In Conversation With: Eugene Mirman

Eugene Mirman’s warm affability is anomalous in the stand-up community, and has earned him renown as one of the most assured and interesting comics in the country. Those qualities anchor Mirman’s work, all charm and giggly engagement, as the host of the Audible podcast Hold On with Eugene Mirman. Season 3 of Hold On premieres this Friday, October 6th, on Audible.

Mirman is best known as the voice of Gene Belcher on Bob’s Burgers, as Eugene on Flight of the Conchords, and for his Netflix special Eugene Mirman: Vegan on His Way to the Complain Store. On his podcast, he relinquishes center stage to celebrity guests – including Jim Gaffigan, Kristen Schaal, and “Weird Al” Yankovic – who tell stories from their lives (with minimally intrusive interruptions by the host.)

To celebrate the new season, Eugene Mirman spoke with Sean L. Malin about the evolution of the show’s post-production, being asked to play Johnny Appleseed, and having his jokes scrutinized Taylor Swift-style.

Seasons 1 and 2 of Hold On with Eugene Mirman are available in their entirety on Audible, and for download as a weekly podcast on iTunes.

Eugene Mirman as Eugene “Gene” Belcher

Sean Malin: You have a new season of Hold On starting soon. When is that happening?

Eugene Mirman: Yes! October 6th, the new season comes out.

SM: I’m a little confused about the release. I seem to have gotten the show by subscription on iTunes, but I didn’t realize it was coming out on Audible in bulk. I’ll get 20 episodes on Audible or something, but then one episode every Monday as a subscriber on iTunes every week.

EM: The way it’s working is that Audible already has a bunch – the show comes out on Audible. Originally, I don’t think Audible was going to put it out on iTunes, though, and now they’re trying something different. Now episodes are coming out on iTunes every Monday, but if you want a lot of [Hold On] episodes earlier, you should get them on Audible and the Audible app. But the upcoming season is stuff that hasn’t been available on either place yet. It’s all new.

SM: It’s actually a clever strategy because, with the new season, it will look on iTunes like you are podcasting on a regular schedule, releasing one new episode a week.

EM: Right, exactly, yes. But they are also on Audible, including the 15 new episodes which will premiere there exclusively on October 6th.

SM: I recently interviewed Kurt Braunohler, Tim Heidecker, and Gregg Turkington, comedians like yourself who are known for being very idiosyncratic people…

EM: *Laughs* Yes.

SM: …and your show is a great showcase for your idiosyncrasies. For example, it’s the only podcast I’m aware of where the introduction changes every single episode. Your outros are different, too. The only thing that’s uniform is the phrase “Eugene Mirman, signing off.”

EM: Actually, many of those are written by my friend Matt Savage, who is someone I knew in college. He writes a lot of stuff for the podcast and for me.

SM: Does that include the questions you ask guests?

EM: Yeah, it includes questions. It is more of an organic process, though. Obviously, as I’m talking to people, different questions will come up. There is both a lot of pre-production and the actual doing of [the interviews], where some of the questions have been thought of ahead of time, and others are thought of in the moment.

SM: I’ve interviewed hundreds of people, yet I still find that even when I write notes in my notebook beforehand, I wind up deviating from my questions completely. I wind up going off-the-cuff far more often than I follow the notes. Like now, for example.

EM: Certainly for the live ones, there aren’t really any questions in advance. Like the Busy Philipps one at SF Sketchfest – that was really just me asking her questions. But then there are also times where I’m interviewing someone like Kurt Braunohler, and I can remember when the story he’s telling actually happened in his life. There were these moments where I was around some of the people when their stories took place. Other times, I’m learning about things that happened to people just like everyone who’s listening, or I’ve only heard them tell the story onstage.

Eugene Mirman, left, with Busy Philipps at SF Sketchfest

SM: In the Kristen Schaal episode, you talk about how Kristen does not normally tell stories in her act. The most she has ever really exposed herself in public was in her episode of WTF with Marc Maron.

EM: Right, but that was an interview.

SM: Exactly, which made it so novel to hear her tell a story on your show. Do you prefer when one of your guests is not known for telling stories in their act?

EM: The thing about Kristen and a lot of these people – Busy Philipps, too – is that they are very funny people. I think a very funny person telling any story will generally be pretty funny. I think of Kristen as so funny, and she’s told me so many funny stories, that I guess I already thought of her as a storyteller. But I totally get that she doesn’t do as many personal stories onstage. Even someone like Weird Al, when you see him onstage usually, he sings songs. He doesn’t have many opportunities to tell a story, or rather, he doesn’t do it a ton. Even if someone is just an actor, they don’t always have the chance to tell stories in this kind of context.

