Last Friday night, outside of the Bell House, the warehouse-turned-ballroom venue in Gowanus, Brooklyn, a single protester paced back and forth. He held a poorly made poster board sign that puzzlingly stated, “No Dark Matter,” on one side. Each time he turned to walk the other way, he had to flip the sign around. Inside the Bell House were comedians Eugene Mirman, Sarah Silverman, Jim Gaffigan, astrobiologist Dr. David Grinspoon, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the heir to Carl Sagan’s project of popularizing science. They, plus a few hundred fans, were recording StarTalk Live!, Tyson and Mirman’s co-hosted science/comedy radio show, as part of the 5th annual Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival.
Meanwhile, George Kaiafas, the door man working outside of the Bell House was perplexed by the single demonstrator, especially given the nature of Mirman’s festival. “I thought it was part of the show,” he said. But when Kaiafas went out and talked to the protester, he got a convoluted stream of conspiracy theory and fringe science in response. “Turns out he had different views on dark matter. He was protesting science,” said Kaiafas.
That a single crazy person showed up to an event featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson is not new: Tyson is arguably one of the most public faces of established science and undoubtedly finds himself confronted by “avant-garde” theorists from time to time. But the fact that people in line for the event, and some working at the venue, weren’t sure if the protester was one of Mirman’s put-ons - picketing as a joke - is emblematic of what the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival is.
The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival started as kind of a practical joke. Even the name was part of the gag at first - few knew who this “Eugene Mirman” was and why he had his own comedy festival. And the EMCF has been run as a parody of a comedy festival: this year included quirks such as a “VIP Herring room,” with a dozen types of herring sitting out on a table all night (mostly untouched), a “Slam Poet that you can throw water balloons at” (exactly what it sounds like), a ten-foot long “red carpet” complete with a backdrop filled with logos of phony sponsors (“Cream Box Soup Stixx”, “GlizzGlazz Magazine - for Divorced Fatties”, “Some New Snack Marketed at African-American Males”), and shows with descriptive, but funny, titles.
But now in its fifth year, the EMCF is less a send-up than a solid comedy festival, evidenced by the fact that Mirman’s four-day, two venue fest drew names like Sarah Silverman, Jim Gaffigan, John Oliver, Brendon Small, Todd Barry, Demitri Martin - as well as stirring up one crazy, but sincere, protester. “It’s a significantly funny idea to hire a guy to protest dark matter,” Mirman said after finding out about Friday’s demonstration. Mirman, who once lead a hoax rally at Union Square to rail against the release of his second album, then decided, “If I had thought of it, I would have hired 20 guys.”
The EMCF began on Thursday night at the sold-out Bell House with a faux-self-congradulatory show titled, We Appreciate Ourselves: The Five Year Anniversary Celebration of the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival. With Mirman hosting, the first night featured next-big-thing John Mulaney exploiting the fact that he’s around the same age as most of the audience, with material on watching kids’ cartoons after school before the dreaded Phil Donahue show comes on (“Donahue was more boring than it needed to be, just to shock children into realizing that cartoons was over”). Todd Barry performed a new set, completely taking apart a “what women want” article in Esquire, and Jon Glaser showed up to unleash a patented “Glinger” - a Glaser zinger - on an audience member. The show ended with surprise appearances by Sarah Silverman and Jim Gaffigan. Silverman’s set had the only hiccup of the night, after she accosted someone in the front row for texting during her performance. Mirman’s shows are notable for their non-confrontational, silly, relaxed atmosphere, and his fans aren’t accustomed to clashes with comedians (there were no hecklers all weekend). She lost the crowd for a moment, but Brooklyn comedy nerds are a forgiving bunch, and Silverman won them back a few filthy one-liners later. The night ended with a Karaoke Killed the Cat-powered after-party, which later featured Mirman performing Lady Gaga.
