Mike Birbiglia is known for mixing up the standup formula. Instead of doing multiple bits, he often prefers to tell a few long stories intermingled with jokes in order to get the emotional point of the story across. He is quite good at it: His last special, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” delivered personal stories of Birbiglia’s with raw emotion and humor, without being excessively self-deprecating. His autobiographical film Sleepwalk With Me (currently on Netflix) poignantly captures the isolation and sadness of being a traveling comedian. So, I was disappointed this past Wednesday at Statler Auditorium when Birbiglia performed his new show, “Thank God for Jokes,” ditching his winning formula.
The opener, comedian Joshua Rabinowitz, was quite good. He thankfully avoided obvious jokes about his very Jewish name. His set were very funny stories about weird experiences, ranging from those that reflected poorly on him (he called a friend from a restricted number every day for a month and said “meow meow” into the phone) to dramatic ones (he was asked on the street to go into a dark home and help a creepy old woman get back into bed). While he made a few too many self-deprecating comments that are all too typical of comedians, like cracks about his body, his material was very strong and never relied on crassness.
Birbiglia’s show opened strongly. He had a very funny bit about late people and had great anecdotes about the yoga class he and his wife are in and about a time he had to put away a sandwich on the plane because the person next to him had a peanut allergy. A less skilled comedian would have merely mocked the yoga class and the peanut allergy as symptoms of gentrification and political correctness, but Birbiglia had fresh and funny angles on them. Even when the crowd work did not go places, Birbiglia was able to spin them to his advantage (for example, he joked that he had put a plant in the audience for “great Scott Walker material” when he discussed Governor Walker’s anti-union policies with an ILR professor).
Additionally, the title of his special “Thank God for Jokes” provided some good material by Birbiglia about the process of making jokes. While this may sound insufferably meta, he was insightful and hilarious. Birbiglia talked about how people ask him in his real life why he isn’t funny in conversation if he’s a comedian. Birbiglia funnily remarked to us that what he thinks to himself is “Because I’ll take this conversation and talk about it on stage, and that will be funny.”
However, it seemed like in the second half Birbiglia lost his energy. His delivery became stiff. His jokes were less funny and more often relied on him making noises than it did on clever punchlines. He also relied on callbacks by repeating jokes from earlier in the performance. Perhaps most importantly, his storytelling fell by the wayside: He would go on tangents that never really connected back to the main thread. However, I should note that based on the reaction in the crowd I was in the minority. The laugher in the audience did not seem to change from the first half to the second. So color me overly critical.
Birbiglia concluded his set with a touching story. He talked about how his parents did not approve of him doing stand-up. When he was doing a shitty gig on the road, he was pulled over and ultimately arrested for driving with a suspended license. When the cop took his mug shot, the cop pocketed an extra copy of the mug shot for himself in case Birbiglia became famous. Birbiglia remarked to us, “this was sad, because some random cop who arrested me believed in me more than my own mom.” It was a funny and poignant way to end the show, but it also reminded me of the textbook Birbiglia that had been missing from the second half of the performance. If people want to see the full reason CUPB sought out Birbiglia’s talent, I would recommend checking out his last special and last film on Netflix.
The Sun’s Kenny Lipke ’17 had a chance to sit down with Mike Birbiglia and Josh Rabinowitz, to discuss alternate lives, favorite projects and what’s up next.
Cornell Daily Sun: if you didn’t do stand-up or act or write what would you do?
Mike Birbiglia: Josh was saying he thinks he’d be a teach
Josh Rabinowitz: something like that, or i think i’d open a bagel store.
MB: I always thought when I was a kid, I was gonna be a poet, or a teacher, or the owner of a pizza restaurant where 3rd graders can hang out. That was always my goal. Then, like, it evolved as I got older. I wanna be a country singer, a comedian or the owner of a pizza restaurant where 7th graders could hang out. It always evolved to what age I was, and it always excluded other age groups from eating the pizza. Something in the teaching realm has always appealed to me; I always felt very close to my teachers, all through school, elementary school, high school, and college. I had really significant mentors in my life that I feel like really shaped me.
Sun: If you look at all the things you have done: your stand up, you act, you’ve done these movies, you’ve written a book —what’s next? Is there anything that you haven’t done that you want to?
MB: I directed this second movie, which in some ways is a big hurdle for me because the first one, a lot of people, just thought it was a novelty: Oh yeah, Mike’s making a movie now. I was like, no no I am gonna make a lot of movies. You can say that all you want, but until you do it, no one really believes you, so I am really excited about that. Josh is in that! Actually, Josh plays an improv student in the movie, really good, really good.
So, in terms of what’s next, well, I have an off Broadway show coming out, Thank God for Jokes, which these stories are some of that show, tonight. I feel like I wanna keep making these solo shows and specials, and I wanna keep making movies. And the acting stuff, I just like to do it to learn about how other people work, like it is as interesting for me to learn how they made Orange is the New Black it is interesting to learn how Judd Apatow directs a movie — because these are shows and people who I really admire. You know it’s funny, to put it in the context of college: What I’ve learned post college is that you never stop learning. Once you think you have stopped learning, you are in a stagnant place artistically, a lot of that stuff is very enriching, just understanding how other people work.
Sun: What is your favorite project that you have worked on so far?
MB: It difficult to say, I feel like I am nostalgic for when Sleepwalk With Me was off-broadway for the first time, because it was like having a show in NYC for eight months, and Nathan Lane presenting it which was a great honor. It’s so hard to say. Orange is the New Black is so fun because it is a show I watched religiously and now I’m in it, which is kind of a brain twister, like a really weird experience. Trainwreck was so fun because it was so laid back, working with Amy and Bill Hader and Brie Larson, and these people are so talented people. It’s so hard to say. There are so many things. I feel like maybe in some ways Trainwreck was the most fun because it was like the least amount of work, I could actually just kind of show up, they riffed a lot, I didn’t have that many lines to memorize, I didn’t have a lot of monologues, so it was mostly just like hanging out with people who were working really hard; Amy and Judd they wrote the movie, directed and produced the movie. Their job on that is really hard. That has been the most fun.
Jesse Weissman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kenny Lipke is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at email@example.com.