Review by Sean Boelman
Directed by Julie Smith Clem and Ken Druckerman, It Started as a Joke is a new documentary film exploring the comedy scene in New York City. A consistently entertaining homage to a legendary event, this movie may be a little too short for its own good, but fans will love it nonetheless.
The documentary explores the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival in Brooklyn and the way in which the festival and its creator helped nurture some of the most iconic voices in the NYC alternative comedy scene. Many popular comedians make an appearance in the documentary having performed at Mirman’s festival over the years, so this film will be of interest to anyone with any stakes in modern comedy.
Clem and Druckerman use this movie as a way of showing the impact of the festival, and there really is no better way to do so than to show footage from the performances. Although the festival has (purposefully) come to an end, those who are just now learning about it can experience a little bit of comedy history by seeing what is essentially a best-of reel from the fest.
Because Clem and Druckerman filmed at the last edition of the festival, they had access to get interviews from plenty of recognizable faces. Among the top names seen in the movie are Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Ian Black, Reggie Watts, Kristen Schaal, Jon Glaser, and Bobcat Goldthwait. They all do a good job of showing how wide-reaching the festival is.
That said, the film also doubles as a look into the life of Eugene Mirman. Although the movie isn’t a biography, and it never claims to be, there is a significant portion of the film that focuses on Mirman and how he uses his comedy to cope with his wife’s cancer diagnosis. (She has unfortunately passed since the movie’s production.)
With this, Clem and Druckerman’s film also delivers a message to the audience, that laughter is the best medicine and that even when the world has you down, there’s a way to get back up. It’s thoroughly surprising to see a comedic documentary like this get so personal and emotional, but it works extremely well.
On a technical level, Clem and Druckerman do a very good job of blending the performance footage, interviews, and fly-on-the-wall footage from Mirman’s life. While the movie doesn’t break expectations or take a particularly innovative approach to its storytelling, it still manages to juggle all of its moving parts quite well.
It Started as a Joke is an entertaining and touching documentary that is a must-see for any comedy fan. The hilarious performance footage is worth the rental price by itself, but there’s plenty more that makes this film stand out.
It Started as a Joke hits VOD on April 3.