Published Apr 03, 2020By the end of It Started as a Joke, you will be in tears.
The wonderful and star-studded documentary chronicles the grand finale of absurdist comedian Eugene Mirman's ten-year run as the founder and curator of Brooklyn's Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival. A beloved social convener (and star of Bob's Burgers, where he plays Gene), Mirman began the festival as both an excuse to bring all of his friends and heroes together to perform standup and other silly exhibitions, but also to kind of make fun of comedy festivals themselves.
Whatever "alt-comedy" ever really was, it seems that a whole generation of uncompromising satirists and comedy voices, once relegated to the fringes of downtown New York and boroughs like Brooklyn, are now firmly in charge of our cultural parlance. As it turns out, many of them were early friends, or else benefitted from Mirman's cachet as a taste-making comedian.
The who's who of headlining or boundary-busting figures featured in this film, in performance and/or via interviews, includes Michael Ian Black, Kristen Schaal, Wyatt Cenac, Ira Glass, John Hodgman, Kumail Nanjiani, Reggie Watts, Michael Showalter, Janeane Garofalo, Jim Gaffigan, Jon Glaser, Mike Birbiglia and Bobcat Goldthwait, among others.
Primarily shot at the festival's longtime and final home, Brooklyn's the Bell House, It Started as a Joke is an inside look at how underground comedy pushed itself into the foreground on its own terms. On that level, it's a remarkably insightful and truly entertaining film about artistry and the highs and lows of lives led around by jokes that may or may not work. It's a rather intense thing, to be so immersed in how comedians think and create.
But there's an emotional left turn here that's hinted at early on in the film, which eventually becomes the spine of this story about a ramshackle festival that was eventually a highly anticipated annual event. Mirman presents himself as a husband and father of a very young boy and, almost immediately, we receive a visual cue that his wife may be recovering from an illness.
Indeed, Katie Westfall Tharp is Mirman's life and occasional creative partner, and her breast cancer diagnosis understandably upends their lives together. Tharp, who Mirman observes can get anything that needs to get done, done, assists him with art and graphic design projects that pertain to his comedy and his festival. Their love is strong and Mirman, who rarely ever reveals anything overtly personal in his comedy, can't help but try to make sense of it by ridiculing cancer in his act. Tellingly, this material doesn't resonate with audiences as much as his more fantastical stuff usually does. It's perhaps too real for him, and them.
That's the trick about It Started as a Joke, a story where the "it" seems to evolve as the film unfolds. It is comedy, it is life, it is the Eugene Mirman Festival, it is love, it is mortality, it is cancer, it is Jim Gaffigan, Jon Glaser and Bobcat Goldthwait trying to take a cue from their host by each telling their own difficult and tearful stories about loved ones being robbed by this disease or others that simply lurk within us.
Comedians seem genetically built to understand that we have to laugh at life to keep from crying about what a flawed and fleeting design we're all stuck with. We're born to die — to cease all activity at some point — so we may as well talk and joke about it sometimes.
As a mediation on why we do some of the things we do with our time and how much our closest relationships should really matter to us, It Started as a Joke is a moving, loving testament to human ingenuity, passion, and perseverance and a reminder about what an unassuming force of comedy and good that Eugene Mirman truly is.