In mid-July 2015, a hilarious open letter written about a parking ticket by comedian and Bob’s Burgers star Eugene Mirman to the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, went viral. What would soon be clear, when Mirman’s Netflix special Vegan on His Way to the Complain Store came out a few days later, is the letter had been in the works for years. It was yet another conceptual bit for Mirman in a career of pushing ways to tell stories in his comedy.
How it all came together is the subject of this week’s episode of Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them. Listen to the episode and read an excerpt from the transcript of the discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.
You got the ticket on June 16, 2013, at 2:31 p.m., and you tweeted about it at 4 p.m. Walk me through the steps of how this went from an annoying thing that happened in your life to something you might build a bit around.
So, we parked in a garage and obviously we backed into the spot. Other cities have that law that you can’t back in, but what they do is they tell you about it. They’ll put up a sign that says, “Front End Parking Only.” When I came back to the spot I was just shocked, like, “There’s no way anyone could know this ordinance. There are no signs.” (I returned like a year or two later and thought, “I bet they fixed it now.” Absolutely not — there’s no signs.) I thought, “This is one of those things where a city makes money off of this little loophole,” and I found it enraging. It felt like a city intentionally stealing your money. I paid the ticket, of course, because I didn’t really want to drive to New Hampshire to go, “Let’s do this in court!” But I knew I’d make fun of the town and then I’d try to get that into all the news.
Did you think it was something you could do onstage?
Well, I was immediately angry. My wife and I were heading to see Man of Steel and she was like, “Yeah, it’s annoying, but come on.” I’m always thinking, “Maybe I can do something funny with it.” I found the actual ordinance on their website. It is very difficult to find, so it would clearly be insane for people to investigate the ordinances of every place they visit. It was a few days’ process of me being angry and then wondering what I could do that was funny and seemed reasonable. I wanted to be upset, but not like Ann Coulter upset. I later told the story in Portsmouth, and that’s actually how it ended up being published in an actual summer guide. I found out that parking is a big contentious thing for the people there.
When you’re conceptualizing doing a thing like this, what does it needs to work?
It needs to be succinct, funny, and accurate. It’s hard, because there’s all these funny details and random things that you have to cut so you’re not like, “And another thing, you did this wrong!” When I do these letters, I will try it onstage for a long time until pretty much everything gets a laugh or feels necessary, and then I’ll reach out to someone about publishing it. The thing about New Hampshire that was different than when I did the Time Warner Cable letter is that it’s not hard to find someone who’ll let you run a letter about Time Warner Cable, but to call a town and go, “I’m annoyed at your town, can I run this ad?” The Chamber of Commerce, who ran the summer guide, was at first like, “Absolutely! This will be fun!” But when they read the letter they were like, “No, sorry, this will genuinely upset our businesses.” This other very, very popular summer guide was like, “Oh, we’ll totally do it.”
How do you balance the jokes with the larger matter of it being something that’s going to be published? The joke is that this is a letter that exists.
That’s why, in a lot of my bits, I hold things up. It’s not because I necessarily expect somebody to see the actual picture of a Facebook ad or whatever. It’s to convey, “This is a thing in the real world that I did, I’m not lying.” There’s something that makes it connect more; there’s something nice to having it validated in front of you. When I was in college, I majored in comedy at a fairly liberal arts school. I did this open mic in the basement of my dorm. There weren’t a lot of people who were interested in comedy, improv, and storytelling, and it was this mishmash of stuff. I’d try all these things, like letters, weird bits, stories, jokes, and all of it, and whatever worked as my act would then be my act. So, I always had random bits. The only rule was, if it made the audience laugh, it stayed in. If it was weird and it didn’t, I’d fix it until I couldn’t and it had to go.
You film the joke for your special, time passes, and then as promised, the letter appears in the guide. Before the special comes out, it gets picked up on Reddit and goes viral. How did you feel about your comedy being presented detached from you, and specifically with headlines like, “Bob’s Burgers star angrily takes down Portsmouth …”
Like, “I’m more than the thing most people know me for!?” No, I don’t care. It was fine because if you see the thing, you’re like, “This is a comedy bit.” A handful of people, I’m sure, were like, “What a jerk,” or some people were like, “What a waste of money!” You know what’s funny? It was trending on Facebook, and I don’t think I knew how that worked, because I saw it and thought, “Oh my God, all my friends are talking about this bit I did!” Like, I thought it was the No. 1 trend amongst my friends! And then I realized, “No, it was the trend in America on Facebook!”
And then your special came out soon after.
Yeah, I think a few days after this trended, Netflix said, “Let’s release it right now.” They were going to release it at some point that summer, and then they just released it.
Are you able to write off these sorts of things in your taxes as business expenses?
Yeah! I mean, it literally is a business expense! Even if it was just an ad for me, it would be a business expense! The funny thing is, both this and the [Time Warner Cable] thing were covered in like, I don’t know, all the major newspapers and TV things. The amount of exposure that I got for that small thing, that’s why I think it’s so funny when people go, “Well, that’s a waste! The ticket was only $15!” Well, yeah, but I’m touring with stand-up! If I have a bit that’s seven minutes and then I do it on TV, it’s fine! It breaks even.
Was there any response from Portsmouth?
Somebody reached out to me — it might’ve been a friend of a friend in the New England area, who said, “If you ever want to come back to Portsmouth and meet the mayor, you have an invitation to stop by.” I forget the reason exactly. But it’s been quite warm, because even though the bit started with anger, it’s conveyed in such a funny way that the town goes, “Fair enough.” I’m not like, “Oh, you dirty monsters with your lies!”