The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival may have begun life as an off-hand joke, but over the last five years it has become a legitimately respected festival, this year pulling in superstars Sarah Silverman and Jim Gaffigan alongside international acts Daniel Kitson and David O’Doherty, plus local legends like Todd Barry and Tom Shillue. Despite the increasing prominence of the festival, Mirman’s offbeat sensibility remained, from the program, which featured bios for all the performers written by Mirman himself, to the titles of such shows as “Comedians Two to Five Years Away From Their Own TV Shows.”
“We did it!” Mirman began the first night’s show, the appropriately titled “We Appreciate Ourselves: The Five Year Anniversary Celebration of the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival.” “We put on a bunch of shows…in a place convenient to me!” The eponymous founder was ubiquitous at the festival, appearing at six of the eight shows, and could be found every night taking pictures with fans and singing karaoke at the after-parties.
The after-parties themselves have become a legendary part of the festival. This year’s included a slam poet at whom audience members could throw water balloons, a VIP Herring room with a selection of pickled and dried fish (some of which were actually eaten), a strobe-lit, booze-filled party bus and a full pig roasting outside The Bell House. The comedians tended to stick around as well, giving the entire event a casual atmosphere that can be lost at other, bigger festivals.
Despite—or perhaps because of—his ever-presence, Mirman happily shared the spotlight. Friday’s main show was the science/comedy podcast StarTalk, hosted by Hayden Planetarium director and nerd favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson. The show, which stretched past the two-and-a-half-hour mark, was unlike anything seen at more mainstream comedy festivals, with extensive discussions about the possibilities of life on Mars and the future of American space travel.
It’s shows like this where Mirman gets to have his cake and eat it, too. Since tickets to each show were sold individually, with no all-festival passes, the crowd for “StarTalk Live!” was filled with the show’s devout fans, who were more than happy for in-depth science chat, even if it meant a few minutes without a joke. But the inclusion of Mirman, Silverman and Gaffigan on the panel made it funny enough for comedy fans to appreciate the show as well.
As all of the shows were held at 21-plus venues The Bell House and Union Hall, Saturday afternoon included a special all-ages show. The always-delightful Tom Shillue hosted, making it a cheery, casual and occasionally interactive show. “Uh Oh: Dangerous, Inappropriate Comedy for Teenagers—A Comedy Show For Sexually Active Teens* Or Families That Don’t Feel Too Weird If Adult Subject Matter Is Discussed (*Teens Don’t Actually Have To Be Sexually Active. In Fact, It’s Better If You Wait ‘Til Sophomore Year of College)” lived up to its extensive title. Acts like Ben Kronberg and Jacqueline Novak didn’t shy away from their bawdier material, despite the presence of preteens in the crowd.
Saturday’s headliner, Elna Baker and Kevin Townley’s “The Variety Show,” had a lot to live up to—last year’s legendary “Drunk Show” featured Ira Glass and Leo Allen arm wrestling on the floor, and Glass ultimately blacking out. The theme this time around was the far more sedate “Speech and Debate,” and featured improvised speeches and presentations on such topics as solitude and Tom’s of Maine. Structured like a high-school debate competition, the pace of the show wavered at times. But the uniqueness of the format allowed brilliant minds like Mirman’s and Barry’s to show off their comic chops in new ways.
The highlight of the festival was Sunday night’s headliner “Invite Them Up,” a revival of the show once co-produced by Mirman and host Bobby Tisdale. The night featured drop-ins from John Oliver and Demetri Martin, as well as the festival’s only on-stage nudity, in a fantastically surreal musical bit from H. Jon Benjamin and Larry Murphy. But the undeniable star of the night was English storyteller and acknowledged genius Daniel Kitson. Despite his assertion that he was put on last because of his inability to stay within a time limit, Kitson is truly an impossible act to follow, if only for his tendency to destroy everything on stage for his finale.
And so the festival ended with Kitson knocking over two microphone stands, pouring water into a little puddle on the stage, and then walking off silently as the crowd cheered. Those moments, rare gems of weirdness and hilarity, are the lifeblood of Mirman’s endeavor. As long as it can manage to maintain that sense of unpredictability and nerdy enthusiasm, it will remain one of the world’s most fun comedy festivals.