It Started as a Joke

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
It Started as a Joke Movie Poster Image
Touching, funny docu about comedy festival and cancer.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 76 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Sometimes laughter is the best medicine and can help people deal with tragedy. Promotes putting family before work.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Eugene is shown facing, dealing with devastating personal tragedy in best way he knows how: through laughter. He's shown as a person who stays true to his own personal vision, not caring to sell out or to search for bigger paycheck. He's shown as innovative creator of festival that wound up meaning a great deal to a lot of people.


Cancer is discussed at length. Suicide is mentioned.


Sex-related jokes and talk. Sex toys shown in one scene.


Strong, fairly frequent language includes uses of "f--k," "s--t," "c--t," "c--ksucker," "a--hole," "loser," and exclamatory uses of "Jesus" and "Jesus Christ."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Comedians purposely get drunk on stage on "Drunk Night."

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that It Started as a Joke is a documentary about the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival and how Mirman closed it down after 10 years to spend more time with his family and his wife, who was diagnosed with cancer. In the end, it's a story about using humor to work through pain. Due to some strong language and other iffy stuff, it's recommended for more mature teens and up. Language is fairly constant, with many uses of "f--k," "s--t," "c--t," "c--ksucker," and more. There are also sexual references and sex-related talk, and sex toys are shown. Several comedians get very drunk on stage during one show. Violence isn't an issue, but cancer is discussed at length, and suicide is mentioned.

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What's the story?

In IT STARTED AS A JOKE, viewers drop in on the 10th annual -- and final -- Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival. The documentary celebrates Mirman's unique brand of comedy and the way he embraced various fellow quirky comedians, including Kristen Schaal, Kumail Nanjiani, Mike Birbiglia, Janeane Garofalo, Jim Gaffigan, Michael Showalter, Wyatt Cenac, Aparna Nancherla, Reggie Watts, and Bobcat Goldthwait. Mirman's festival developed a reputation for "anything goes," but after 10 years, Mirman has decided to close it down so that he can spend more time with his newly adopted son -- and with his wife, who has been diagnosed with cancer. It will surely be a bittersweet, funny, and memorable night.

Is it any good?

This documentary breezes by quickly, but it manages to capture its subject soulfully while touching on serious subjects and demonstrating that laughter really is the best medicine sometimes. It Started as a Joke features a few revealing sit-down interviews with some of the featured comics, who seem to feel comfortable talking about Mirman and the festival without being "on." The history of the festival itself -- conceived as a spoof of more respectable comedy festivals -- is a bit haphazard. But it includes some of the event's more memorable moments, including off-the-wall ideas that were implemented without question, such as creative category names and a concept that involved getting drunk on stage.

When It Started as a Joke focuses on Mirman, he's remarkably, casually candid. The movie acknowledges that his particular sense of humor is very strange and probably appeals more to other comedians than it does to general audiences, but that also explains the success of the show. In one sequence, we see Mirman workshopping an idea: truthful greeting cards for people with cancer. It's clear that he's trying for laughs, but he's also working out his personal pain by saying it out loud. While it certainly could have dug deeper, the movie nevertheless has the power to make viewers smile through their tears.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how It Started as a Joke portrays drinking. Does "Drunk Night" glamorize alcohol? Are there any consequences for overdoing it?

  • Why does laughing sometimes help people feel better about a tragedy?

  • Is it important to put family before work? Is it possible to juggle both?

Movie details

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For kids who love quirky movies

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