It’s perhaps tacky to call Eugene Mirman an indie- or alternative-comedy hero, but that’s kinda what the guy is. Or at least what the perception of him is. For a comedian who doesn’t push many boundaries in his act, his brand of humor can be fairly divisive insofar as whom it appeals to. Mirman is unabashedly absurd—the poster boy for alternative comedy, even. In this way, to some, it’s either love him or hate him.
An Evening of Comedy in a Fake Underground Laboratory is the first special for the Russian expatriate. Coming on the heels of three solid albums in the aughts, An Evening of Comedy is a bit of a letdown. Mirman has an elaborate set behind him (Remember, we’re in a fake underground laboratory) that doesn’t have any apparent purpose other than legitimating the special’s title. Moreover, at times Mirman waxes self-indulgent, relying much too heavily on props to show rather than tell jokes.
A good example comes about halfway through, when Mirman reveals a wad of napkins on which he had been writing notes to fellow restaurant patrons. “Cheer up, fatty” is the first message. “It’s okay to lie to old people” is the second. “This napkin gives you permission to talk about politics even though you’re drunk and uninformed” is the third.
For the uninitiated, welcome to the world of alternative comedy.
There is nothing wrong with the genre in and of itself, as every joke, bit or gag one might identify as “alternative” must be judged on its own merits. The problem with Mirman’s comedy throughout the special, however, is that it’s not rooted in anything. There’s no context or grounding from which he can spring into his natural absurdity. Mirman’s comedy rarely involves long narrative, but there is typically a rhythm and a pacing that serve his vocal inflection and modulation quite well. On An Evening of Comedy, however, this is not the case.
Whether Mirman’s displaying a letter he wrote as a toddler, playing a theremin for God knows why or showing profile pictures of Tea Party online daters, every bit boils down to the same thing: nothing has real purpose. In the world of absurdity, this dynamic can work, but there needs to be some semblance of cohesion. Mirman’s special, though, feels much too random and disjointed—a hodgepodge that ping-pongs from one weird thing to the next.
Mirman’s albums, particularly his first, The Absurd Nightclub Comedy of Eugene Mirman, succeed because, despite their ostensible randomness and undeniable absurdity, they feel like complete sets, ordered and purposed. Perhaps it’s partly the editing on Comedy Central’s part—and shame on them if it is—but Mirman’s special feels more like a collection of poorly matched gags rather than a set of stand up, albeit an alternative one. If anything, it reinforces all the stupid stereotypes hardliners use to denigrate the genre. Mirman’s a truly gifted and unique comedian, but An Evening of Comedy is a far cry from what he’s proven capable of.