Interview: Eugene Mirman

Slow learner
By ROB TURBOVSKY  |  February 17, 2009

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Much like the stand-up that has made him an alt-comedy mainstay, Eugene Mirman's first book, The Will to Whatevs (Harper Perennial), is a freewheeling mix of bemused ironies and trenchantly silly non-sequiturs. Mirman, who plays landlord Eugene on HBO's Flight of the Conchords, has written possibly the only "guide to modern life" that promises a sequel in which readers "will learn how to lose weight and teach animals to give each other blow jobs." After his family emigrated from Russia, Mirman grew up in Lexington, where he had the kind of adolescent experience that serves as an ideal lesson in what to watch out for when you're growing up. I called to talk about the book while he was wandering around a mall "in Tallahassee, sadly."

Having escaped communism, do your parents have any residual paranoia about the kinds of jokes you make in this book and on stage?
I forget what I once said on the phone to my mom, but she was like, "Don't say that on the phone." But I would think that too if my phones had been tapped by the KGB like her phones were. That was one of the reasons we left, because she heard their equipment mess up and could hear her conversation rewinding at high speed and then playing forward while she was still on the phone. Scared the shit out of her.

Is there a difference between a life guide and a self-help book?
I think that my book is a bit of a self-help-slash-guide. A lot of self-help books are. Mine is less helpful, maybe. I just saw someone on TV who wrote some sort of big self-help book, and the things that they were talking about on TV were the things that I mentioned half-kidding, so I think I've accidentally given people accurate advice. It's funny to see someone who is like, "I've been studying for 50 years, and I've lived through so much, and this is what I suggest." And I'm like, "Wait. I suggested that."

What about doing this sort of book appealed to you?
I think I was looking for something suited to my sense of humor. It also came out of the fact that I did an advice column on my Web site for a long time. It was me responding to people's questions. Then I turned that into a little book that I'd sell on tour. From that, I had the idea of pitching this book, and then it morphed into what it is now, rather than me responding to letters. It sort of evolved organically.

Did you read any self-help books to get the form down?
I looked at lots of them. There are a lot of elements. Some self-help books have time lines. A lot of them have diagrams. Some have this informal tone that's like, "Hey, I'm your buddy, and I'm going to show you how to find a husband."

This seems to go way beyond a parody of a life guide.
I didn't particularly want to write a parody of anything. I wanted to sort of mix. Half of it's true and half of it's false, and I didn't want to distinguish. It all blended together, which I think I really liked. It felt much better to write something that involved half real anecdotes, half ludicrous stuff — things that I think are good ideas and partially made-up bad ideas.

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