Travis Vogt Interviews Eugene Mirman

Eugene and some meat on MySpace

Today on usounds, Travis Vogt asks Eugene Mirman a few questions about his involvement with Super Deluxe, time travel, martial arts and his plans for the future.

Travis: What is it that appeals to you about working in the Super Deluxe format?

Eugene: I like making short, weird videos that can have more of their own style, rather than trying to fit into a TV mold.

If you had the choice, would you travel back in time, or travel forward into the future? Why, and where?

Both sound so good. Probably into the future. Obviously, if I go back in time I can finally find out what happens to the time-line if I alter it. However, I think I may want to be in a flying car a little more. It would obviously suck if I found out that humanity destroyed itself in thirty years. It’d be a burden to return to our time and try to get people to stop some stupid thing to avoid the end of days.

I hope an answer to this doesn’t qualify as a spoiler, but do you do the online segments completely by yourself, or are there other professionals present?

The stuff I make at home, I mostly do alone. But the stuff for Superdeluxe would be way too complicated. There are a handful of professionals present. The shows are shot and edited by John Philpot, who worked on Wonder Showzen. John Lee (also from Wonder Showzen) and John Philpot co-direct. The set was built and designed by Katie Westfall-Tharp. She’s amazing. And everything is produced by Julie Smith, who is now working full time on producing the new online video content for the Onion. There are more people, who really helped, in the beginning and now, but if I list them all, it would turn into an acceptance speech for a fake web award. But ultimately, yes, there are lots of people, making my retarded dream come true. One final thing, Peter DuCharme, who edited my first two albums, also wrote the theme song. I believe he even has an Emmy for writing a song for a commercial. I might be wrong, but either way, I use only the finest people.

Sex or violence? In movies, not in real life. Really think about that one.

Okay. I have to say violence. Sex in movies is great. If it wasn’t for Police Academy, I don’t think I’d understand women at all. But when I go to the movies, I think I want to see people fight each other. Unless, you mean simply anything relating to sex, like a romantic comedy. But I don’t think you mean that.

Any plans on taking Invite Them Up to cities other than New York? Like, for example, Seattle? Washington?

Yes and no. We did a show in Boston, which was really fun. I think Bobby and I would love to do that. We don’t have plans to yet, but we may at some point.

Which planet in the solar system is the lamest? The non-lamest?

I don’t know. Neptune might be the lamest. Is that still a planet? Probably. Jupiter is so big, which makes it great. But Mars and Venus are so close that we can really go there and throw a party one day. Those are the two things that make something potentially great — if it is huge or if you can party there.

What was it like bringing your absurdist humor to audiences when you first got started? Did it make it difficult in front of standard night club audiences? Or have things always gone perfectly for you? Or not?

Well, sure there is a large learning curve. You get better as you do it. Audiences getting or not getting me had a lot to do with my material when I first began, but probably a lot more to do with my level of competency at performing. But yes, I also was a weirdo and often would bomb and do crazy things. I’d sometimes wear a gas mask and then pull it up and go, “My spider sense is tingling!” I’m not surprised that people didn’t know what to make of it. I think everybody has to figure out how to find their audience. For me, I always found it easier to start and promote shows, rather than break into existing comedy clubs.

Please define your ideal martial arts style, in less than 76 words.

Whichever one lets you move your hand a little and push air at someone and knock them out. If I could master it, that it would be awesome.

Drugs and/or alcohol used in the name of creating comedy. Please discuss, bearing in mind I truly have no idea where you stand on this issue.

A lot of people watch my stuff and think I’m high or fucked up when I make my videos. But I’m not at all. That’s just me. That’s what makes people enjoying them so fun for me, people connecting to this weird part of me. At night, when I perform, I’ll often have a drink or two before I go on, but I don’t get drunk (except a handful of shows) before I do standup. Afterwards, maybe, but rarely before. Still, some people can create really great things on drugs. So, I don’t really stand anywhere on it, as much as in the 80’s Nancy Reagan scared me about drugs and it worked a little.

As a child, my friend Mark tells me he was smuggled to America from Iran in a college-sized refrigerator. I’ve not been able to find how you came here from Russia, but how do you feel about making up a completely bullshit story about it? If you feel fine about it, please elucidate.

When I was four years old, with the help of a voice coach and a fake mustache, I talked and bribed my way across Europe until I ended up in Boston, where my family was. They immigrated through regular channels, but I had something to prove to myself.

In which city in America do you enjoy performing your stand-up act the most? If the answer is New York, what is number two? And why?

That is hard to say. I do love New York, but Chicago, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Austin are great. I’ve had some of the best shows in those cities. If I picked one city over another, it would be all lies. I don’t really know. But those are all good places.

If the world was to be conquered by aliens, how would you prefer for them to behave?

Well, I’d like them to behave nicely and let everyone be themselves. But you gave me that option in your question, so I had to take it. I’d rather not work in Space Mines, if that’s what you mean.

I saw you open for Stella in Seattle over three years ago–you killed, by the way. How did you land that particular honor?

Before they toured with their show, they hosted a show in New York where they’d do sketches, show videos and have various guests. I did their show a bunch and when they were going on tour, they asked me if I wanted to open. It was a great time. Those were some of the most fun shows I’d done. Michael Showalter and I have done a number of tours together since then.

If everything you ate had to be dipped in something, what would it be?

Wasabi, hot mustard or peanut sauce. That was oddly easy!

I’m a comedian myself, and I have to tell you that, having seen your act several times, I have a difficult time figuring out who your primary influences are. I was hoping you could go ahead and fill up that empty space.

