If you've enjoyed practically any kind of comedy—from sitcoms to Netflix specials to indie movies, shorts or cartoons—over the last decade or so, chances are it might not have been possible without comedian Eugene Mirman.
The voice of Gene from Bob's Burgers (and, really, so many other things) has had such an intense impact on the alt.comedy world, in fact, that there's still no telling how far his contributions will reach. But in It Started as a Joke, from filmmakers Julie Smith Clem and Ken Druckerman, we get the tip of the iceberg, learning how Mirman brought together countless standups, writers, DJs, musicians and all-around culture tastemakers through his New York City-based Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, and why it could be one of the most important comedic events you've never heard about.
It's not that comedy hasn't always existed, rather that Mirman's contributions came at a time when the old guard was growing stale and the new school was still defining itself. He was an early adopter of video shorts and took prop comedy out of the Carrot Top realm and into a space more easily described as early offline memes; in a pre-social media world, he gave shape and voice to so many commonplace comedic elements that, at the time, were little more than vaporous concepts.
The number of big time comics who came through Mirman's festival is almost unbelievable, and we watch so many of them evolve in the short doc over a 10-year period of found footage, behind-the-scenes moments, and during the leadup to 2017's final festival, the last before Mirman's wife died of cancer.
Kristen Schaal, Reggie Watts, H. John Benjamin, Michael Showalter, Jo Firestone, Aparna Nancherla, Chris Gethard, Mike Birbiglia, Janeane Garofolo, Jim Gaffigan, John fucking Oliver—anybody who's anybody either came up through or performed at Mirman's fest, and Smith Clem and Druckerman interview as many as can fit into their loving look at how Mirman (and countless other comics) ushered in some of the most far-reaching comedy of the last decade.
It's sheer bliss for comedy nerds set against the ups and downs of Mirman's own career and personal life. There, things get darker and more real, but even in interviews with his wife at the zenith of cancer, the importance of comedy, especially in the dark times, shines through. There's comfort in holding that, and Mirman's unadulterated honesty—even in how unwittingly he managed to put together the festival—is relatable. It Started as a Joke thus makes the viewer feel like they're part of something, and isn't that kind of the point of art in the first place?
+Comedy history; Mirman is awesome; funny
-Some strange editorial choices; too many minutes for unfunny comics
It Started as a Joke
Directed by Smith Clem and Druckerman
Amazon, NR, 76 min.