Every four years, America engages in an absurd process that ends with the appointment of a person to one of the most powerful and important positions in the world: President. What we’ve learned from last 50 years is that history is made by ten-second sound bytes, half-minute long commercials, five-word slogans, and plastic signs we stick in our lawns with the names of our candidate in bold fonts and capital letters. The very fact that everyone takes the whole thing so seriously while being dressed so well makes it even better fodder for the hilarious antics of Eugene Mirman.
Mirman, whose absurd comedy has been showcased on two critically lauded CDs — a Comedy Central Special and HBO’s Flight of the Conchords – has been covering the 2008 election for the past few months. He’s been to the Republican National Convention, the Democratic National Convention, various primaries and debates, and his antics even got him nearly arrested by the Secret Service for having a smoking chicken in his pocket. If he’d gotten into any serious trouble, it would have put a real damper on the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, happening this week in Brooklyn.
Ben Kharakh: When it comes to something like your conversation with the Anti-Gay Phone Company representative, that’s something that’s absurd and we laugh at, but for other people, they think it’s serious and they get a plan with this company. Why do you think for us it’s funny, but for them it’s serious?
Eugene Mirman: For me, it’s funny because it’s a ludicrous idea to switch to an anti-gay phone company. I mean, for other people, there are two directions. One is that they could be fooled. One of the claims of this phone company was that the bigger phone companies basically provide Internet service for pornography sites and child pornography sites. If you’re someone who’s offended or upset by pornography, the idea that your phone company is sponsoring child pornography can be horrifying. The notion that you wouldn’t look into it is, of course, absurd. It’s ludicrous that you would just go like, “Yeah, alright, I’ll switch.” But I think other people are just afraid of gay people. It is true that phone companies abide by, like any company, anti-discrimination laws. You know, McDonald’s can’t fire anyone for being gay, neither can AT&T. So I guess, if you were trying to find a super-homophobic company and that mattered to you, you may be really delighted. Some people think homosexuality is a threat, and I don’t think it’s a threat.
BK: The way you described it made me think of the way political ads present information to their audiences, like this recent John McCain ad that said, “Barack Obama wanted to teach sex ed to kindergartners.”
EM: That’s an absurd ad because what Barack Obama wanted to do was make children at every age aware of sexual predators. But it was clearly manipulated to make it seem like Obama wants to teach babies to give each other hand jobs, which is not true. He would hate it, I’m sure, if babies did that to each other.
EM: I don’t even know. I happen to know what it relates to, but I think that there is also this sea of information to search through. I don’t know how many people would bother to find out that when McCain said that we could be in Iraq for 50 or 100 years, he didn’t mean that we would be at war for 100 years but that we’d have a presence like we did in Japan or Korea. Everybody sort of misrepresents each other a little, though what McCain did is way more egregious than the misrepresentation of exactly what he said because he sort of means it, but not completely the way it’s presented.
BK: Politics is something that a lot of people take seriously. Before going into the election coverage that you’ve been doing, what were your thoughts on politics and the way it’s covered, and how did your views change, if they changed at all?
EM: A lot of talking heads say these very self-evident things, and people just repeat them. I remember, for instance, when Sarah Palin was first announced, there were endless articles of speculation and stuff, and all this random information –- some of which was true, some of which was false. A lot of the coverage for politics is very superficial. It’s much more of a debate about how the election is going and not about the issues. The amount that people wonder who’s ahead is way more than people who wonder what would happen if one of the two became president.
BK: Out of all the things you saw, what struck you as most ridiculous?
EM: I think the silliest thing is when I saw people chanting “USA.” I really like America a lot. I came here from Russia and am sort of the embodiment of the American Dream, so in a sense, I take it very seriously. But I think that when people speak and you’re just chanting your country’s name, it’s spooky. It’s just a spooky thing to do. There are lots of things that I really like, but I don’t know if I’d chant them in a menacing way on television.
BK: What does patriotism mean to you?
EM: To me, it means two things. One: actually loving your country, and the other thing I think it means is either pretending to love your country or blindly loving it to not see a fault. There are people that I love in my life, but I would never scream their name to strangers or pretend that they have no faults. I think America is great, but when you talk to someone and they don’t see any faults in America, it’s just weird.
BK: When I’m on YouTube and I read some of the comments, I feel like I’m caught in a live-action satire because it’s hard to believe the things people say. Like, if there’s a video about women’s rights and someone posts something derogatory about women, there’s always a little part of me that thinks or hopes it’s a joke. Did you ever feel that way during your election coverage?
EM: Well, first of all, if you go on YouTube, people will just write the most vitriolic things. I, in fact, went to this talk on new media that was organized by The Huffington Post. Both sides talked about the level of vitriol and rumors that exist on the Internet. I mean, there are a lot of reasons, for instance, that I’m concerned about Sarah Palin as a vice presidential nominee, but it isn’t because she secretly had her daughter’s baby. That rumor instantly spread throughout the web and was being reported in regular news, but it wasn’t at all true. At the same time, the things that are on the Internet are just awful. I talked to very conservative people in a really wonderful way at the RNC, and we disagreed, but neither of us was writing comments to each other that were racist and vitriolic.
