For those in the back row: The First Amendment guarantees your right to free speech in that the government (mostly) cannot persecute you for what you say. It does not protect you from criticism or shame—the social consequences of what you say. You are not going to be arrested for making a joke. That doesn’t mean there will never be consequences, or that clarifying a statement as a joke after the fact protects you from the consequences of that statement.
I mention this because the general landscape of what jokes are okay to make—and what jokes mean about the person telling them—has only gotten dicier since Mike Birbiglia wrote and performed his new Netflix special, Thank God For Jokes was written and first performed. Over the course of his career, Birbiglia has gracefully evolved from a traditional stand-up to a one-man storyteller, preferring small Off-Broadway runs of themed monologues directed by the Barrow Group’s Seth Barrish. But his new special, which revolves around the singular power of joke-telling, its benefits and complicities, is not inspired by Sam Hyde or PewDiePie or anyone else who insists that anything done in the name of comedy is fair play. Birbiglia’s jumping-off point for this special is the Charlie Hebdo shooting, which, despite legitimate criticism of the magazine’s use of racial caricature, is morally pretty open-and-shut: No one should be murdered for the jokes they make. (I would go as far as to say that people shouldn’t be murdered ever—but that’s just me.) He doesn’t use the tragedy to argue which jokes are right and which are wrong, but to hone in on the power of jokes more broadly. How do we reckon with an art form that prompted such violent reaction when, in Birbiglia’s words, “jokes have to be about someone”?
That said, it’s not like Birbiglia is advocating joke-telling as a reasonable mask for cruelty. He goes out of his way to clarify that jokes have been largely ruined by assholes, and that “jokes are an externalization of your inner thoughts, and often your inner thoughts are inappropriate.” Birbiglia is not a provocateur—he has always been one of our greatest champions of decency, not by condescending as Cosby did but by reminding us how hard decency is to come by. How our best intentions need to circle around themselves many, many times before finally becoming an act of goodness. This is reinforced by his strengths as a writer in general; he understands messiness. He confirms for us that the things we mean and the things we say and the things we do combine in ways we don’t expect, and add or remove distance between people in ways we don’t always anticipate.
He’s as funny here as he’s ever been. We generally think of comic timing as a matter of degrees of speed, but Birbiglia understands that the real measure of timing is in the ratio of speed to agonizing slowness. He is excellent at breaking down a moment to its smallest components and walking us through it, as in anecdotes featuring Jared Leto, the Muppets and the hilariously mundane elements of Birbiglia’s marriage.
But what makes this hour truly special is his ultimate point: Jokes are not always good or always bad, but they do bring us closer. This sounds more saccharine than it is. Birbiglia avoids the “we need jokes because people need laughter” cliché. He’s more interested in jokes literally as an act of strange intimacy between the person telling it, the person it’s about and the people observing—and how messy that gets when all three camps are in the same room,as was the case when Birbiglia hosted the Gotham Awards, the incident that bookends Thank God For Jokes. Birbiglia’s jokes were thought out, even the hysterical one that angers David O. Russell in the special’s finale. Ultimately the decision to tell them came down to Birbiglia’s desire to be true to himself as a comedian. Note: not true to Comedians, true to Birbiglia as a comedian.
That’s an important distinction. That’s why this special does not defend PewDiePie or any other idiot telling “jokes” in order to get attention while intentionally or unintentionally defending, say, a racist nationalist ideology. Birbiglia is defending the idea that jokes can make us better neighbors because they force us to listen to the things people are trying to say in the context in which they are trying to say them. Telling a joke to someone is trusting them with something. The joke you tell can violate the trust of the person listening, and your reaction to a joke can violate the trust the comedian placed in you. It’s very complicated. Not complicated in the way assholes who try to defend other assholes say it is. Complicated in that jokes, like everything else, do have consequences, and we must navigate those consequences together.
When I first saw this show in New York in May, it was the day after a devastating argument with a girl that left me feeling guilty and numb and apart from other people, heading downtown on the A train to try to catch a show to which I would likely be late, moving from an obstructed seat to an unobstructed one when I felt I could get away with it. Seeing the show didn’t simply “make me feel better.” Birbiglia’s storytelling, the intimate exchange of a joke for laughter, the sense of mutual trust between performer and audience—they all served to tighten up my world again, if just a little bit.
All of Birbiglia’s specials do this to a certain extent. Thank God For Jokes doesn’t quite have the thematic coherence or the heartbreaking sweep of his previous two specials; it’s closer in essence to My Secret Public Journal Live, its narrative ambitions similarly modest in comparison to Sleepwalk With Me, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, or even Don’t Think Twice. But that’s beside the point. With a craftsman this assured, we could definitely thank God for jokes in general, or we could cut out the middleman by just thanking Birbiglia for the jokes he chooses to tell.
Thank God For Jokes is streaming on Netflix.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.