Eugene Mirman on Singing for Bob's Burgers, Time Travel, and Why Anything Can Be Funny — As Long As It's Funny

Eugene Mirman is scheduled to perform Thursday, January 19, at Crescent Ballroom.
Eugene Mirman is scheduled to perform Thursday, January 19, at Crescent Ballroom. Brian Tamborello
click to enlarge Eugene Mirman is scheduled to perform Thursday, January 19, at Crescent Ballroom. - BRIAN TAMBORELLO
Eugene Mirman is scheduled to perform Thursday, January 19, at Crescent Ballroom.
Brian Tamborello
Looking for a quick distillation of the absurdist comedy of Eugene Mirman? We might suggest a bit on his most recent comedy album, I'm Sorry (You're Welcome). Pulled from the Eugene's Comprehensive Sound Effects Library portion of the boxset and titled "LGBT Newsletter That Loves The Expendables Franchise," it consists of Mirman reading said title, and then making an "oooh" sound. It is 10 seconds long.

Mirman's comedy is willfully strange and often avant-garde, but that doesn't mean it's not sincere, emotional, and touching. That's perhaps the Russian-born, American-raised 42-year-old comic's biggest strength, his ability to mine the weird and turn up  tender human truths. That sensitivity gives his performance as the music-obsessed, sexually fluid Gene Belcher on Fox's Bob's Burgers  depth, and it governs his duties as host of Audible's Hold On, an audio program that finds him pressing pause on stories by comedians like Chris Gethard, Aparna Nancherla, Lisa Lampanelli, and Jim Gaffigan. Listening to Mirman parse through their stories, it becomes clear that he's not just interested in "the joke," but also the underlying idea of jokes. Mirman excels at playing with comedic convention.

He's also a science buff. On the TV show/podcast StarTalk, he appears alongside astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye ("The Science Guy"), providing comedic relief and offering laypeople a way into the heady concepts explored on the show.  Mirman and comedian/poet Derrick C. Brown are scheduled to perform Thursday, January 19, at Crescent Ballroom. We interrupted a painting session to talk with him about his attraction to science, singing, and making funny furniture.

New Times: The soundtrack for Bob’s Burgers is coming out soon on Sub Pop, which is great news.
Eugene Mirman:
Yes, I believe some time in the next few months.

Music is so integral to Bob's. If pressed, do you have a favorite song from the show?
Oh, I don’t know. There’s one in the 100th episode, a duet between Bob and Louise ["Bad Stuff Happens in the Bathroom"]. And I’ve always enjoyed “Electric Love.” Those are two I love. A lot of them are great — they’re really funny and wonderfully musical.

Had you done much singing before taking on the role of Gene?
No, I would say not at all. In fact, I’m so not great at singing that when we record it, the way we do it is that [show creator] Loren Bouchard will sing one line and I’ll repeat the line. I’m really good at repeating the one line, but not great at repeating two lines, and many songs are composed of many more than two lines.

Most, probably.
The good ones.

And so they stitch and edit all that together?
Yes, so it sounds like I’m singing. That’s the way Bob Dylan did “Desolation Row.”

[Laughs] You released I'm Sorry (You're Welcome), a massive, nine-volume, seven-LP conceptual box set in 2015, which included among the other things, a 45-minute recording of you crying, a “fuckscape,” and a guided meditation. What kind of things have your fans said to you about the set at your live performances?
I think the people who got into it got really into it. Did you find the phone number?

No, was a there a number hidden in it?
I don’t think I’ve told anyone about it, but it’s two years later. In different places [in the package] I hid different things. When you put it all together you find a website, and when you have a password, you get a number and that number calls me.

Did anyone find it?
Yeah, not a ton of people. Fifteen maybe. It was only the people who happened upon it. [Outside of that] I’ve talked to a lot of people who take a bunch of tracks and place them between songs on playlists. Or they'll tell me about putting their iPad on shuffle or whatever, and my random sound effects will come on. I think there’s a track called “Aaaaaaaa,” and so as a result it’s the first thing that comes on a lot of people’s iPods when they plug it into their car.

"I thought anything could be funny, as long as it really was."

