The Boston Phoenix
July 30 - August 6, 1998


Portrait of the artist as a young celebrity

by Tom Scocca

I was born and raised in Mexico. You probably couldn't tell, could you? That's 'cause it's a complete lie. I was never born or raised. I don't even know the English word for how I got here.

I know the Mexican word.

-- "An Evening with Eugene," Saturday, July 18, 1998

Eugene is headlining, and posterity will be able to hear it. The tape is rolling as he steps to the mic in the Comedy Studio, the part-time stage up on the third floor of the Hong Kong Restaurant, in Harvard Square. Tonight's show is billed as "An Evening with Eugene," in which Eugene Mirman, age 23, is recording his first CD of standup.

Rick Jenkins, the MC and Comedy Studio proprietor, has urged the audience to be good and enthusiastic. The crowd -- near the little room's capacity of three or four dozen, on chairs and banquettes -- is complying as best it can. These fans don't seem to be in the habit of whooping and guffawing. It's a younger audience than you'd see at a bigtime club like the Comedy Connection, and scruffier -- the hip sort of scruffy. It's a Eugene crowd.

Eugene is a bit scruffy himself. He's pale and medium-sized, slightly barrel-shaped, dressed like anybody else in the room. His hair is very thick and dark, close to the scalp and low on his nape, with heavy sideburns, so that it looks as if he's got a bat clinging to the back of his head. His face is mobile, with mournful blue eyes, and there's something immediately endearing about it.

"I'm kind of nervous," he says, slowly, " 'cause tonight's the first night I've ever spoken English. So you'll have to bear with me, fol, kuh, suh. Folks." His voice is deep and merry and deliberate, and he follows up with a strange joke about panty shields. Over the next 45 minutes, he will get stranger. He will read a mock storybook called "Charlie and the Pelvis." He will do an impersonation of someone dicking around with a guitar that itself borders on dicking around with a guitar. He will turn the stage over to a crude-mouthed Teddy Ruxpin, the talking stuffed bear. He will present the first joke he ever wrote, and the worst joke he ever wrote.

All of this falls under the rubric of "alternative comedy," which is roughly defined as offhand-seeming comedy that's self-aware about comic conventions. Mirman is Boston's alternative-comedy impresario and poster boy. He didn't pioneer the genre, any more than Gang Green invented punk rock. But since he moved to Somerville a year and a half ago, fresh out of Hampshire College, he's been pulling a Boston scene together: launching the absurdist newspaper the Weekly Week, hosting an alternative-standup series at the Green Street Grill, forming the sketch group P.S. Absurdo. Veteran Boston comedian D.J. Hazard calls Eugene's arrival "an energy pellet in the engine" of local alternative comedy; Rick Jenkins, introducing Eugene's act, declares that he "literally changed the way comedy is done."

And Eugene has let people know about it. A self-described "publicity whore," he may not be the most famous person in Boston, but he's got to be the most famous one who still scoops ice cream by day. His image, like a goldfish, grows to fill its surroundings. If nobody west of Amherst has any idea who Eugene is, no matter. He'll just make sure he's on a first-name basis with everyone in points east.

Actually, I was born in Russia. And I came here when I was about five. So all of the teeth that I have now are completely different from the teeth I had before. Back in Russia. I have all-new American teeth. All of my teeth -- all of 'em, new. I don't have any of -- I have none of the same teeth that I had originally. Maybe I'm being unclear. The teeth that I have now, here? [opening mouth] -- all new. And I had none of these teeth in Russia.

Eugene is explaining his background while drinking a Sprite in a Harvard Square coffee shop. The part about emigrating from Russia is true. "The KGB at some point came to our home to try to find a book they thought my father had," he says. "We weren't rebels or anything. . . . We didn't fight the Man. But we did leave the Man."

The family ended up in Lexington, where Eugene discovered notoriety. "I was pretty much hated till the middle of 11th grade," he says. "I was really infamous. People would stop their cars and yell, `Hey, that's Eugene,' and point at me." When his dog was killed by a car, he says, "this one girl told me that it committed suicide because it didn't love me."

Meanwhile, he says, he was listening to Emo Phillips records over and over. In 11th grade, he and a friend put on a comic play, and people liked it. Then he decided to run for senior-class president. "My campaign slogan was -- a friend of mine had thought of this -- `It's not a change, it's a mutation,' " he says. "I came really close, too. If 10 people had voted the other way, I'd have to organize our reunions."

By the end of high school, he was doing standup at Catch a Rising Star and following Boston comedians like Tony V and Frank Santorelli and D.J. Hazard. "This stereotype of '80s comedy . . . is like a person in a sports jacket talking about relationships," he says. "But they would take an entire audience to see a movie and talk throughout the movie, or they would pretend that they were taking each other hostage, [or] they would suck pizza with a Shop-Vac."

At Hampshire, Mirman designed his own major in comedy, doing papers on Lenny Bruce and on the sociology of humor. "I learned that nobody knows why people laugh, in terms of physiology," he says. "I learned about setup-punch line. . . . Basically, you say something and then you deny it. A lot of comedy is just, `you think this, but really this!' And you say it a little louder, and go like that" -- he beams and spreads his hands -- "and everybody laughs."

The demonstration does get a laugh. A large part of Eugene's appeal is content-independent; it is, in fact, all in the delivery. Among his fellow alternative comics, who opened the evening for him, Patrick Borelli might have had more piercingly hilarious material, and Eugene's roommate, Brendon Small, may have taken bigger comedic risks. But Eugene has the knack for selling the jokes. Often his work has a time-release quality: he gives the punch line (or the anti-punch line) and then stands, radiating Eugene-ness, till the laughter kicks in like an old radio warming up.

You remember Andy Warhol? Right? Remember his famous quote, everybody gets 15 minutes of fame?

Was he talkin' about the movie? 'Cause I understood the whole thing. It's just dancin'.

Eugene is recognized in the coffee shop where he's giving an interview. Just inside the door, a girl in hipster glasses accosts him, saying she wants to get his autograph on a picture because somebody told her he was going to be famous. Upstairs, it's the waitress's turn. "Don't you work at Toscanini's?" she asks. He confirms. "OK," she says. "I went in there one day, like a month ago. You were so funny. You were just hilarious. Someone was standing there and not ordering, and you were talking to him, and he wasn't talking back. I don't remember exactly what you were saying, but it was really funny." Eugene thanks her, and she leaves.

"I didn't plan this," he protests. "Or if I did," he adds, "it's pretty inventive, and it seemed natural, and that's really all that counts."

This outlook -- that publicity is where preparation meets opportunity -- has served Eugene well. Since he first cracked the Boston Globe's "Names & Faces" column last October, his name has appeared there as many times as (to stick within his age bracket) budding Celtics star Ron Mercer, NHL Rookie of the Year Sergei Samsonov, and Baby Spice, combined.

Of course, he is still scooping ice cream, and looking for a better job. And he's still working the press. "I would love to have a talk show," he says. "You should put that I'd like to have a talk show. That should be this big headline: EUGENE WANTS A RADIO TALK SHOW."

You can make things change. Eugene knows this. "At my high-school reunion, people came up to me and apologized for being so mean to me," he says. "It's not like I spent my whole life despised and now I want to build a bomb. I eventually grew past all that and now I'm succeeding to some degree. It's not huge, but it's my degree."

Tom Scocca can be reached at tscocca[a]

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