Mike Birbiglia is a comic that stands apart. Sometimes crass, always thoughtful and sweet, he’s comedy’s #1 Wife Guy, and I’m happy to report it’s not just because he’s constantly jabbing at Jenny, his wife, in his specials. As a matter of fact, she’s a starring character in his best work. Mike’s a bit of a favorite of mine because he feels like a storyteller first and a comic second, though that isn’t to say he’s not as funny as he is good at spinning a yarn. Over his career he’s refined this approach to storytelling in order to appropriately mix the funny and the saccharine, in the process becoming one of my favorite comedians. So, hey, why not rank his specials, already? Here’s my opinion on all four of his stand-up specials, which can all be streamed on Netflix.
This special is as straightforward as they come, especially when it comes to Mike Birbiglia’s work. It’s sort of early days for him and you can tell. His delivery isn’t what it settles into in his later work, and it kind of ends before it really gets off the ground. He ends it by playing the guitar, and maybe it’s because I watched it only after I saw the rest of his specials, but it really didn’t work for me. It’s missing all the bells and whistles that make Birbiglia’s work really sing. It’s largely impersonal and not really as absurd or outright silly as his best jokes are. It’s not without its redeeming jokes—the special’s namesake is one of those—but even those just amount to a patchwork of funny lines missing the connective tissue you expect from him—something Birbiglia has really doubled down on and refined ever since this show.
Thank God For Jokes is Birbiglia’s second most recent special, and it definitely gets points just for being filmed at my old job, so shout out to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In it, Birbiglia tells the overarching story of how he roasted director David O’Russell at an awards ceremony where the director was being honored. It’s a fantastic moment when we finally get to it, but before then, the special is peppered with all kinds of stories about inappropriate jokes, mishaps with the Muppets, and cat-based puns, which I’m ashamed to say really got to me. I would pay unreasonable amounts of money for the Real Mousewives of Catsachussets.
The special mostly concerns itself with the idea of the right and wrong times to tell jokes. It’s a premise rooted in arguments that the comedy scene has gone back and forth on for years. Comics seem pretty divided, some arguing they need to cross “the line” that Birbiglia says he crosses when he makes a Muppets heroin joke. Others (like Birbiglia, in my opinion) are well aware of the line, flirt with it in order to give comedy the bite it needs, but also avoids steering too far over the line and alienating an audience. Instead of necessarily drawing a line in the sand and picking a side, Birbiglia meditates on times he has or hasn’t crossed it and pens an ode to his love of jokes that works better than it should. He also cursed in front of the Muppets, so…
This one I beat myself up for not seeing live, because I was actually a fan of Birbiglia’s when it was performing just a train ride away. The New One marks a return to the more intimate storytelling of Mike’s best work (more on that in a bit) and brings the focus back to his relationship with his wife. Specifically, it hones in on their road to becoming parents. But first, the special starts with a couch. This couch becomes a bit of a touchstone and a multifaceted one too. It’s a sign of Birbiglia’s burgeoning adulthood when he first buys it, becomes a bonding agent for he and his wife, and eventually comes to stand for the attitudes he needs to sacrifice in order to keep the people he loves most in his life. Comedians are storytellers by nature and have to be pretty damn good ones to stay in the business, which makes the way this story winds up revolving around this couch touch and impress me.
Outside of this, Birbiglia just shines as a craftsman of smart and inane jokes, like proposing that since we managed to get rid of smoking on airplanes, we should also get rid of babies on them. “Or bring back smoking, get these babies some cigarettes cause they’re so stressed out,” he adds. Or when Jenny tells him that she thinks they would make good parents and Mike, likening baby fever to a zombie virus, jokingly reaches for a shotgun and shouts “You got bit!” The jokes in this special never fail to get a chuckle out of me. There’s also just a lot of anti-kid sentiments in this show that I’m looking forward to his daughter unpacking when she sees it years from now. Maybe he’ll make that into a special too and I can rank that one when it’s out. Then both our arcs can come full circle like his stories so wonderfully do.
I threw this one on at 2 a.m. one summer night years ago and have thought about it regularly ever since. Easily Birbiglia’s best work, it also feels like his most personal. Birbiglia is really in his element when he’s cracking jokes that stem from his relationships, not because it’s good fodder but because he’s unafraid to delve into the genuine sentiments behind them and also deliver a good joke. At the start of the show, Mike is a bachelor who, along with a friend, are strictly anti-marriage and try to convince other people to join them in it. “We were pretty good at it. Like we stopped or put on hold three or four marriages, you know… We weren’t like the best in the world, I’m sure there are better in Europe,” Birbiglia jokes at one point. Then however, Mike meets Jenny and everything changes more than he anticipates.
He becomes the sort of guy who maxes out his credit card in order to impress a girl but nonetheless struggles to be the best boyfriend. He’s also stubborn to a fault and that leads to trouble. “I have a problem where sometimes when I think that I’m right about something, it can be a real source of tension between me and the person I’m arguing with. And the reason it’s a source of tension… is that I’m right.” That tension paves the way for a trek through Birbiglia’s sometimes tumultuous love life, tracing back to his first kiss and up to his eventual marriage to Jenny. Littered throughout are some of the best self-deprecating barbs I’ve ever heard, like, “I like to dress down to perpetuate the myth that I might be a fixer-upper,” or “I’m a sex maybe.”
Really, I just love it because it’s exactly the kind of story I love to hear and tell. Once again there’s an overarching story of how Birbiglia was nearly killed in a car crash and how he tried to fight the case that claimed he had to pay for the repair of the car that hit him. But this story is a Russian nesting doll of stories, with seemingly infinite volumes of sweet and cringey tales of woe and love backing it, informing his perspective at all times and coloring in the stencil work of his life and who he is. It’s also perfectly paced, building magnificently to one of the best jokes I’ve ever heard about being self destructive, one that I can’t bring myself to spoil here. Following Mike’s spiral and hearing about how much trouble he faced in his relationship especially helps the final peaceful and loving lines really hit home. An earlier joke comes full circle to end things off and I just couldn’t wipe the smirk off my face as he well and truly stuck the landing.
Moises Taveras is an intern for Paste Magazine and the managing editor of his college newspaper, the Brooklyn College Vanguard. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.