One look at the schedule of the four-day Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, which kicks off its second year in Boston Thursday at the Sinclair in Cambridge, confirms the comic’s off-the-wall sensibility: One show is titled “A Night of Foreigners and Immigrants Taking Your American Standup Comedy Jobs,” another “Wicked Local: This is the Kind of Awful Title Someone Would Give to a Comedy Show That Features Comedians Who Live or Have Lived in Boston.”
Things get stranger when Mirman, who grew up in Lexington and got his professional start in Boston, talks about the peripheral events at this year’s festival: a booth where fans can make prolonged eye contact with someone, another booth where people can throw water balloons at a slam poet, and, he hopes, a table where fans can get advice from a priest, a rabbi, and a Nic Cage impersonator. “You’d approach a table, tell them your problem, and the three of them would give you feedback,” he says. “Just because it sounds kind of fun.”
For Mirman, the focus of the festival, which also includes shows at the Berklee Performance Center, is on having fun with friends. That’s been the case since he organized his first festival in New York in 2008. “All the performers are people we know and like and have done shows with,” Mirman says.
Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival
That’s where acts like Bill Nye the Science Guy, English comedian Daniel Kitson, and local performers like Mehran and Ken Reid come in. The roster of festival performers also includes John Hodgman, Kristen Schaal, H. Jon Benjamin, Nick Thune, Wyatt Cenac, and Chelsea Peretti.
Mirman is especially excited to introduce audiences to Kitson, who has had little exposure in the United States outside of New York. Mirman performed with Kitson in London a few years back and was amazed. “Kitson closed five of the shows with 30 minutes of different material each night he was working on,” he says. “I’ve never really seen anything quite like it. He also doesn’t do TV and basically just does stage shows of stand-up and one-man shows at festivals around the world.”
Mirman will cohost “Star Talk Live!” Sunday night at Berklee with Nye, a show that will feature a panel of comedians and scientists. Mirman is a frequent cohost on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s weekly “Star Talk Radio” show and podcast, and Nye often fills in for Tyson. Mirman says it’s one of his favorite shows to participate in, live or on the radio. He describes it as “a conversation about science with comedy.”
Nye’s goal is “to change the world by getting everybody excited by the PB & J: the passion, beauty, and joy of science.” To accomplish that, scientific information needs to be presented in an entertaining way, he believes. “That’s fundamental,” he says. “I’ve gotten in fights about my suggestions for people who are high-level or consider themselves high-level academics on this issue, that it has to be entertaining first. Sorry. It’s a TV show. It’s a radio show.”
The comedians will serve as the laymen on the panel. Through his contact with scientists, Mirman says he has learned about everything from inchworm-size robots built to clean sewers to the probability of discovering alien life in the near future. “Isn’t it exciting that there’s a person whose real job is to find aliens who believes that we’ll get a signal from another world within the next 30 years?” he says. “And it’s based simply on probability and statistics. It’s not based on, you know, someone being afraid of monsters.”
There are some similarities between comedians and scientists. Mirman notes that comedians use a scientific method to write jokes, performing them night after night and revising them based on experience, the same way a scientist would re-create an experiment and compare results. “But scientists can build robots and cars and stuff,” he says, “so it seems a little more impressive. Or solve hard problems. But I do think there’s a scientific element to art. And I think there’s an artistic element to science. I don’t think they’re as different as people think.
Nye used to perform stand-up comedy himself earlier in his career. He idolized Steve Martin and even won a Martin look-alike contest in Seattle. Science and comedy are both human endeavors, which means mistakes and irony will result. And that’s where humor comes from. “It’s where your expectations are not met, where stereotypes prove to be incorrect or not completely consistent or surprisingly different,” he says. “First guy goes into the bar, this thing happens. Second guy goes into the bar, the same thing happens. The third guy goes into a bar, and this other thing happens! Wow!”