By: Trevor Chartrand
It Started as a Joke is an emotionally charged documentary that will sort-of sneak up on you. It’s so sneaky in fact, that the film will try to convince you that you’re watching ‘just another Netflix-style comedy special’ – until you’re suddenly not. You’ll let your guard down, laughing with the featured comedians, chuckling at their on and off stage antics. It’s funny, it’s goofy, and it’s a great time… and then things get serious. This is when the film takes a surprising turn as it incrementally descends into darker and darker territory, becoming a profound and bittersweet study of comedy in the face of sadness and tragedy.
On the surface, the film explores the history of the long-running Eugene Mirman’s Comedy Festival, a stand-up special with ironic origins intended to mock ‘real’ festivals in the industry. Over the years, the special’s creator Eugene Mirman (Bob’s Burgers) has built a reputation as a comedian’s comedian, and in much the same way the comedy festival has followed suit. This is a show for comedians, by comedians. For its tenth anniversary, Eugene announces that the comedy special is coming to an end. After running for a decade, the show will no longer go on.
The film primarily features interviews with fellow comedians and explores their history with comedy and their relationship with Eugene. This is all intercut, of course, with their sets on stage during the final comedy show. It Started as a Joke gives the impression that it’s an end of the school year, the signing the yearbook, so to speak – a sendoff for Eugene and his friends at the festival.
Then Eugene starts talking about cancer. In the second half of the documentary, the filmmakers reveal the real reason the comedy festival is coming to an end – Eugene’s wife, the incredibly talented Katie Tharp, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and the next few years are likely to be last. To address this, Eugene has prepared a few cancer bits to include in his stand-up routine. Not one to make light of the situation, his comedic look at his family’s situation appears to have therapeutic resonance for him, his wife, as well as his fellow comedians.
What’s most memorable about this film is the humbled response Eugene’s comedic guests have for Eugene’s story. Those with the challenging task of following his darker set on stage all choose to candidly share their own experience with similar tragic situations. Unsurprisingly, many of these funny people have some deep hurts that come to light here. Eugene started sharing, and in a heartfelt display of humanity, they all start sharing.
Now, there’s still levity to each story, and the film never becomes a sob-fest, but many folks in attendance likely walked away from that show moved. The film effectively captures the profound effects of a shared experience. At the end of an era, the closing of a comedy show, a series of artists all discover and share some truly captivating stories about life and death, sickness and health.
Ultimately, Eugene Mirman’s Comedy Festival may have started as joke, but by its final iteration, it had certainly evolved into something much more meaningful, much more sincere, than its creators could have ever imagined. Well-crafted and genuine, It Started as Joke is a resoundingly sincere and heartfelt film.
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Trevor Chartrand: @OhHaiTrebor