and Mehran. “We basically have a Jewish comic, a black comic, a lesbian comic, you know, a foreign gay comic,” says Mirman.

After the festival’s Boston incarnation, Mirman and his fellow producers, Julie Smith and Caroline Creaghead, will plan for September and the sixth year of the New York version. There, most of the comedians are just a cab ride away from the shows, which helps keep expenses to a minimum. “A lot of it is sort of break-even, and a lot of it is also people doing things for much less than they would normally make,” he says. That helps contribute to the social vibe. As Mirman says, “It’s all basically friends who are doing a thing that they enjoy.”

Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at nick@nickzaino.com.
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