Eugene Mirman didn’t take any shortcuts to becoming a famous comedian, but he definitely didn’t take the long road either. As an undergraduate at Hampshire College, the Bob’s Burgers star designed his own Bachelor of Arts in Comedy—now an actual thing at some liberal arts schools, but back in the mid-’90s? It was unheard of, even at Hampshire. “I wanted to do comedy and I wanted to go to college,” says Mirman, and that was that. He set out to make those two goals overlap as much as possible.
“My thesis was writing, performing, producing and promoting a stand-up comedy act, and this was 1996, so it was sort of before a lot of the ways you could do those things now,” says Mirman. “I would literally fax press releases to newspapers, because I was put in the position of ‘I need people to come to this thing, I don’t really know how to do it, so I’m going to try everything I can to get people to show up to this event.’ And that sort of worked out.”
It definitely worked out, setting Mirman off on a career that includes tours with bands like Yo La Tengo and Modest Mouse, several of the 2000s’ best comedy albums and numerous TV appearances, not to mention Invite Them Up—the New York comedy show he co-hosted with Bobby Tisdale that helped crystalize the 2000s alternative comedy boom. In short, Mirman is partially to thank for weird comedy becoming, well, cool—a noble goal for any comedy nerd crafting their own major from Lenny Bruce records and studies on the physiology of laughter. Says Mirman: “I think a lot of the skills I used to do that became the things I needed to do as comedy—the way it worked—kind of changed.”
The intimacy of his familiarity with the scene as well as the ins-and-outs of comic storytelling makes Mirman unusually qualified for his latest venture, a storytelling-breakdown podcast from Audible called Hold On. Featuring comedians such as Jim Gaffigan, Maria Bamford, David Cross and John Mulaney, Hold On has Mirman act as a kind of active audience surrogate for the stories a comedian tells—free to pause the story when something tickles him and pursue “controlled tangents” that press his guest for more details.
“A gifted storyteller is telling the story well, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t information you can be curious about,” he says. “So this format definitely lets the story breathe in a way that the story probably shouldn’t breathe on its own when it’s being told… If you’re telling a story about something that happened to you in 1999, and you mention that you worked in a cafe, you probably shouldn’t—for a long time in the middle of the story—talk about that. But in this instance, if I want to ask you about it, and what kind of jobs you had or what you did before you were a full-time comedian, that stuff is totally interesting.”
The first three episodes of Hold On, available through Audible but released Monday on iTunes for free, showcase three different takes on that format, each offering its own strengths. Kumail Nanjiani joins Mirman in the studio to listen to a pre-recorded live set of his that covered his unusual wedding day with Emily V. Gordon (another story of cross-cultural romantic comedy for anyone who’s looking for a quasi-follow-up to The Big Sick already); Weird Al Yankovich tells, live in the studio, the story of how he had his laser eye surgery covered by a local news station; and Andy Richter and Mirman host a live episode at SF Sketchfest, breaking down Richter’s experience seeing KISS at the Hoosier Dome.
When commenting on an existing recording, Mirman is able to annotate a story the way a commentary track illuminates the making of a movie—providing a wealth of new details that hardcore fans of these comedians might actually kill for. An in-studio story or live show lets Mirman feed off the storyteller and the audience’s energy in real time, but also provides a place for figures like Weird Al or Richter to share personal recollections we don’t normally get from them outside the odd showbiz anecdote. Call it The Mirman Interruption, only with the goal of adding to and expounding on a set rather than derailing it.
For Mirman, it also becomes a way to follow up with old friends and satiating his ongoing curiosity with their work. “Some of the people I’ve had on I remember when their story happened, says Mirman. “I remember them working on it or writing it or it being a part of their life.” Indeed, many of the comedians featured on Hold On got their start on New York shows like Invite Them Up. “There’s a camaraderie in the comedy community,” he adds. “It’s wonderful to be a part of that, and it was wonderful to be a part of helping it grow in terms of how many people did Invite Them Up and now are the stars of movies and TV.” And with the stakes higher for many of the guests, career-wise, and a rising responsibility to put out polished material for an expectant fan base, Hold On allows Mirman to basically Invite Them Up to the freeform, fun-following instincts they all honed back in the East Village, cutting open stories and bits to see what’s inside.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamt