Mike Birbiglia takes stand-up beyond jokes
On a dimly lit stage in Seattle, comedian Mike Birbiglia appears on the verge of tears as he stands up from his stool and reaches for a revelation about himself and his relationships. It’s a heartfelt moment, of course, and the end of the show, too.
So much of comedy is about surprising one’s audience—great comedians often lead up to a climax; their strongest joke, one the audience couldn’t see coming. So, scrap the joke: what could be more surprising, and therefore funnier, than building up to something else entirely?
“That was definitely our aim, when I worked with my director Seth Barrish, to land on something that the whole show builds towards,” explains Birbiglia of his one-man show My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, which was released on CD and as a Netflix Original last year. “We always try to start with an ending … and then build backwards, so that everything, whether the audience realizes it or not, is building toward that moment. We’re really proud of that.”
The show’s off-Broadway stint helped Birbiglia build a reputation, not just as a seasoned comic, but as monologist and a story-teller. Still, Birbiglia calls himself “a little bit of an underdog in the comedy world,” explaining that thankfully he can still take the subway or ride the bus without getting hassled. It would be hard, after all, for a comedian to relate to his audience once he’s essentially become a goofy rock star with a private jet.
But really, as far as being an “underdog” goes, the writer, director, and star of the 2012 film Sleepwalk With Me is just being unassuming. For example, when comedian Colin Quinn, a Saturday Night Live alum, came to the Rio Theatre last May, the room was about half-full. Birbiglia sold out his show on Sunday, Dec. 7 at the Rio within a month, forcing the theatre to add a second show for the same night.
“I was shocked when that happened. I’ve never been to Santa Cruz,” Birbiglia says. (Perhaps we could give some credit to this town’s public radio crowd, as Birbiglia has appeared on shows like This American Life, Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me and Fresh Air.)
Birbiglia’s unassuming nature runs deep in his comedy—to the point where he occasionally resembles his awkward middle-school self, at least onstage. In My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, he even walks the audience through the seventh grade days when he talked with his crush Lisa on the phone about homework every day and would try to make her laugh. Slowly, they grew closer.
One day, Birbiglia remembers vividly, Lisa told him, “Mike you’ve gotta stop, I’m gonna pee myself.”
“I was like, ‘Wow.’ This was the closest I had ever come to a vagina,” he says onstage.
“That comes from a very real place,” Birbiglia tells GT. “As a kid, I was never an alpha male. I didn’t have physical prowess or dazzling athletic ability. I was pretty funny. I could make people laugh, but really more in private.”
For the most part, though, Birbiglia’s witticisms didn’t go over in large groups during those early years. Often, classmates’ jokes like “Hey, you’re gay” got bigger laughs than observational comedy.
“I actually think that’s one of the misconceptions about comedians,” he says. “People always ask me: ‘Oh, were you the class clown in school?’ I always say, ‘No, I think the class clown is in jail right now. The class clown is a sociopath.’ There’s a degree to which your sense of humor grows as you get older. When you’re a kid, thoughtful observations are not very popular at school. The guy who makes a joke in gym class and whacks people with a wet towel is very popular. When you get older, that guy is in jail.”
INFO: 7:30 p.m. and 9:45 p.m., Rio Theatre, Santa Cruz. 423-8209. $26.25-$42. PHOTO: Mike Birbiglia might be public radio fans’ favorite stand-up comic.