Eugene Mirman — a fixture of the comedy world, but known to general audiences as the voice of Gene Belcher on “Bob’s Burgers” — has always had a very particular vision of what comedy can be. A warm and whimsical sort whose jokes (and prop-heavy stand-up) tend to poke fun at the insistent seriousness of being alive, Mirman is the kind of guy who can find humor in just about anything.
In anything, that is, except for stuffy comedy festivals that function as gatekeepers, and strangle their comics into serving up laughs on an assembly line. So, after laughing with his friends about launching a festival of their own (a low-rent loss-leading free-for-all that mocked the pompous laminates, awards, and calculated programming of the mainstream events), Mirman decided to produce his own punchline. And lo, in 2008, the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival was born at the Bell House in Gowanus.
The first edition featured a murderer’s row of “alternative comics” like Fred Armisen and Janeane Garofalo, and kicked off with Patrick Borelli enlisting audience members to help him create a puppet show that depicted the hypothetical sixth season of “The Wire” (something about corruption in a Baltimore zoo). The 10th and final edition, documented in Julie Smith Clem and Druckerman’s slight but loving “It Started as a Joke,” unfolded in much the same fashion (only with a lot more crying).
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Conceived as a concert film before life pulled it in another direction, the movie is nothing if not a tribute to Mirman’s spirit, generosity, and general way of seeing things. Asked to describe his friend in just three words, one comic replies: “Not an asshole.” Another calls the festival “a collection of oddballs and wackos,” and refers to Mirman as “the drain in the sink that catches all the weirdos.” It’s easy to appreciate why everyone in the community loves the guy, just as it’s easy to appreciate how Mirman helped to build that community in the first place. He thinks of comedy as inclusive, not competitive. Mirman insists that “No one is beating you to your book.” If you’ve got your own voice, only you can speak with it.
Curating the festival clearly became Mirman’s art, but “It Started as a Joke” is more effective as a celebration of who he is than of what he’s created. Peppered with the limited performance footage that Clem and Druckerman were able to shoot or scrounge up, this 75-minute film is too restless and scattershot to do full justice to any of the comics that it features (delightful as it is to watch the likes of Kumail Nanjiani and John Hodgman palling around backstage). The documentary becomes a much richer portrait when it eventually turns its attention to Mirman himself, and pries its way into his life just enough to use him as a prism. Halfway through, “It Started as a Joke” becomes less about what comedy can be, and more about what comedy can do.
Mirman’s wife, Katie Westfall-Tharp, has stage four metastatic breast cancer. That’s not a secret, or something that’s impossible to infer from her appearance in the film’s opening minutes, but Clem and Druckerman keep it in the background for as long as possible. On one hand, that’s because they know that it’s impossible to put the toothpaste back in the tube. On the other, it’s because this was never meant to be that intimate of a documentary; it was supposed to be shinier and less personal — wistful and dim but never this dark.
But one thing led to another. Mirman’s decision to step away from the festival was inextricable from his wife’s illness. More to the point, his entire approach to comedy was always rooted in connection and catharsis, and to make the most painful thing in his life somehow off-limits would have been a betrayal. The movie broaches that fact with the same hesitation that Mirman did when he started writing jokes about cancer into his set (one of the most affecting and sustained sequences captures Mirman’s cringe-worthy first stab at this material). Clem and Druckerman have a long history with (and a genuine love for) both Mirman and his wife, and you can feel how reluctant they are to follow their film where it naturally wants to go.
Even when Mirman’s situation bleeds into the festival itself, and inspires several of the comics to discuss their own devastations in private and on stage (Kristen Schaal offers a particularly moving look into her personal life), “It Started as a Joke” is determined not to end as a tragedy. Clem and Druckerman are attuned to the healing properties of laughter — to comedy as a coming together — but they’re far more comfortable looking for evidence in Mirman’s festival than in his family.
Of course, that only feels like such an unfortunate compromise because the (scant) footage of Mirman and Westfall-Tharp sitting together is so touching. In a few short seconds, the two of them (Westfall-Tharp in particular) do more to show how humor can cut to the heart of difficult circumstances than we glean from a half-hour of festival performances. More than a time capsule but less than it could have been, “It Started as a Joke” makes a lovely case that laughter is the best medicine, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the best evidence has been left on the cutting room floor.
“It Started as a Joke” premiered at SXSW 2019. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.