It’s always fascinating to me to see a comedian work through a joke, tweaking it and molding it to a place where it reliably gets laughs. It Starts with a Joke displays this process admirably in Eugene Mirman, as he perseveres to get a new joke to work as his tenth and final Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival draws closer. But the challenge is a unique and deeply personal one for Mirman, and it’s this scenario that brings unexpected heart to this festival documentary.
Shot at the Bell House in Brooklyn during the final festival, and filled in with footage from Mirman’s home and archival footage from a decade of the seminal alt-comedy gathering, the first half of It Starts with a Joke seems to be a celebration of Mirman. Comics and personalities like Janeane Garofalo, Bobcat Goldthwait, Wyatt Cenac, and Kumail Nanjiani talk about how Mirman played a role in the rise of alt-comedy at the same time that more traditional standup was thriving uptown. As he and his friends struggled with the comedic establishment, the inaugural festival was in fact borne from a joke made with Mike Birbiglia: what if there were a festival, that made fun of many other existing festivals?
But as the festival grew, so too did its impact and significance for comics who found a home and community on its shows and in its rooms. A particularly detailed flashback to “The Drunk Show” showed a heartwarming if slightly nervewracking montage of drunken human pyramids, shot-fueled arm wrestling contests, and a shockingly alert but very drunk Ira Glass trying standup for the first time. It’s these warm memories that make the viewer feel so comfortable with the comedy being shown on stage from the final festival.
Then, a shift. Jim Gaffigan comes to the stage, with material about his wife’s recent bout with cancer. And in that process, we come to learn that Mirman is going through something similar: his own wife’s cancer. The joke he’s been struggling to make work? A series of icebreaker cards to help him talk about it. And, as it was described prior to the screening by Mirman and director Julie Smith Clem, “it becomes a love story”- one of how their love and relationship grew as the festival grew, and how the end of the festival might represent a far greater shift in Mirman’s personal life.
Perhaps the most beautiful piece of the documentary is how, in watching Mirman struggle with this previously unexplored vulnerability onstage, other comics in his community attempt to do the same. Jon Glazer shares a story onstage about his father’s cancer. Bobcat Goldthwait tells jokes about his friendship with Robin Williams. In an interview, Kristen Schaal lauds her longtime friend for being so open, while sharing some of her own struggles for the first in in a way that she hasn’t explored publicly. The tone is balanced beautifully, with plenty of opportunities to laugh amidst truly emotional moments.
The festival lives on spiritually, with the help of Janelle James and her inaugural outing as the event’s marquee name. But It Started as a Joke captures a seminal time for the growth of the festival under its original namesake…in all the hilarity and occasional heartbreak that befits it. It was a wonderful peek inside the long-running event and what it gave to the comics who got to take part over the course of a decade—as well as the needed community and early collaboration that it gave to its creator.