Besides the sold-out StarTalk Live!, Friday featured a smaller show at Union Hall: This is the Night These Comics Get Discovered and Become Stars! While Sarah Silverman, Jim Gaffigan and Eugene Mirman prepared for the larger Bell House audience, host Nick Turner made fun of the title’s seemingly condescending tone: “Tonight is called, ‘Comedians who got nothin’, getting somethin’” or “Comedians who are currently stars and we’re not gonna have a title that makes them feel like they aren’t…”
Highlights of the night included Brooke Van Poppelen (“Once a month, every month, I have to play a fun, wacky, little guessing game with myself. It’s called Beer Belly or Baby?… Somebody doesn’t count calories, or sex partners”), Brent Sullivan, an openly gay comedian reading a ten-year-old letter to himself that he wrote as an ingenuous, closeted high school student, and Damien Lemon, with a time tested, penis-centric set. The little basement of Union Hall was sold out, the crowd fairly enthusiastic, and Discovered generally had a similar feel to Mirman’s weekly Pretty Good Friends.
The first show of the day, and at 4:30 p.m., the earliest show of the whole festival was also the only all-ages performance of the weekend. Uh Oh: Dangerous, Inappropriate Comedy for Teenagers, A Comedy Show for Sexually Active Teens* Or Families that Don’t Feel Too Weird if Adult Subject Matter is Discussed (*Teens Don’t Actually Have to be Sexually Active, In Fact, It’s Better if You Wait ‘Til Sophomore Year of College.) is a whopper of a title for an afternoon romp, but it turned out to be accurate. The show wasn’t sold out, and there were only about a half-dozen audience members under 21, but the comedy did feel tailored to kids, yet perfectly inappropriate enough to fit the bill. Host Tom Shillue read from his teenage journal, and Brendon Small appeared as crotchety anti-comedian “Captain Mustache.” Ben Kronberg’s taciturn, pun-filled set built up momentum to a series of “Why is that?” jokes, which juxtaposed - with a child-like naiveté - filthy, but common sexual acts with analogous, but disgustingly unorthodox ones. But the best specifically all-ages moment probably goes to Jacqueline Novak, who, in the middle of a joke about a certain azure-hued testicular condition, acknowledged the kids in the audience by haltingly trying to explain to them what she was talking about. After a few awkward attempts, she gave up, continuing the joke after saying, “This is horrifying.”
Union Hall filled up to capacity right after the all-ages show for Comedians Two to Five Years Away from Their Own TV Shows. Highlights included an animated and interactive Matt McCarthy, who talked about racist ice cream toppings and stripped off his shirt for a lady in the front row who said she was cold, Michael Che wondering why the first interracial porn actor isn’t a civil rights hero, and host Jared Logan’s morbid opening crowd work: “How do you think you’re going to die?” I couldn’t confirm this, but I could have sworn I saw Conan O’Brien’s producer, Jeff Ross, sitting in the front-right, so perhaps the show’s title is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or maybe some guy just looked like Jeff Ross.
The big show Saturday night (and it was a big, and sometimes lengthy feeling show) was “The Talent Show,” hosted by Elna Baker and Kevin Townley. The theme was “Speech and Debate,” moderated by Mark Oppenheimer, of the New York Times, Slate, and other generally respectable employment. The night was an opportunity for comedians to improvise within set conventions, such as debate, powerpoint presentation, extemporaneous singing, and impromptu speech. Tom’s of Maine was a popular topic of discussion this night: early on, Mirman and brit Daniel Kitson debated the measure “Be it resolved that Tom’s of Maine is awful,” despite the fact that Kitson had no idea what the company was, and towards the end of the night, Todd Barry was offered a chance to “extemporaneously” speak on the subject. (He reprised his Tom’s of Maine bit from his last stand-up special with some added embellishments). A prepared presentation of “Duo Interpretation,” based on a reading of scenes from Showgirls through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” provided the most esoteric, nerdy laughs of the night.
I guess a comedy festival isn’t a comedy festival until someone is naked on stage. By the end of Sunday, the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival had fulfilled this (nonexistent) requirement, as well as every other real or imaginary standard for excellence in comedy festivalry.
Robert Schoon is a Midwesterner living in Brooklyn who refuses to say “standing on line” or “soda.” He writes about media, culture, and comedy.