It’s hard not to wonder what elixir of the gods Mike Birbiglia must be sipping. Writing, directing, acting, stand-up, touring, one-man shows: His hands are full, likely even weighted down with the Midas Touch.
Just in the past few years, Birbiglia has managed to create a masterpiece with his film Don’t Think Twice and a critically acclaimed off-Broadway show-turned-special—which he first toured for four years—with Thank God For Jokes. Now, with barely a breath in between, the man behind “What I should have said… was nothing” is jetting off onto his The New One tour.
“I’m in the middle of two tours right now. Don’t know if you can follow the logic of this on my website,” Birbiglia tells me. “One is the work-in-progress tour, and the second one is the show.”
Back when Birbiglia was getting ready to bring Thank God for Jokes on tour, he decided to set up a residency at Brooklyn’s Union Hall as a precursor—a way to gauge audience reactions to new material before sealing it into the touring show. “How do I tell everybody, so there is no ambiguity, that this is working out new material and they shouldn’t take too much stock in it?” he asks. “It will be different from the final version… So I was like, ‘What if I call it Working It Out?’”
Now he’s taken the same approach to The New One: “working it out” into July, then crossing it over into his Just For Laugh show before a two-week residency at the Berkeley Repertory Theater—then off to 25 cities come fall.
“You might come see me in six months or a year and say, ‘That’s better that’s funnier,’” Birbiglia says, relaying the epilogue he appends to every Working It Out show. “But inevitably you will see something tonight that you’ll go, ‘Oh that was my favorite joke, that was my favorite story, what happened to it?’ And the answer is: It’s gone and the reason it’s gone is because of you, and I want you to think about that as you leave this room.’”
“I blame them,” he concludes. “It’s a goofy thing but it actually gets the whole thing across in this really clear way.”
Unlike some other comedians racing for a new special every year or so, Birbiglia is constantly workshopping—bringing his material to as wide an audience as he can collect, sucking it up, editing, rewriting, and on and on until it becomes the final product. “My wife said to me the other day, ‘You torture yourself. You go to the hardest venues in malls, and you don’t have to, but you do,” he says. “I don’t know whether to admire that or be angry about it.’”
So why is this albeit torturous method the tried-and-true approach for Birbiglia? “There’s this Jerry Seinfeld line, I think from the Ricky Gervais special, where Seinfeld says, ‘I don’t want to see your newest hour. I want to see your best hour,’” he tells me. “That’s how I feel about my stand-up. To me, I swell with pride when I see a tweet about My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. It’s six years later and people are just discovering it now and it holds up. I want every special that I have to have a chance at going 10-20 years and maybe longer. That’s the goal.”
Speaking with Birbiglia, it’s easy to pick up on a real sense of duty he feels toward his fans. At one point during our conversation, Birbiglia breaks to tell an anecdote from the tour, “If you put it in print,” he says, “then it will be somewhere, which is better than nowhere, which is where it is right now.” So, here it is: Birbiglia is relaxing on an Adirondack chair in the Syracuse airport when a cop approaches him. “Like a full cop with a gun and the regalia,” he recalls. “And he goes: ‘Where do I know you from?’”
It’s nothing new for Birbiglia, except in that this time the fan approaching him has a gun. “If somebody has a gun and they say, ‘Where do I know you from?’ I’m gonna play ball,” he says. The line of questioning eventually reaches Netflix, and Birbiglia knows the exact card he needs to pull out: “I say, ‘Ever watch Orange Is the New Black?’” The cop immediately recognizes him as Danny Pearson and calls over his fellow officers of the law. “It’s like that scene from Annie Hall, the Alvy Singer, ‘This is Alvy Singer from The Tonight Show,’ Birbiglia laughs. “Except with guns.”
Birbiglia has expanded his career far beyond his humble entrance into the mainstream comedy world with Two Drink Mike. With his hands in all of these creative media, what is it that gets him to the point of starting a new project? What does he want for those fans he cares about so much? “After all these years I feel like I have a pact with my audience, where they come to my show and they are not just coming to see an hour of funny stand-up,” he says. “They are coming for an experience. Something that has a beginning, a middle and an end, that has an arc and had emotion in it and humanity in it.”
“I feel like I’ve explained over the years what I do, and now I actually have to do it,” he continues. “If I don’t, it’s my fault that [the audience] didn’t experience that.” After years of tinkering, he finally experimented, in Sleepwalk With Me, with making a mixed bag of stand-up, storytelling and solo performance—a style he perfected in My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and Thank God for Jokes. “It’s just kind of codifying that and understanding it better,” he reflects.
Birbiglia has been riding that train for years now, putting together specials that really unfold more like theatre than your standard, setup-punch, setup-punch stand-up special. What does that mean for The New One? “The New One will really deliver for people in a way that I am really proud of, but I don’t want to tell people anything about it,” he teases. “Like Get Out—which is my favorite recent movie—everyone I talk to, I just said I don’t want to tell you anything. Absolutely, 110%, see this movie.”
Daniella Bondar writes for Den of Geek. She can be found on Twitter @daniellarobin.