The Brooklyn-based not-entirely-a-joke extended weekend known as the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival kicked off its sixth year Thursday night at the 350-capacity Bell House with The Urbane Comedy Hour: Non-Stop Courtesy and Culture Through the Prism of Comedy.
Following a pre-show string quartet and tuxedoed waiters offering guests cheese and crackers, Mirman briefly took the stage to thank “sponsors” including Bi-Curious Curious Magazine, WineDoodles in a Bag and Peter Poon Buses, then handed off to host Tom Shillue. Shillue bemoaned the stereotypes personified by the Frito Bandito and the social-marginalizing qualities of Armour hotdogs before bringing up surprise special guest Mike Birbiglia, who delivered a strong, energetic set of all-new material. Of his reaction to seeing a “pretty lady” on public transportation: “I looked at her long enough to make sure she was pretty, then I looked at the floor. And I never looked up again. That’s my move.”
Shillue ran with Birbiglia’s theme, contributing a story of the time he misguided a tourist family on the subway, then introduced Austin’s Derrick Brown, a poet, storyteller and winner of the Texas Book of the Year, whose four impassioned, soundtrack-backed offerings included standout lines “I will do anything you ask / Unless I’ve been drinking / Then it’s Opposite Day” and “We danced on the ceiling like Lionel Richie on crack.” (His Mirman-penned program bio notes, “I first met him when he officiated Amber Tamblyn and David Cross-Tamblyn’s wedding ceremony… There is no doubt that poetry is one of the most abused and unbearable art forms and to see someone transform it into something funny and touching is a pleasure.” )
“Currently unemployed” former Daily Show correspondent Wyatt Cenac started off slow with unoriginal complaints about purchasing wedding gifts and how marriage changes guys, but soon found his pace when admitting an inability to sustain relationships longer than four months, saying, “I don’t want to watch fall television by myself… I will commit to a shitty TV show before I commit to an okay relationship.” Cenac ended with a recent misunderstanding that he’d be attending a gay wedding; turned out he’d only assumed a friend was a lesbian based on her not wanting to sleep with him when they first met and an affinity for making her own ice cream.
Mirman retook the stage with a freezer bag of frozen bull penises, which he figured he’d start selling as unusual gift items complete with cutsey message tags: “Life is like a box of chocolates. Look at the key so you don’t eat something you’re allergic to,” “Happy anniversary. I love you so much,” and “This bull dick entitles the holder to a one-hour sensual message.” He then related the true story of the time he and Michael Stipe were robbed by police officers in Mexico and introduced a video entitled “Confused About the Details,” in which his sobbing uncertainty about Obamacare spiral into other areas of his life.
It was a tough set to follow for even public-radio staple (and producer of Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me) Ira Glass, who was backed by dancers Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass as he contributed a piece involving a touring Riverdance company and their desire to win the Mega Millions jackpot. Though the production struggled to fully connect, it was nevertheless whimsical and well-received, particularly when Glass joined in the closing choreography.
Final performer Jim Gaffigan confessed, “I learned something tonight: If you want to feel real dumb, go on after Ira Glass” and pointed out to the Brooklyn crowd, “You know you can pretend to be poor in Manhattan, too.” His impressively tight closing set contained jabs at tourists, Times Square and local TV—“I love watching NY1. It’s like watching a friend in a play. ‘Good for you! Good for you for pretending to be a newscaster!’”—before revisiting his reliable preoccupation with food, including to the eco-merits of eating an entire pint of ice cream in one sitting: “I’m conserving energy by not re-freezing it!” Though a chunk on doughnuts (“According to my health-nut wife, they’re not appropriate for trail mix. I’m just on a different trail!”) tread dangerously close to Mitch Hedberg’s insistence that a purchase receipt was unnecessary, Gaffigan elicited wall-to-wall laughs with condemnations of Southern cuisine, Kobe beef and hot dogs: “Hot dogs are like strippers; no one wants to know the backstory.” (He later confirmed that the receipt bit was new and that he’d been unaware of Hedberg’s prior version.)
Tuxedoed waiters then made the rounds with candy and cookies as the audience trickled out, speculating on what other surprises the remaining three nights of the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival had in store.