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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Tomfoolery, complaints, and a wedding in Eugene Mirman’s new Netflix special

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On the list of qualities that elevate longtime comedy veterans to the unofficial high-leadership circle, toppers typically include some knack for articulating grand or challenging truths about the human experience through the rhythms and conventions of stand-up. And then there are folks like Eugene Mirman. Since his 2004 album The Absurd Nightclub Comedy Of Eugene Mirman, the Russian-born, Brooklyn-based comedian has honed his persona on the other end of the spectrum, as the consummate goofball in clubs and on the pop-culture periphery. His stage act—a warped mix of show-and-tell, mid-show question-and-answer periods, storytelling, peculiar car thoughts, and understated zingers—furthers his reputation as an affable mischief-maker, the sort who can openly shit on his comedy special’s host city (“Tucson! The greatest city in the area!”) and do so without any genuine appearance of pomposity or ill will. (Customer service agents and the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire may disagree.) In his hour-long special, Vegan On His Way To The Complain Store, Mirman stays true to his own comedic sensibility, though there’s a bit of a devotion to tweaked and repackaged old patterns. Some of the bits hold up well, while others offer worthy but diminishing returns.

Shying away from universal experiences, Mirman’s brand of observational humor feels less like crafted and worked jokes, and more like bona fide anecdotes that would be shared among friends over lunch. About a reporter who misquotes the aphorism “comedy equals tragedy plus time” as “comedy equals tragedy plus timing,” Mirman muses aloud about the small but significant difference: “‘Comedy is tragedy plus timing’ is the idea that, ‘Yesterday I found out that my friend got… Louuu Geeehrig’s diseeease!’ Equally informal and material-inspiring: trips to Guitar Center, the internal joy he feels when he hears gay men’s Bostonian dialects on holiday in Provincetown, and getting mugged by the Mexican police alongside R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe.

At this point, it’s difficult to mentally separate Mirman’s distinct, musically cartoonish voice from his 11-year-old animated counterpart, Gene Belcher, but that’s not a bad thing. As Mirman freely admits, Bob’s Burgers’ keyboard-toting middle-schooler shares much of his own personality: equal parts a curious and eccentric child and an arcane-reference-naming intellectual. (Few comics could so deftly make a punchline out of the name “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad” in 2015, as he does in Vegan On His Way To The Complain Store.) Mirman bypasses the fate of other comedic performers who achieve a wider audiences through their network television or film work. Unlike Lauren Lapkus—whose deferential on-screen persona couldn’t be further from her wonderfully dark stage and podcast characters—understanding the middle Belcher child is essentially understanding Mirman’s stand-up persona.

Absent this time around, by design, is any real religious or political edge, which seems like a missed opportunity. There are no title-worthy runs like in God Is A Twelve-Year-Old Boy With Asperger’s, nor much poking fun at cultural differences or governments, like the eye-opening story about coded immigration language in En Garde, Society. Instead, there’s a good deal of prankish behavior and creative lists involving fake laminated signs, Facebook messages to John Boehner, and, in true Mirman fashion, unique and expensive ways to kvetch to bad service providers. Similar to his public relations battles with Fleet Bank, Delta Airlines, and Time Warner, Mirman responds to a $15 ticket for backing into a parking spot with a full-page ad likening a New Hampshire town’s oppressiveness to Iran.

In Vegan On His Way To The Complain Store, Mirman wields his talent for written stunts to a more positive end as well. Licensed in most of the United States (though he’s unsure of which ones) as an ordained minister, Mirman weds two graphic designer hipsters. It’s a short bit, but it gets to the heart of what makes Mirman great: quick-witted crowd work, and a flair for the whimsical. For Brooklynites, true or at heart, there can’t be a better nuptial.