Well there are many things that I like a lot, that I’m not similar to necessarily, whether it’s standup, music, film, or whatever. Then there are things that I probably am more clearly influenced by. Growing up I listened to Emo Philips, Steve Martin, Bill Cosby, Bob Goldthwait, and a bunch of other standup. In college I started collecting standup records and listening to Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Coyle and Sharpe and other sixties and seventies stuff. There was also a lot of music that I loved, and though obviously I don’t do anything musical in my act, I think elements or sensibilities from that filtered into what I do. Like Robyn Hitchcock, The Velvet Underground, Jethro Tull probably even. Currently, there are lots of amazing comedians that I see that I love what they do — Louis C.K., Daniel Kitson, David Cross, Jon Benjamin, Zach Galifinakis, Patton Oswalt, Todd Barry, Jon Glaser, Kristen Schaal, Demetri Martin and countless others.

Please outline the particulars of your ideal political party. The sky’s the limit, mind you.

I don’t know. It’s probably the same as the ideals of any political party (except slave making communists). It’s just that none of them do what they promise. It’s probably some melding of Libertarian and Socialist (which is probably what Democrats and Republicans intend to be). I think everybody should have health care, a good education and we need an army that could blow up anyone from space. But also, I’d like the government to stay out of people’s private lives and let people have sex with whoever and get an abortion or two. So all of that without people being taxed so much they give up trying to start conglomerates. I know everyone loves Sweden’s socialist-capitalism, but it’s hard to stay competitive in a country like that.

In my experience so far, comedy breakthroughs have come in small places. Can you tell us about the small victories that spurred you on as you first started to do stand-up?

If you end up doing comedy for a career, much of what leads you there is small victories and overcoming various failures. After college, I moved to Boston to do comedy. I ended up performing mostly at The Comedy Studio, which was on the third floor of the Hong Kong restaurant in Cambridge. It was a weird little club, and the owner, Rick Jenkins, let me and my friends (Brendon Small, Jen Kirkman, Linas Philips, Patrick Borelli, Brian Olsen and many others) do weird stuff and try things out. It was a very grassroots sort of place. I would stand in Harvard Square and try to hand out 1,000 flyers each week. (I’d yell, “Do not make eye contact with me, or you will have to take my flyer.” I seemed like a fun, but crazy guy.) But from there, I got into the Aspen Comedy Festival and on Conan. It was amazing to me that you could do your own thing, and it would be both satisfying, but also lead to mainstream opportunities. So is that a good example? Something else?

If you had the choice, would you be a cheetah or a sperm whale? Explain.

Probably a Cheetah, no? Running lots, eating? Sounds fun.

With Invite Them Up, you have become known as a major figure in discovering (or at least displaying) new comedy talent. What do you look for in an up and coming comic that marks them as worthwhile?

I never really intended to be in the business of discovering new talent or anything. Mostly, I want to put on a fun show, which includes sharing comics with audiences they may not know. Mostly, those comics are recommended to us by other comics we know well. I don’t have some set of guidelines. If someone I think is funny thinks some else is funny, it often works out. However, a few years ago, Bobby and I felt very inundated with requests, and got a friend of ours, Holly Schlesinger to book the show. So new people mostly go through her.

What would your superhero powers be, were you to one day become a superhero?

Anything that didn’t make me look too weird would be fine. Some sort of flight and invulnerability coupled with the ability to shoot some sort of energy — hot or cold, or maybe telekinesis I’d like.

Do you have any bigger plans than doing stand up and web-based comedy? What are your grander aspirations?

My aspirations are to do comedy that I enjoy for a living, so in a sense I’d be fine if I was known for web stuff and standup. I don’t think I distinguish my various aspirations as being bigger or smaller, but just as more or less feasible at a particular time. Currently, I’m working on a bunch of other stuff that I’m excited about. I’m writing a book for Harper Collins, playing a small role on a new HBO series called Flight of the Concords, and doing a voice for a new Adult Swim program (where I play a nun). I like working on smaller things that I can have input in, rather than a large project that you loose control over. Still, if someone wanted to give me $500,000 to do a pilot, I’d certainly do it. I’m not sure it’s an aspiration though, because I don’t really want to actively pursue it. I don’t really like meeting with executives or trying to sell myself to people. It’s just not fun for me. Still, I’m probably going to make a documentary of me going back to Russia for the first time. So that’s a large project, but because it seems feasible, I’m not sure it’s an aspiration. I’ll say it is though.

If you could punch someone or something in the belly, who’s—or what’s–belly would you punch?

Osama Bin Laden. He’s a shithead and I am an American. I’d also maybe punch the store Factory People in Austin, Texas. I stopped by a party of theirs with Aziz Ansari during SXSW this year and I’ve never had people be more rude to me (except in High School and Junior High). But still, I’d probably punch Osama first.

What do you think is the most important aspect to creating original comedy? How is an underground comedian different than any run-of-the-mill nightclub act?

Well, that’s sort of complicated. Each world has its own stereotype — comedy clubs have the sort of loud mouthed blazer wearing hacky guy, and alternative rooms have the incoherent sort of crazy comedian who thinks he’s breaking new ground. Both can be terrible to watch. I don’t think the people I know who do some of the most interesting stuff ever set out to do something unique, I think they’re just setting out to do something funny or ridiculous or whatever. Ultimately, I think you have to figure out how to convey what you think is funny to an audience. People have to laugh. It’s not like you can end each joke with, “Just so you know, that was very original of me.” On the other hand, most comics do enjoy watching other comics to weird bits that almost no one in the audience likes. I love seeing that. I don’t know. I guess just be funny. And maybe very insightful.

Editor’s note: Travis Vogt is one of the funniest men west of the Mississippi. If you are in the Seattle area and enjoy booze and good times, catch Travis and The Entertainment Show (aka: “The Greatest Show in the History of Everything”) April 30th at The Sunset Tavern.

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