Eugene Mirman Celebrates the Inimitable Robyn Hitchcock
Photo by Alicia J. Rose courtesy of Yep Roc
It's like those videos of cross-species animal friendships, but even cuter: Daft comedian Eugene Mirman, impresario of the Brooklyn comedy festival bearing his name, onstage at North Carolina's Cat's Cradle club with daft psych-pop cult hero Robyn Hitchcock, the rare rock-era musician whose old-man albums outclass most of his young ones.
See also: Interview: Robyn Hitchcock
They're riffing. Lanky Hitchcock, silver-haired and better-looking than his younger self, speaks the kind of surrealist nonsense that has long distinguished his stage shows. (On his strongest late-career live record, Storefront Hitchcock, he introduces a spare and spidery ballad by announcing, "I don't know what kind of church you like to imagine, but I like to imagine one that's filled with carcasses.") At the Cat's Cradle he holds forth about coconuts, how it's fortunate that the "sticky milk" and "fibrous matter" is on the inside rather than the out.
Jolly Mirman agrees, his hair, collar, and smile all picture-day perfection. The comic adds that he can't think of any fruit that's delicious on the surface but brown and fuzzed-over beneath. Hitchock ponders this, then insists that surely, something in the world must be like that — perhaps one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live?
Mirman says, "Yes, it's true. What we're describing really is Jim Belushi."
The discussion wigs further out from there, singer and comedian trying to work out which Belushi is which: Who had the sword, who had the delicious surface? As improv, it's florid, fecund, something like the raw material of both performers' art laid bare before a crowd. Hitchcock's songs have always throbbed with the milky and the fibrous, and in recent years his lyrics — often a garden-party of the viscera — have opened up to pop-culture namedropping: Vera Lynn, Gene Hackman, and Debbie Reynolds all haunt his work. Mirman, meanwhile, listens closely and wrings one-liners from Hitchcock's spiels.
This Saturday the pair are reunited at Mirman's Pretty Good Friends shows at the Bell House, part of the seventh annual Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival. In a chat last week, Mirman told the Voice that Hitchcock's music has long been important to him, going back to his days in a Massachusetts high school. "My friend David Ramsey gave me a cassette of a bunch of Hitchcock songs in 10th or 11th grade, I think," Mirman says. "It was solo stuff and some Soft Boys songs, an odd collection. But I liked it and sought out more."
This was in the late '80s, when the culture was more stubborn about revealing its curiosities. "Discovering something then was maybe more exciting, because you had to go somewhere and get it," Mirman says. But it's not like his early favorite Hitchcock records — the jaunty debut Black Snake Diamond Role; the pained and naked masterwork I Often Dream of Trains — were tough to score. "Back then there were record stores!" (An aside: Mirman likes Other Music and New York's clutch of rare vinyl shops, where he picks up 45s for his jukebox, but he admits he looks forward to trips to big, browsable spots like Boston's Newbury Comics or the Amoeba Records in L.A. and Berkeley: "There's nothing like a warehouse, here," he says.)
Thanks to the chipper dada of early near-hits like "Balloon Man" and "My Wife and My Dead Wife," Hitchcock's rep in the '80s was often that of a comic eccentric rather than a songwriter of note. Mirman appreciates the funny stuff — he says "Obviously, I consider humor a powerful artistic force" in the friendliest, least pompous way such a thing can be said — but he recognized there was more to it. "The songs were funny but also sincere. They're full of joy and sometimes pain, and he balances sweetness with seriousness."
Here's a sweeping generalization: When an artist thoughtfully praises specific elements of another artist's work, the praiser reveals something of what he or she aspires to. Mirman's comedy, like Hitchcock's songs, is playful, welcoming, steeped in whimsy and balderdash that make the anger and hurt more potent. Those are the qualities that made my eyes sting with laugh-tears the first time I ever saw Mirman perform; they're also what make Bob's Burgers, the Fox cartoon he lends his voice to, the best comedy on free TV.
It's a short leap from Hitchcock's '84 line "Put your faith in God, he won't expect you" (from the jauntily agnostic country sing-along "Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus") to Mirman's signature observation that "God is a 12-year-old boy with Asperger's." And is it any surprise that the guy who became an accidental institution by slapping his then–not-quite-famous name on a lark of a small comedy festival spent a lot of his youth listening to "The Man Who Invented Himself"?
Hitchcock and Mirman have hit it off off-stage as well. On Marc Maron's WTF podcast, Hitchcock described enjoying "heavy grooves" with the comedian just a couple months ago — and chucking six weeks of no drinking/no smoking out the window. Mirman laughs about it but doesn't spill any rich details. And he's quick to admit that while Hitchcock does well on Mirman's talking-to-an-audience turf, Mirman doesn't quite know what to do with himself on Hitchcock's. Another YouTube curio: Hitchcock, Peter Buck, Ken Stringfellow, and Scott McCaughey in Mexico, tearing into the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On." Mirman stands at a mic, looking overjoyed and a bit confused, the ace performer now something more like a fan who can't believe his luck.
He finishes a drink and gets handed another by someone in the crowd. He nods along; he pumps his fist. On the chorus he seems to shout along, but Mirman's humble and sensible — he's only pretending. He knows enough not to ruin it.
More info at eugenemirmancomedyfestival.com
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