Film Review: “It Started as a Joke”

Starring: Eugene Mirman, Kristen Schaal, Michael Ian Black, Kumail Nanjiani, Mike Birbiglia
Directed by: Julie Smith Clem and Ken Druckerman
Unrated
Running Time: 76 mins.
Gravitas Ventures

A couple weeks ago, right as the news in and around New York was starting to turn towards where we are now and I was sort of sick myself (different reason), I saw one of my favorite Tribeca Film Fest movies on a dvd display and knew I had to get it. It was Mike Birbiglia’s 2016 comedy Don’t Think Twice. I hadn’t seen it since enjoying it at Tribeca but it was exactly the thing I needed right now. That film follows a close-knit improv group in New York (including Birbiglia, Keegan-Michael Key and Chris Gethard) as one of their number rises to a new level of fame and the others do their best to deal with what that means to the group while also contending with where they are in their personal lives. It’s incredibly heart-warming, honest and very very funny.

Why have I launched into a mini review of Don’t Think Twice at the beginning of this review? For a start, Birbiglia was credited as being part of the “joke” that directors Julie Smith Clem and Ken Druckerman’s new documentary, It Started as a Joke references in its title–many of the stars of Don’t Think Twice were also veterans of the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival that it focuses on–so I think they won’t mind. Secondly because they both show how cathartic comedy can be when navigating the uncertainties of life. As one of the doc’s interviewees says, “comedy helps cope.” It’s coincidence that It Started as a Joke landed in the film release marketplace such as it is, but that message would be valid even in the best of times. It Started as a Joke evolves from a showcase of a wealth of comedic talents into something much more intimate and touching. Through the access Mirman grants into how the festival came about and how eventually he used it as an outlet for coping with his wife’s cancer diagnosis, Clem and Druckerman have captured something special.

The documentary does a great job at building up what a specific and joyful time the EMCF was for a certain ‘class’ of Brooklyn comics. It features a big lineup of talents that are now household names: Kumail Kanjiani credits Mirman for helping him to stay in NYC, “The State” members Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter are on hand as well as Mirman’s “Bob’s Burgers” co-star Kristen Schaal, even NPR’s Ira Glass wound up shit-faced at the fest’s “Drunk Show”. Not something I expected to see!

Throughout all the hilarious content of the fest, the interspersed interviews with the talent really illuminate what a unique comedic presence Mirman was and continues to be. He didn’t arrive with traditional observational humor, rather with highly absurdist riffs and things like visual advertisements for shapes (“FUCKEDUPAGON! Let’s PARTY!” is a fave of mine). It struck a chord with his peers and out of that came his comedy festival which, while parodying ‘actual’ comedy fests of the time, grew into something too large to be a prank anymore and had a successful run from 2008-2017.

The subject of Mirman’s personal life was not something he really delved into in his acts but when his wife Katie was diagnosed with breast cancer, it became clear that his work could also be an outlet for some of the fear and frustration. The doc follows Mirman as he develops a bit based on pitch black greeting cards for people with cancer for example–all with his wife’s support, of course. As Mirman opens himself up, so to do his peers which is where this doc really shines. Clem and Druckerman capture many moments of comics letting their guard down both on stage and off. Based on the talent involved with this film, I knew going in I could count on plenty of laughter, but I came away also appreciating the tears that came with them.

It Started as a Joke is now available on iTunes

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