The film begins with a breezy tone, but the subject matter unexpectedly veers in the back half.
It Started as a Joke is a documentary about the 10th and final iteration of the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, a decade-long institution in the world of alternative comedy that began as a lighthearted parody of other, bigger comedy festivals. But the title can also be taken as foreshadowing. The film begins with a breezy tone, but the subject matter unexpectedly veers in the back half.
Most viewers will immediately recognize Eugene Mirman’s voice as that of Gene Belcher’s from “Bob’s Burgers”, but the comic has been an instrumental figure in the Brooklyn comedy scene for years. His stand-up series “Invite Them Up,” co-hosted with Bobby Tisdale, was a mainstay in the East Village and helped break a number of comedians, many of whom have surpassed Mirman himself in fame. So, as much as the documentary sets out to eulogize his erstwhile comedy festival, it also explores the larger camaraderie of the scene and Mirman’s influential place within it.
His peculiar style traces a clear line from his influences Bobcat Goldthwait and Emo Philips to the entire Adult Swim pantheon of post-internet comedy culture. As such, the film brings Mirman together with a number of familiar faces that preceded him alongside those he helped break, generations of hilarious oddballs sharing space together with ease. Seeing the absurdity of Mirman’s stage work, coupled with the irreverent, inside-baseball tenor of the festival’s approach to humor, it feels sad that this film is documenting what seems to be an end to this era.
But then, it becomes clear the film is about a lot more than a festival closing. The filmmakers pivot to Mirman’s relationship with his wife Katie and her years-long battle with cancer. The dichotomy between the image of Mirman from his past with his more matured present and the extenuating circumstances that led to the transformation create a truly touching portrait of a figure previously seen as so weird as to be nearly alien.
It allows the filmmakers, and Mirman’s friends, to explore the deep humanism at the core of his strange approach to stand-up, and the way we use humor to get through difficult times. But it never resorts to easy schmaltz, nor does it feel exploitative in its gaze. This is one of those rare instances where even the most obvious platitudes about life and love come to ring true because of the subject’s undeniable sincerity.
Katie lost that battle, in the end, a year after this film debuted at SXSW, so the film is dedicated in her honor. While that seems like a downer ending to a documentary that begins so frivolously, it’s also sort of the point. At one point, one of the film’s many talking heads remarks, “It doesn’t matter how long something lasts. It just matters if it meant something.” This rings true, albeit in vastly different measures, of Mirman’s festival and his love.