In Mike Birbiglia’s 2013 special My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, Birbiglia basically tells only one joke: the story of how he got married to his current wife. Sure, there are many small sub-jokes, and every so often he decides to go a bit off-topic to provide backstory, but everything is focused on how he and his girlfriend eventually decided to tie the knot. This is Birbiglia’s comedy style, whether it be on his Netflix specials or while appearing on This American Life. Instead of jumping from subject to subject, with segways to link each bit together, Birbiglia decides to follow a cross between Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey theory and Dave Chappelle’s insight. He does not use any extreme ideas or absurdist routines.
If you’ve always wanted to take your date to that amazing improv show but not wanted to be “that guy” who takes their date to improv shows, have I got a film for you. