Since starting out at the Comedy Studio in the late 90s, Eugene Mirman has covered a lot of ground. He’s gotten attention for strange bits like the “Marvelous Crooning Child” on his Web site – a picture of Mirman as a child that sings classic rock songs. He’s written and directed short films, played supporting roles in TV shows like Flight of the Conchords and the new Adult Swim show Delocated, and toured with the Comedians of Comedy. So it’s no surprise that he’d have a lot of general life advice to offer. That’s what he does in his new book, The Will to Whatevs: A Guide to Modern Life, in which he teaches you to survive dating, politics, stardom, and whatever you feel is an impediment to achieving the perfect life.
He’ll read from the book tomorrow at 7PM at Brookline Booksmith, and come back to Boston March 26 with Wes and Eugene’s Cabinet of Wonders, a variety show starring Mirman and John Wesley Harding, with author Rick Moody, former Boston comic Larry Murphy, and a few other surprises. He’s also working on his third album, the follow-up to The Absurd Nightclub Comedy of Eugene Mirman and En Garde, Society!, which he recorded in Chicago in November. It’s expected to arrive later this summer from Sub Pop. I caught up with him by phone from New York this week.
So what possessed you to write a self-help book?
It seemed like a good idea. Well, it came out of the fact that I did an advice column on my site and then I made little books that I’d sell on tour from the advice column. And then from that little book, it led to writing sort of a fake self-help book.
How much of the book came from those, or did you write something completely different?
Totally different. But the idea of it, originally I pitched just sort of me answering a Dear Abby book, all ridiculous. And then it sort of morphed into this bigger project that was this fake guide to life.
You cover a lot of ground in it. Was there a temptation to take one particular topic and parody it?
No. The book has lots of elements of various self-help books or inspirational books, but it’s not a parody of any one thing. No, it wasn’t like I really wanted to only do politics or love or something. I kind of like that I would write about how to start a business and how to be in a band, how to get married, all this different stuff. I especially enjoyed writing the stuff I knew the least about, like raising a family.
I was going to say, at the risk of sounding somewhat ignorant, did you do any research for this?
In a sense I did a great deal of research because I wanted to get certain things a little bit wrong. So to do that, I had to find out the actual thing, like what happened to Bernard Goetz or random things, like the details for the Beatles. But I’ll just make some joke about something that happened in 1962.
It seems like, especially in the timelines, there was some research put into when things actually happened, which may have been completely and utterly ignored by the time you wrote it.
Yes. Basically a lot of that stuff, the formations of countries and things, I found out exactly when a language or various things happened only to make a joke about it. But in a sense, as a result, I read a lot about Dr. Spock and raising children and the Tammany Hall Machine. Just lots of random stuff. And all to goof around.
How did you pick out specific things? I mean, you must have been aware of Dr. Spock and Tammany Hall.
Yeah, I would just research the history of education or when people first started suggesting how to raise children other than the Bible. Certain things became prominent and certain ideas became prominent. Some things I had vague ideas on, and sometimes I’d be right or wrong. But then I would read about them.
There’s a hint of autobiography in certain stories and a lot of places in Massachusetts come up. Are most of those bits true?
Anything that sounds like it’s true probably is. Everything that involved a thing that happened to me in high school or on a date is true. Everything that involves me advising John F. Kennedy is probably false.
Yes. If it involves a rock star from the 70s, I most probably made it up. And if it involves a girl from 1987, it’s probably true.
There’s a sort of wonderfully disorienting effect of that, when you read four or five sentences about something from your childhood, and then something comes completely out of left field.
Yes. I kind of wanted it to be a mix of truth and made up things and to not have any distinction between the two. So yeah, everything is half lies. But half truth. Seamlessly.
Are there any self-help books you think are worthwhile?
You know, actually, supposedly a lot of them are. I have a friend who teaches psychology and philosophy and he was saying that actually self-help books help people about as much as therapy. I got a bunch of self-help books when I started doing this, looking at them, and it is funny, because a lot of them will say the obvious thing, which is the thing you should do. Everything comes down to having a good self-image and not being addicted to drugs. And not getting into abusive relationships, whether they are emotional or physical. Obviously, you shouldn’t get into a physically abusive relationship. But it’s funny because a lot of books will just go, like, “Hey, tell your parents to stop being mean to you. And tell them that it hurts your feelings and it makes you eat a lot.” It’s funny, because a lot of it is very obvious, but it’s still very helpful to read it for people.
There were some books that had a tone that I probably made fun of at times. It’s sort of smart alecky and self-aware. Just kind of casual in a very silly way. Like, “Whatevs,” that sort of tone, a lot of things will use to show you that they’re down to earth. When they tell you about leaving your abusive relationship.
I love the use of jargon, “mind-thinkers,” and all those phrases that sound like they could be ripped right from those books.
Yes, a lot of those books had, they’d all make up things, they all treated it seriously. They’d create their own jargon. And a lot of them had lots of quotes. Many of them had two quotes – they’d quote Shakespeare and then they’d quote Jay-Z, and it was to show you just their true depth of world information. I thought that was really funny, very silly. Trying to prove, “Hey, I know about books and about music.”
Did you take anything directly from those?
No, but reading all those quotes is what led to me making up my own quotes from my own books and things, some of which have a casual tone and some of which have a fake Confucius tone.
I thought that was pretty brilliant, as well.
There’s also something to that that pokes fun at the arrogance of some of these books, where the tone is one of such grand knowledge. And some of which is very true, it’s just still funny. This real truth-talking tone of some of the books is funny to me.
I thought you also managed to capture your onstage comic voice very well, which is not something that seems easy for a lot of comedians who write a book to do.
I’d been writing various things, I did a column for the Voice online for a while, and I would articles and stuff. So I’d become somewhat used to trying to write in my voice translated into print. I think what made me pitch the book in the first place was I thought that I could do that. I thought that it would work out.
It’s not, as one might think, as easy as talking into a tape recorder and writing down what you would say. There’s an interpretation there, which is a leap that a lot of comedians don’t make when they write a book.
Right. I think that’s why I have so many parenthesis and dashes, bullet points, that sort of thing. I think that that kind of structure, along with the visual things, help model the book in a way that my voice would translate to.
When you go to readings like the one at the Brookline Booksmith, do you read from the book or do you –
I do. I don’t read a ton. Short is often better. But I will read a little bit from my book. And it’s funny, because if you read it, it works very much, but when I try to come up with things that are written so quickly, to actually say them is a little bit hard. I think it’s a little clumsy because it’s so much at once. But if you read it, you can just read along and read it in the right tone. But if I mess up a word or pause wrong, then it messes the joke up. But I pick parts that I read specifically to blow people away. No longer an issue. But I was a little nervous to read something that had, like, 15 asides.
Do you do any stand-up in between?
What I do is I do a PowerPoint presentation with a video and then I read from the book and then I do a Q&A. And then I sign books for people.
I’m not sure how you’d feel about this as a compliment, but it reminded me of when I was in high school reading Dave Barry’s books, and I used to laugh out loud and want to read them to my neighbors and other people, who would then get angry and tell me to quit reading my book to them.
Other than the part where you use my book to annoy people, I really like what you said.
It does seem really quotable.
I did want to write a book where, I mean, it’s almost funny, because I don’t know if I really ever intended for anyone to sit down and read the whole thing. Just like I doubt Mark Twain wanted that. I kind of thought of it as something you could read from the beginning or you could just open it and start reading from the middle, or you’d read little parts of it periodically throughout your life as you needed to laugh and forget about the failure of government.
Is it something you think you’d do again?
I would maybe. I think that as I did it, I learned a lot from doing it. I think that I would ask someone to give me a huge bag full of money first. It should be a box, I guess, but a bag is easier.
But yeah, I think that I would do it. The thing about it is that it took years. It was very rewarding, it was very fun. But also it was this crazy large project.
Are you glad to have it out there in the world, and –
I’m very glad that I did it and I’m very glad that it’s out there. Similarly to making albums and stuff, I like the idea of making things that are out in the world and having these products, these artistic, like, completed creations. And I like that I have things in lots of different mediums. I like doing different sort of things.
I wanted to ask you about the term absurdist –
Did you say “absurdist” or “observant?”
“Absurdist,” which you apply to your own comedy on your album and I’ve heard a lot of people apply to you.
You’ll notice, by the way, that you heard them apply it to me after I put it in the title of an album. Which, as a note to people, is a very convenient way of pigeonholing yourself. So if you ever want to be known as brilliant, your album should just be called “Brilliant.” Because people will be like, “That guy is brilliant.”
“The Brilliant Comedy of…”
Yeah, exactly. “The Brilliant Comedy of Eugene Mirman.” And people will be like, “You’re comedy is brilliant, right?” “Yup, yup. That’s exactly what it is.” I don’t know what gave you the idea, but thank you.
I think I’ll put that in the title of every piece I send in now. “Nick’s Brilliant Piece on Eugene Mirman.”
Yeah. It’ll happen. What was the question about absurd?
You kind of answered it. I was going to ask if it was something you embrace, or is it--- I had actually thought you were poking fun of how people describe you when you named the album.
I think it’s all of it. It’s the same thing as the book. The book is half true, half false. The book is occasionally real advice and occasionally not at all, or fairly dangerous. It makes sense. I think that it’s completely reasonable to say that I’m absurd and my comedy is absurd, and at the same time, probably making fun of it. I sort of like when something is both, when it’s not obviously the thing itself or making fun of it, that it’s sort of this weird combination.
And also the term seems to be thrown around a lot. I notice myself describing things that way, but trying figure out how to get beyond that, to say what in particular. But the nature of absurdist comedy kind of defeats that. You could call Tim and Eric absurdist…
You could do that. You could call us both absurdist and you’d be fairly accurate. But there’s other elements to it. I don’t know that somebody would necessarily know what the comedy was like by hearing that word. You’d need a second word. Or a third.
I also wanted to ask you about the show you’re doing with John Wesley Harding.
He was just at my home and we were working on it.
Are you doing things together, it’s not like a one, two thing where you do what you do then he does what he does?
It is all of it. It is me doing what I do, him doing what he does, us having friends do stuff, and then us doing a few bits together.
How did you come to know him? Is he a New York guy?
Yes. We grew up on the Isle of Wight together. I met him several years ago when him and Scott McCaughey played Tinkle, which was a show a show that David Cross, Todd Barry, and Jon Benjamin used to do together in New York. He lived not far from me, and I think that I would ask him sometimes to do shows of mine, and we would meet up sometimes. And he recently, maybe this fall, he recorded this live CD and had different musicians and things do stuff, and he asked me if I would introduce it and do a little comedy bit. And it was at Union Hall where I do this show every week.
And then after I did it, it was really fun, I said that we should consider doing a tour, a tour of stuff, together. And he put together this variety show in New York that I did something on and Jonathan Ames read, and Rick Moody, and guest musicians. And it was sort of this variety show called the Cabinet of Wonders. He sang some songs and did some songs with some of his guest musicians and then people read, and I did some comedy, there was a ventriloquist. And then out of that, we decided to take that out on the road and have different guests in different cities. ‘
I know I’m probably missing a million things that you’re up to.
That’s okay. Who can keep track?
How do keep track of it yourself? I know you’re doing a guest spot on a live action show on Adult Swim…
I finished shooting Conchords and that and I’m now about to mostly on tour. I recorded a third album, which I have to edit together and figure out what will be included from the recordings. That the next big thing that I have to sit and listen and do. But otherwise I’m mostly touring and doing interviews.