Mike Birbiglia shares some insight into his comedy and hints at his secret invention to combat sleepwalking
Mike Birbiglia is an American comedian, director, and actor known for his independent film Sleepwalk With Me and his two Netflix specials My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend (MGB), and Thank God For Jokes. He had time to answer a few questions while on tour with his new show “The New One.”
Vue Weekly: You have a background in improv. How do you incorporate that into your standup?
Mike Birbiglia: When I was in college I was cast in the Georgetown players improv group and that was my first comedy love. About a year later I started doing standup. For a long time, those were two separate skills I was trying to develop. I had always thought that they would be mutually beneficial, but the truth is I wasn’t able to merge those two skills for a long long time—really until my mid to late 20s when I started telling stories on stage. And I would go on stage with a beginning middle and end planned and I would improvise what was in between, and that’s how I developed a lot of the stories that I perform now.
VW: Was there ever a moment when you decided ‘I have to do comedy now?’
MB: Well, when I was in high school I just wanted to write comedy. I didn’t really have an interest in performing comedy. And because I didn’t really have anyone to perform the sketches I was writing I would play some of the parts. And then when I got to college I wanted to create a sketch comedy group. But there wasn’t one. The closest thing to that was an improv group.
So I auditioned for that and I learned that and that’s really where I fell in love with performing and improvising. And really what I fell in love with then is the same thing I’m still in love with today, which is that a live comedy event is a really special thing because it’s never happened before and it’s never gonna happen again.
VW: Your jokes are usually long-form stories that build and build. Has this always been your comedic style or has it changed over the years?
MB: Oh it’s definitely changed. I was drawn to comedians like Mitch Hedberg and Steven Wright at the outset of my career and over the years between performing on The Moth storytelling series and This American Life (TAL) and working with my theatre director Seth Barrish and TAL’s Ira Glass, I’ve just learned to be a better storyteller.
I feel like if you can have a show be funny and emotional and have some kind of satisfying structure—I think that’s a very cool thing to watch. It’s my favourite kind of comedy to watch and it’s my favourite kind of comedy to perform.
VW: It seems like most comedy today is full of swears so it’s a bit refreshing to watch you. Did you just never fit in with swearing comedy?
MB: I’m reluctant to say I don’t swear or curse because I really don’t put an embargo on any specific word though I try generally to use good word choice. You don’t want to say one word 16 times more than you say another word. Even if the word isn’t a curse. Take the word avocado. If you wrote an essay and you wrote the word avocado 16 times, after a while it would be pretty grating.
So I do try to mix it up but, you know, there’s an occasional “fuck,” there are sometimes references to human activities that adults discuss with one another. But I certainly try not to be gratuitous. To that point, I will take this opportunity to say that my show is not for children. If you’re looking for an age cutoff I would say maybe age 14 or 15 or up.
There was a baby recently at my show in Madison, WI and that was not helpful to the show, and I think in a lot of ways it was a disservice to the baby because I don’t think she enjoys long-form storytelling. I think she’s more into one liners.
VW: What can we expect from “The New One?”
MB: I go out of my way not to tell people what the show is about. I think that the best way to experience the show is to know nothing about it. I will say go on Netflix and if you like Thank God For Jokes, if you like My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend I think you’ll love this one. If you don’t like those ones, I don’t think this show is for you.
My favourite movies last year were Get Out, The Big Sick, and Lady Bird; and I felt like the greatest gift that I could give my friends after I saw those movies was ‘Go see this movie.’
Don’t watch a trailer. Don’t read a review. Just go. And nine times out of 10 my friends would thank me. So that’s my recommendation. I’m recommending my own show to you.
VW: Lots of your comedy stems from past experiences. Are you constantly trying to remember situations from when you were a teenager or in your 20s?
MB: A lot of it is what keeps repeating in your head like an old broken VCR. That story in MGB about my first kiss, how afraid I was to kiss someone, how it seemed like a shocking idea, kissing somebody else, it was something I thought about so much that it’s not hard to remember. It’s hard to remember specific details of a trip your family took to the beach when you were five. That’s why a lot of stories like that aren’t really in my show that often.
VW: Does a joke have to personally make you laugh?
MB: Yeah, definitely the first two times. I think that’s key. So much of where comedy is is the Venn diagram of what you think is funny merging with the Venn diagram of what the audience thinks is funny, and I think that’s what ultimately makes it into the show. There’s a lot of stuff that I think is funny but audiences don’t, and so it pretty much falls away. And then there’s the opposite which is the audience thinking it’s very funny but I don’t think it’s that funny, and that goes away too.
It’s a long process developing these shows. Some people try to rush it and knock these things out in a year or so but mine usually take three to four years.
VW: Do you still sleepwalk and is it still a problem every now and then?
MB: I’m gonna save that answer for the show, because I go into some detail with that. You’ll find out about it in the show but I created my own secret invention for how to deal with my own sleepwalking and you’ll find out about that very soon.
By the way, thanks for having me in Edmonton. I’ve never been there before and I’m excited to come visit and I hope to see you all at the show.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Wed., Mar. 11 (7:30 pm)