People are seeking comfort right now, and Eugene Mirman has long provided that for many.
The comedian, who was born in Russia, raised in Lexington, and went to Hampshire College, is known for his inventive stand-up and for roles on feel-good shows such as “Bob’s Burgers” (he plays Gene) and “Flight of the Conchords."
But for many in his industry, he’s also been a booster, a friend responsible for building careers. A partner.
That’s one of the themes of a new documentary, “It Started As a Joke,” which will be released on demand Friday. Julie Smith Clem, Mirman’s longtime collaborator on the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival and other projects, co-directed the film, which focuses on the festival’s decade-long run. Mirman hosted the show in New York City, but brought it to Boston for three years from 2013 to 2015.
The film also tells the story of Mirman’s own comedy history, and about the life he built with his late wife, Katie Westfall-Tharp, who had breast cancer and died in January. Clem, who lives in Massachusetts, said it’s unlike Mirman to share personal stories, even in comedy. But it was important for both of them to talk about his life in the documentary. The more Clem filmed, the more she wanted to tell Mirman and Westfall-Tharp’s love story and explain what they were going through.
“He definitely approaches comedy with both a warmth and an absurdity that sometimes lends itself to funny observations,” Clem said. “[But] we’re like, how can we not include what’s going on in your life right now? It’s both the reason we’re ending the festival, and it’s such a big part of both of our lives. Katie was a very good friend of mine as well. We wanted to share part of that story, but we didn’t really know how much. Part of that was working with Katie and figuring out what she was comfortable with.”
Westfall-Tharp, who worked as a set decorator, was at the SXSW Film Festival last year for the premiere of “It Started As a Joke.”
The film also features stand-up and commentary from comics Michael Che, Janeane Garofalo, Mike Birbiglia, Jim Gaffigan, and Bobcat Goldthwait, as well as local scenery — Mirman’s home on Cape Cod and the Comedy Studio when it was still in Harvard Square.
Clem says it’s no surprise that so many people wanted to speak fondly about Mirman. It’s one of the first things that comes up in the doc — that he’s all about finding ways to collaborate and get others onstage.
“For as long as I’ve known him, which probably has been 15, 16 years or something like that, he’s always been far more interested in supporting people and working on things together rather than putting himself first in any way,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen like a competitive side of him in his career — except for board games, maybe. I think it’s why people were excited to be a part of the festival, because that sort of spirit, hopefully, was reflected through our shows.”
A modest Mirman also spoke in an interview about the film. Of his comedy philosophy, he said it’s never made sense to feel competitive.
“I just think like you're going to make the thing you're going to make and and no one else will beat you to it,” he said.
Asked whether he had more advice for burgeoning comedians, Mirman said it’s all about the material.
“Listen, I am of the very firm belief that if you can get onstage and make people laugh for 45 to 60 minutes, you will almost definitely become a professional comedian, assuming you’re like, also a reasonably competent person in terms of organization and driving to places and stuff. I just think that the primary focus should be to be very, very funny.”
Mirman was quick to give Clem credit, not only for the film, but for her work on the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival.
“She’s as much of the festival as I am,” he said. “I mean, we’ve now worked together for almost two decades. I think she’s just such a good producer and person.”
Amid the coronavirus outbreak, Mirman said he’s staying safe at home right now with his son. “So, so much of my time now is hiding from doorknobs with my toddler,” he said.
He had some recommendations (beyond the documentary, of course) for people seeking comforting content at home.
“I mean, I’m watching science fiction and whatnot," he said. "But I will say that for the last many years, Katie would watch various sitcoms every morning. While she — while the pain medicines kicked in we watched “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Dick Van Dyke, “Rhoda,” “Family Ties,” “Golden Girls.” The last ones were “The Bob Newhart Show.” So I would say I recommend people finding kind of like, old, really well-written sitcoms.”