A Rabbi, A Priest And A Nick Cage Impersonator Walk Into A Comedy Festival

At this year's “Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival,” businesses can pay to attach their names to a “Throw A Water Balloon At A Slam Poet” booth or an advice table manned by a rabbi, a priest and a Nicolas Cage impersonator. Past stunts have included baby goats in diapers and a therapist inside a bouncy castle.

The fest might not have the catchiest title imaginable, though it helps if you know the Eugene Mirman in question. He is a New York-based stand-up comedian, the voice of the goofball son on FX’s animated comedy “Bob’s Burgers,” and a native of Lexington, among other things. The deliberately clunky moniker, in fact, is totally on-brand. Like Mirman’s own comedy, it's absurdist and sly.

The festival’s events, which take place at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston and the Sinclair in Cambridge from May 1 to 4, sport cumbersome, tongue-in-cheek titles, such as “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,” and “A Night of Foreigners and Immigrants Taking Your American Standup Comedy Jobs,” which stars the British comedian Daniel Kitson, the Iranian-American Mehran Khaghani and Mirman, who immigrated from Soviet Russia when he was a child.

Mirman’s comedy is reminiscent of the nerdy, demented humor of Twitter-famous alternative comedian Patton Oswalt and his ilk. Like Oswalt, Mirman carved out a name for himself on the alternative comedy circuit, in indie rock venues and theaters as opposed to comedy clubs. Mirman has a lighter touch than many of his contemporaries, and a gleeful appreciation for chaos. His good-naturedness makes him a natural fit to inhabit the merry, slightly deranged persona of the leader of a comedy festival defined by its winking, self-deprecating presentation; under all that irony, there is a sincere desire to have fun.

Yet even as Mirman’s event spoofs the trappings of mainstream comedy festivals, the gag is not so much a self-conscious statement as it is a marker of the festival’s casual style. “We’re not trying to figure out how to live a whole year off of this festival. Which some festivals do try to do, you know, it’s like they’re full-time thing,” Mirman said recently over the phone. “I mean, there are definitely things that festivals do that I think are silly, but, you know, lots of things are.”

In Mirman’s telling, the whole endeavor is somewhat accidental. The Boston festival, now in its second year, is an offshoot of an annual New York City tradition, which itself was an expansion of a weekly comedy show in Brooklyn, co-curated by Mirman, Julie Smith, and Caroline Creaghead, called “Pretty Good Friends.” The festival is “evolving in the sense that it went from being a totally offhanded joke to an actual thing we’ve started doing, and it’s very fun and it’s become its own silly institution,” Mirman explains.

The lineup, rather than reflecting a set of marketing-based calculations, is comprised of Mirman’s friends and coworkers, many of whom have connections to television comedies like “Bob’s Burgers” and “The Daily Show”—though there are a few obscure up-and-comers in the mix.

Despite differences in style, the performers do seem to share certain tendencies. From the Boston-based Khaghani’s twisted, almost abrasive musings on the confluence of his gay and Iranian identities, to the loopy irreverence of “Daily Show” contributor and “Bob’s Burgers” voice actor Kristen Schaal, to Kitson’s sharp meta-observations, the festival is a celebration of weirdness and boundary-flouting.

The performers are bonded by a shared disinterest in letting the audience get too comfortable: Chelsea Peretti, an actor on Fox’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” who is headlining her own (sold out) stand-up show on Thursday, has perfected a gloriously acerbic, inwardly-loathing-yet-outwardly-excoriating persona, while Wyatt Cenac, a former “Daily Show” writer and correspondent, is prone to dark, witty ruminations on everything from race to Catholicism to science fiction. Schaal, meanwhile, has been known to purposefully and dramatically bomb her own show.

In addition to all the comedy, there will be an appearance by folk-rock duo Neko Case & Eric Bachmann, and a special edition of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s radio show, “StarTalk,” guest-hosted by Bill Nye and Mirman.

Though the festival, like its mainstream contemporaries, skews in favor of white male comedians, the female presence this year is noticeably strong.

Eugene Mirman. (courtesy)
Eugene Mirman. (courtesy)

“We certainly consider it, [but] it’s not really on purpose. It’s true that our festival is the only festival that’s virtually half women that doesn’t have the word ‘woman’ in it,” Mirman remarks. “We’re working with friends and booking friends, so sometimes the ratio isn’t as good, sometimes it’s very good. ”

Similarly, the bizarre sponsorships, which have a slightly subversive air, have no pointed intent other than fun, according to Mirman.

“It’s not even anti-corporate, it’s just on the terms that we like. Like any normal person, we would happily take money, we would just happily take it under these conditions,” he explains. “So you don’t have to give it to us, but if you want to, here [are] the conditions. And the conditions are, you hire a Nick Cage impersonator to give advice. I think that’s awesome!”

The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival may be defiantly anti-mission, but this in itself has become a kind of mission statement. The only rule, it seems, is to defy expectations. So pull up a chair next to the Official Judgmental Parent. Pre-game on an Awkward Duck Boat Ride with some businessmen and mismatched hors d'oeuvres. Then follow it up with an unsettlingly funny visit to the collective imagination of some of the world’s most creative comics.

Amelia Mason is a writer, musician, and bartender living in Somerville. She is a regular contributor to The ARTery. You can follow her on Twitter @shmabelia and Tumblr.

This article was originally published on April 30, 2014.


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