Mike Birbiglia says they were drinking when they came up with the idea. A comedy festival that makes fun of other comedy festivals, that was the general gist of it. But of course with Eugene Mirman involved the mockery was never going to be too mean-spirited. The Hampshire College-educated comic — who grew up in Lexington and now lives on Cape Cod — has long been known as one of the nicest guys in show business. Forget those stereotypes about standup comedians being angsty, competitive neurotics, Mirman is by every account a mensch, always surrounding himself with up-and-coming talent, sharing the stage and shining a spotlight upon anyone he finds funny. And so the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival came to pass in this spirit of generosity and community, with some gentle ribbing in there as well.
“It Started As a Joke” was supposed to be a documentary celebrating the festival’s 10th and final year, focusing on a farewell show at The Bell House in Gowanus, Brooklyn where it all began back in 2008. Over its decade-long run, the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival — which spent three years in the Boston area at our Shubert and Brattle Theatres — showcased a murderer’s row of rising stars including Kumail Nanjiani, Reggie Watts, Kristen Schaal, Jon Glaser, Bridget Everett and Michael Che. The loosey-goosey format included everything from playful panels like: “Yikes! Most of These Comedians Were Born After ‘Police Academy 2’ Was in Theaters!” to a notorious “Drunk Show” that the participants describe as degenerating into “a nerd Altamont” after Ira Glass got blackout wasted and tried to do standup.
The film’s archival footage offers a wistful portrait of a very specific moment in the Brooklyn comedy scene. Rebelling against the standard suit-and-tie, two-drink-minimum jokesmiths, Mirman and his friends favored surrealist sketches and long-form storytelling, exactly the kind of offbeat sensibilities that were about to break big on the internet. (Alt-comedy icons Bobcat Goldthwait and Janeane Garofalo figure prominently in the proceedings, as if providing a generational benediction.) “It Started As a Joke” begins at a time in their lives when larks like Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival no longer seem so feasible, as the gang has mostly gone their separate ways, with families of their own and big-time jobs out in Los Angeles. Also, Eugene’s wife Katie has terminal cancer.
If you think I buried the lede there, it’s nothing compared to the way directors Julie Smith Clem and Ken Druckerman sneak up on you with this sudden shift in the movie’s tone. Not gonna lie, for at least half an hour here I was worried I’d signed on for yet another gasbag hagiography in which standup comedians carry on at great length about the importance of their craft. Don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for the profession, but there are at least 10,000 hours of documentaries and podcasts devoted to this subject already. (Comedy is also highly subjective according to one’s personal tastes, and if Birbiglia and Nanjiani were performing in my living room I’d go outside. Yes, even during a pandemic.)
But “It Started As a Joke” deepens — heartbreakingly so — as we get to know Mirman’s wife, Katie Westfall Tharp and their toddler son. She beat breast cancer years ago but it came back with a vengeance, metastasized in her bones. What makes the film so moving is that we watch the family learning how to live with the diagnosis, and perhaps more importantly, learning how to joke about it.
Eugene is a comedian, after all, so his mind is wired this way. There’s a fascinating little mini-movie in here where we observe him trying to cope by incorporating it into his act. It isn’t easy, and for a brief spell “It Started As a Joke” becomes a process documentary, watching Mirman work and rework his cancer jokes — at one point springing the set on an unsuspecting audience at the Hong Kong in Harvard Square. There’s a raw power in this footage I’m not sure the filmmakers really have a handle on, as his struggle hits upon that primal human need to turn our grief into art, the attempt to salvage something positive out of all this sadness.
The gags get better and more refined but he still basically bombs. Turns out audiences don’t like to be reminded of mortality when they’re out to have a couple yuks. But then a funny thing happens during that final festival show at the Bell House. Mirman’s candor inspires Jim Gaffigan to open up about his own wife’s battle with brain cancer, and believe it or not, he gets a couple good giggles. Then Glaser comes up and starts talking about his father’s final hospital stint, and before you know it “It Started As a Joke” has become something like a rowdy Irish wake, where everybody gets up and shares a sad story that makes you smile.
By the time Goldthwait announces he intends to “lighten up the mood by talking about my best friend Robin Williams,” I was laughing through tears. Despite some of the more ponderous pronouncements in the film’s first half, we all know that comedy can’t really fix or save anything. But it can help.
“It Started As a Joke” premieres on video on demand this Friday, April 3.