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Cabinet of Wonders spills entertainment onto Aspen stage

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesComedian Eugene Mirman appears in the variety show, Wes & Eugene's Cabinet of Wonders, Sunday, Jan. 30 at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House.
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ASPEN – When I ask Eugene Mirman how he got turned onto comedy, he explains that he grew up in the ’80s, as if this were an obvious and satisfactory answer to the question.But wait: Wasn’t the ’80s the era when cable television metastasized, dozens of channels needed programming, and some executives realized that the cheapest thing you could possibly throw on TV, and still plausibly call it entertainment, was standup comedy? Wasn’t this the time when comedy itself became the joke – an endless parade of going-nowhere performers doing fart and sex gags, cursing excessively, using zany voices in some bare-bones club in the middle of America – all for the amusement of a vast audience hooked up to cable?Mirman acknowledges the point: Much of what he saw in those formative years wasn’t exactly funny. But he has some caveats: He had been born, and spent his first four years, in Russia, leaving him, even as a teenager, “slightly foreign,” and thus somewhat indiscriminate in American humor. As a kid living in the suburbs – of Boston, in his case – there was no escaping standup. And as he watched more and more comedy, he did develop more discriminating tastes, eventually favoring the deadpan Steven Wright; the acerbic and offbeat Bob Goldthwait; and the witty, childlike Emo Phillips, whom Mirman circles back around to several times in the conversation. “There was nobody else making one-liners about Thomas Aquinas, and all these clever things,” Mirman said of Phillips.And Mirman says he can’t be blamed for missing an earlier period of comedy, when being genuinely funny was pretty much required. “It’s not like I could have gone to see Steve Martin in the ’70s,” he said. “I was a kid in Moscow.”Mirman has since pieced together a strategy that keeps him largely buffered from lousy comedy. At 36, he has a career that exists outside of comedy clubs. He does standup, but much of that has been presented as the opening act for music groups, including Yo La Tengo, Gogol Bordello and Modest Mouse. (He also did standup in two appearances at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, in Aspen.) He has appeared as a recurring character on the HBO musical-comedy series, “Flight of the Conchords”; and has served as a comic commentator, filing humorous video reports from the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. In 2009, Mirman saw the publication of his first book, a mock self-help guide, “The Will to Whatevs,” and the release of his third album, “God Is a Twelve-Year-Old Boy with Asperger’s.” The title to the latter comes from a particularly smart Mirman bit, in which the comedian attempts to explain the Maker’s mysterious ways: “Aggh, I f—ed up the Earth… . I should probably flood it and get two of every animal on a boat – that’s the only solution I see. Religion is not a leap of faith … It’s high-functioning autism.”On Sunday, Jan. 30, at the Wheeler Opera House, Mirman appears in Wes & Eugene’s Cabinet of Wonders. The variety show series, which Mirman founded with British-born novelist Wes Stace (who also performs as a musician under the name John Wesley Harding), seems to perfectly suit Mirman. He and Stace hand-pick their guests, a mix of writers, musicians and even visual artists, for each performance. The list of performers for the Aspen show, presented by the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, includes singer-songwriters Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield, poet-lyricist Paul Muldoon, novelist Colson Whitehead, and performance illustrator Michael Arthur, as well as Mirman and Stace. (A Cabinet of Wonders event last summer, at Belly Up Aspen, included musicians John Doe and Kristin Hersh and novelist Colum McCann.)The Cabinet of Wonders format, which dates back three or four years, serves a bit as a bubble, keeping out the things Mirman doesn’t care for.”I surround myself by things I like, and insulate myself from bad comedy,” Mirman said from his home in Brooklyn. “There’s tons of terrible comedy, but I don’t care. I don’t have to see it. There are pop bands I never listen to, and it doesn’t disturb me from enjoying the music I like. [Among his favorites: Robyn Hitchcock, Velvet Underground, Yo La Tengo, Wilco and Jonathan Richman.] And sometimes I do see terrible comedy, and when I see it, I go, ‘Wow, I wish I didn’t have to see that.'”••••Mirman’s parents were both mathematicians in Moscow. As Jews, and as people with a curiosity about the world, they were suspect. Mirman said his father was interrogated for several days, and had his phone tapped, because of the books he read. After the family moved to the States in the late ’70s, his parents moved into computer programming and engineering work.Mirman didn’t seem destined to follow those career footsteps – although he, too, raised suspicions among the authorities. As a sixth-grader – now in Lexington, Mass. – he was sent to a therapist and put in a special ed class for dressing up as Bill Cosby and lip-synching some of Cosby’s material. “I was a kid. Who knows what I was thinking?” he said.Mirman’s entertainment path began, in effect, by creating a comic cocoon of sorts. For college, he attended Hampshire College, a liberal arts school in western Massachusetts known for its alternative views on education. Mirman took that idea to the limit, and majored in comedy. His thesis was a one-hour standup performance, but he adds that to fulfill certain none-too-restrictive requirements, he also wrote a paper on Lenny Bruce’s effects on culture, and the physiology of laughter. (Which he says is a badly overlooked topic: “Nobody cares why people laugh in general. They only care about why schizophrenics laugh in inappropriate places.”)That majoring in comedy is funny in itself is not lost on Mirman. But he is quick to note that, as it turns out, it was a wise use of his college years.”Is it any more impractical than majoring in philosophy, and then temping at a law firm?” he said. “And look at how practical it is now. It was so odd and ephemeral, but it turned out being my trade school.”About seven years ago, at a variety show called Tinkle, Mirman met Wesley Stace, a musician who would soon be branching off into writing novels. (Stace launches his third novel, “Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer,” with an event on Monday, Jan. 31, at Explore Booksellers.) The two recognized they shared artistic tastes and began collaborating. A few years ago, in New York, they launched Cabinet of Wonders, a variety show which marries the worlds of music and writing, while branching off into comedy and visual arts. Among the performers who have taken part are musicians Rosanne Cash and Josh Ritter and writer Rick Moody.”The really fun thing is to bring in new people with people who have done it before,” Mirman said, noting that Sunday night’s newbies are Hatfield and Dando.A project Mirman has his eye on is a documentary film. As he envisions it, the project would have him return to Russia – it would be his first time since emigrating – and examining what it might have been like to pursue comedy there. “Restricting, I imagine,” he said.To Mirman, an advantage of living in the Internet age is that a comedian doesn’t need to cast his artistic net so wide in search of an audience. “You can make the media you want, get the word out, and have enough people support it,” he said. “It goes around the mechanism of having to make comedy that appeals to everyone.”One route he is happy not to take is the TV sitcom. Yes, Mirman happens to be featured on a pair of TV shows at the moment: the animated Fox show “Bob’s Burgers,” in which he plays a child prankster whose family operates a burger joint; and “Delocated,” a Cartoon Network show that has him as a Russian hit-man and comedian. He has moments of enjoyment on the shows, especially when he can throw unexpected sophistication into the mix. On “Bob’s Burgers,” he improvised a bit about Salman Rushdie, which clearly pleases him. “There’s something fun seeing a joke about Salman Rushdie on Fox TV,” he said.But for the most part, sitcoms – or more particularly, what it often takes to get on one – is not Mirman’s preferred avenue.”I don’t like the process of auditioning,” he said. “I don’t want my days to have been devoted to pursuing that.”stewart@aspentimes.com


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