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Do you enjoy that fact that although you assembled it as this big thing, people have broken it down into smaller chunks?
Completely. I always sort of thought of it as an audio website, that you would explore at your leisure.

You maintain a very busy schedule. In addition to acting and comedy you frequently co-host the show/podcast StarTalk, with Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye. Has science long been an interest of yours?
Yes. It was something I was very bad at in school but very curious about in general. In terms of learning about science, [being on the show] is the best way for me to learn about it. I get to hear experts in the field of quantum mechanics explain stuff. It’s very exciting. It’s amazing talking to the people interested in doing the search for extra-terrestrials, and talking about the science of it, not the hokey weirdness.

Are you attracted to the hokey weirdness side of things as well?
I’m much more fascinated by the actual science of the actual people searching for it. The fact that time travel into the future is scientifically possible as of now — and not by the way people imagine — but you could be near a mass that you’d live for a week and on Earth [only] two weeks [would pass]. You’d be traveling one week into the future. The idea of folding space, things like that, it’s really incredible.

On the show does it ever become difficult for you to engage in that kind of thinking and also provide comedic relief?
I mean yes, but also my job is to help myself  — as well as other laypeople — understand the science. So some of the jokes forward that. Sometimes I’ll say something jokingly and it’ll be explained more clearly to someone without a science background. It’s a fun way to learn for the audience and myself.

I’ve been struggling not to discuss the election of Donald Trump in almost every piece I write or every interview I do, but could you tell me what role you see something like StarTalk playing in the next four years, which could feel very “anti-science?”
I think the goal of StarTalk in general is to get people interested in science. To be honest, I don’t know how many people who don’t believe in some accepted science listen to the show and then believe in accepted science. There could be [some]. We’ve certainly done shows that have to do with climate science, but often in an almost ancillary way, where the given is: Yes, mankind has an effect on the planet. Why would you think they don’t? And it won’t even be about [an episode about climate change per se], it’ll be about how the ocean works.

Trump is his own thing, though. I would like to say I hope Trump doesn’t destroy science. And I don’t know he will or that will be one of his goals. Lenin certainly had a lot of inaccurate physics people had to quote in the Soviet Union. That could happen with Trump, where people will be like, “As Trump once postulated …” It happened in Russia, and they know physics, so it’ll probably be okay.

You host a storytelling series on Audible, Hold On. You press pause on a comedian’s story and interject, ask questions, and clarifications. Has the process of deconstructing people’s work led to think about your own in different ways?
It’s interesting. In general, when you do stand-up you’re trying to convey whatever minimal information people need for a thing to be funny. So in that same sense, you’re telling a 10-minute story, so in the middle of that story you might not describe exactly where you grew up or everything about it, but if you’re doing this podcast there’s time to ask and explore. It does make you think about how you tell a story, and what details are relevant, and also what details are fun.

You recently made some paintings for the co-LAb gallery’s show about masculinity. Is painting an area of interest for you?
You know, it’s funny. In my first Comedy Central special in 2006 or so, the backdrop was a bunch of silly paintings I’d made. It’s something I do. I’m actually doing it right now, making one for my upcoming tour. It’s something I’ve done for a long time, but I never tried to submit them to a gallery and sell them. So Kristen Schaal had organized a show and asked me if I want to submit some paintings, so I did. When people bought all of them, the gallery was like, hey, you want to make two more paintings about masculinity for this other show and I was like, “Do I!” It’s definitely something I enjoy. A lot of it is thinking of a silly title and sort of having this funny idea work together.

Is that a different way of exercising the comedy muscle?
I remember in college talking to a professor about comedy and I insisted that a chair could be funny if you did it in a really funny way. I thought anything could be funny, as long as it really was.

You literally made a funny chair for the album.
I did, you’re right! I say that now as if I’d forgotten that I literally did do that. I made two chairs with the album embedded inside with speakers and we sold them. That was a joke I made in college and then 20 years later, I literally did make a funny chair and sell it. It’s very satisfying to finally follow through on a joke from 1996.

Eugene Mirman performs at Crescent Ballroom on Thursday, January 19. Doors open at 7 p.m., and the show starts at 8. Tickets to the 21-and-over event are $22 to $25 and available through Ticketfly.
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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.