EM: One answer is that they’re 16. The other is that they’re terrible people. I don’t know what it means to think that you’ve figured out the world so well that you know everything, and when you read someone’s opinion you want to write that they’re a crazy idiot who should die and be aborted. But I also don’t like when people say McSame or Obamaton. To me, that stuff is equally as infuriating. Some people might like McCain for very valid reasons and some people might like Obama for very valid reasons, but the assumption that the other side is insane is so aggravating to me.
BK: Your coverage of the election was very silly, absurd, and funny. How much of the actual election do you think is very silly, absurd, or funny? …Aside from the chanting of, “USA, USA, USA!”
EM: I think the election is fairly serious but the process is funny. For a grownup to refer to McCain as McSame or to call an Obama supporter an “Obamaton” is ridiculous. I know that McCain’s policies will be similar to Bush’s and that some people like Obama and can’t articulate why, but I think that name calling and the dismissive nature with which partisan people speak about actual policies and opponents is absurd.
BK: You witnessed a process that will, ultimately, lead to the decision of who will be President of America, and that’s one of the most important jobs in the world. How did it make you feel, to see this whole thing in action?
EM: I guess I’m worried about the anti-intellectualism in America. A lot of people label Obama an elitist, while others like Sarah Palin because her children play hockey. I want a president who I think is super smart, who has an incredible memory, and who is a brilliant analyst. I don’t want a president who I think would be really fun to high-five and get drunk with, though I’d be fine if that were a thing that would happen. When I make a list of things that are important to me, it doesn’t start with a president that can do a shit-load of shots and still make sense…though that’s fine. That would be a fine thing for a president to be able to do, but I think that there’s this idea of both Bush and Palin having this quality of being your buddy. The only way I would want my buddy to be president is if my buddy was an insanely smart person who was super qualified to be president and could really deal with that sort of stress.
BK: When it comes to balancing something like political comedy and making sure to keep it funny, it seems like some people end up just being more angry than funny. Where do you think such comedians go wrong?
EM: There’s an endless amount of legitimate tragedy in the world, and if you immerse yourself in it, it becomes very hard to joke about stuff without just being horrified. So I think, at some point, if you just read all this political stuff, it just gets depressing. The more you learn about the different sneaky things that politicians do, the more you understand why it might be necessary, but that doesn’t make it less depressing. For instance, McCain’s ad is super sleazy — the one you were mentioning that makes it sound like Obama wants to teach kids sex. On the other hand, if you believe that the number one threat facing us is Islamo-fascist terrorists and that they would blow up America unless you stepped up as president, then maybe you’d make a sleazy ad. Personally, I think it degrades the whole process. I think Obama even said something along the lines of, “We can be safe without giving up our individual rights.” And I do think there’s something wrong with people proclaiming, “Well I don’t care if my phones are tapped ’cause I’m not doing anything wrong.” That’s not the point of America. The point of America isn’t that we get scared and give up our rights. The point is that we have a Bill of Rights and we uphold it. That’s how World War II started. It’s just how everything terrible happens -– the population is scared and gives in to some weird government. It’s how almost every sci-fi movie starts when bad people take over.
BK: Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the horrible things?
EM: I haven’t become irrevocably mad at the process of government and the things around me. Plus, that frustration, until it makes you snap, can also fuel you. Hopefully I’ll never snap. I’ll just remain annoyed.
BK: You’ve got this Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival coming up. Would you call that a celebration of sorts?
EM: Sure, I would call it that. That would be funny if you quote me as saying, “I call it a celebration of sorts,” because you made me say that. But yes, I think it’ll be a celebration and I think it’ll be very fun. I think it’s ridiculous. I mean, it came out of me and the woman who’s organizing it, and a comic joking around. I think I actually said I was going to do the festival as a joke and they said, “No, you really have to now,” and I was like, “I don’t know if I can really do that,” and they’re like, “No, it’s too late. You have to.” So now it’s happening.
BK: One of the things you have planned is a reunion of sorts for Apartment 2F.
EM: Yes, a show I’ve never seen.
BK: Are the Sklar brothers coming out specifically for this, or are they in town?
EM: Yeah, I believe so. I mean, I think they’ll do other stuff when they’re out here, but yes. We’re flying them out here.
BK: Should we expect to see you covering more of the election?
EM: I’m going to probably cover the debates and then maybe something involving the Election Day itself, but I think there is one more debate that we’re going to cover. I’m also in the process of taping two shows, which are Flight of the Conchords and this other show called Delocated, which will be on Adult Swim. But the main thing that I’m doing is I have a book coming out in February.
BK: That is the advice column book?
EM: Yes, the advice book called The Will to Whatevs.
BK: How did this come to be?
EM: I had been doing an advice thing on my website for a very long time and then, at some point, I started doing a blog for The Village Voice and considered writing a book.
BK: Delocated – that’s with Jon Glaser and you play the assassin?
BK: Was this picked up as a pilot or a series?
EM: Series. They shot the pilot and then it was picked up as a series, so we’re shooting six episodes right now.
BK: Is there any sort of preparation that you do?
EM: I want to say that I had to kill a cat, but no, not specifically. I play a Russian mobster who also wants to be a stand-up comedian. I don’t really know how to murder people, but I don’t really murder people so it’s been okay.
Visit the official Myspace page of the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival for show times and theater listings.