“IT STARTED AS A JOKE”
Not Rated. On VOD and Digital HD.
A documentary about the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival might not strike you as must-see VOD. But it turns out that many of the performers who have appeared in the festival over its 10-year run (the documentary is in part a record of the event’s 10th and final year), have become movie and TV stars, or at least writers for big TV shows, and have set the tone for what is called by several people in the film, including newspaper culture reporter Melena Ryzik, “alternative comedy.”
Mirman, aka Gene Belcher of the animated Fox TV series “Bob’s Burgers,” is a very tall Russian-born American with piercing blue eyes, a 1-year-old son named Ollie and a wife named Katie, who has terminal cancer. That last bit is not at all funny, unless you practice the subversive art of alternative comedy, which takes serious subjects such as cancer and makes them its playthings.
The film comprises the 10th anniversary festival itself, which takes place at a former Brooklyn warehouse named the Bell House, as well as interviews. Among the comics performing are Janeane Garafalo, Mike Birbiglia of Worcester, Kristen Schaal (also “Bob’s Burgers”), Michael Che of “Saturday Night Live,” Michael Showalter, film actor and stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani (“The Big Sick”), Michael Ian Black, Jo Firestone, Reggie Watts, Jon Glaser, who has an anecdote about his cancer-stricken father, and Jim Gaffigan, who also has a bit about his wife’s cancer. Yes, maybe they should call this the Cancer Comedy Hour, except it is 16 minutes too long. Rimshot, please.
To turn against the tide, veteran comic Bobcat Goldthwaite goes rogue by talking about the Lewy Body Dementia suffered by his beloved, late, best friend Robin Williams. It turns out that Williams loved playing Call of Duty anonymously online and that Bobcat does a very good impression of him.
One of the more striking things about the festival is how seriously the digital record of it has degraded over the course of 10 years or less. Seriously, guys, did you kinescope this thing, or is it from cellphones?
Che reminds us that in addition to doing the “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live,” he is also a sketch writer for the show. But you wouldn’t know that because of how few of his sketches — Is Duane Reede the richest black man in New York? — get aired or written. Mirman, Katie and Ollie have moved from New York City to Cape Cod.
Alternative comedy embraces “lots of silliness,” we are told. If you don’t know why you’re laughing, it’s alternative comedy, opines Nanjiani. It is “joyful and dumb.” Ergo Emo Philips. Schaal tells us, “I look funny. I talk funny.” But has she heard of Phyllis Diller?
What are the chances one of Mirman’s “Cancer Greeting Cards” has a line about Keith Richards? Apparently, alternative comedy is also only rock and roll.
(“It Started As a Joke” contains profanity.)