I’m happy when I can emotionally connect to things. A lot of my own stuff comes from personal experience, something that really happened to me. You still get a sense of how I think or what I feel; it just isn’t me saying so literally. It is kind of like how music works where someone writes a song about a relationship or whatever it is, and you can assemble their feelings from it, even if it isn’t someone literally saying all their feelings. I would say the same is true of a lot of people’s stand-up. There might be these ephemeral bits, but if you really think about what they’re saying and what it all means, you can understand the way they see the world. It’s a different way of being personal.

SM: In music, sometimes we overattribute personal meaning to a song or to an artist. Like this stuff that’s going on with Taylor Swift’s songs. There’s a whole cottage industry of people that analyze her song lyrics. Would you be comfortable with people going into the bits that you do thinking, “So, which girlfriend is Eugene talking about here? What stage of his marriage is that bit about?!”

EM: *Laughs* I hope to avoid that, actually. I don’t know that anyone has bothered to do that yet, which is great news for me…Now, I’m feeling like: don’t look into anything!

SM: Another thing that I hear from comics is that members of the press try to play around with them in interviews because their stage acts are whimsical or wild or strange. Has that been your experience at all? Do interviewers get surprised when they discover that in conversation, you’re not filled with whimsy and silliness, but are instead a human being who is grounded and has real feelings?

EM: Well, I do feel like the things I do onstage are silly, but I often play them clearly and earnestly. So, this question is really more for you to ask yourself: did you think I’d answer the phone and say, “Hold on – I have to put all my balloons away first”?

SM: *Laughs* No, I expected what I’m getting with you, which is good for me and for the interview. I will admit that it was more of a shock with Tim Heidecker, and Turkington. I knew not to fuck with them and to talk to them like they were people, not clowns. But I did explicitly ask Tim how often he was getting screwed with on the press tour, and he told me, “Constantly.”

EM: I don’t know what anyone’s expectations of me would be, but I imagine that most people expect me to be something like this: normal to a little jokey, which I really am. It is not like I’m doing a character on stage that’s like, “I’m Mr. Silly Beans! Oh no. Why is Silly Beans so serious all of a sudden about the government?”

SM: It is such a loaded time now that sometimes these interviews do spin off into someone going, “I’ve got something to say about Puerto Rico…”

EM: That is perfectly valid. I’ve done things where people know just one thing about me. And I’ve also talked to people who have listened to all my albums and have questions about jokes I don’t remember that well because they’re from a decade ago. The interviews I do are largely pleasant…but yes, sometimes, someone will say, “I don’t want to do a traditional interview.” Then they’ll ask me nonsense questions that are hard to answer because they are not real questions.

SM: That’s exactly what I think Tim was talking about. I think he and Eric Wareheim get bombarded by that kind of thing. I imagine it must be suffocating for them.

EM: That is true. But I do not think that it is because of how people perceive me. I believe some people think that it’s dull to read an interview of questions, and they think, “We’re gonna make this one fun!” Then they want me to pretend to be Johnny Appleseed for the whole interview.

SM: I picture Johnny Appleseed as an old, obscenely lanky dude.

EM: I understand completely. That’s where acting comes in.

SM: In traditional interviews, it’s true that there can be an overly mannered kind of politeness to the whole thing. It’s less of a conversation, more rigid. One of the great things about Hold On is that you seem completely at ease interrupting your guests with, “Hold on, hold on, hold on” during a story.

EM: That is because 90% of the guests are people I know and are friends of mine. Not everyone, but often. Even the people that I don’t know are usually friends of friends, so there is a real familiarity and informalness to it. It isn’t meant in any way to…it’s really just me going, “I have a question!”

SM: Does that make settling into the role of the interviewer and the host somehow easier?

EM: In terms of live shows, that familiarity is an attraction to me. I’m used to having conversations in a live context, so it’s really comfortable. When you hear a studio thing, that’s edited differently. The places where I stop the show are really where I stopped them, but the show gets assembled together by editors who make it smooth.

SM: It’s not like someone will be in the middle of speaking and you have to interrupt them by yelling, “Wait, wait, wait.” You can tell an editor, “Okay, at this point in the conversation, we’re going to go back…”

EM: The way it actually works is we are all listening to it live together, and then I signal the engineer when I’m going to ask a question. Then the person I’m interviewing can see that I’ve signaled the engineer. It’s a quiet warning that I’m about to ask something.

SM: What’s the engineer signal? Is it a thumbs up?

EM: I start a small fire, actually. It’s quite time-consuming. *Laughs* I just raise my hand. This all could have been done in 1934 with their technology.

SM: In the first two seasons, there were sound and musical cues, and other little effects that popped up throughout the episodes. Will those be stepped up in this third season?

EM: Yes. Every story in this season is going to be punctuated by some pretty intense scatting.

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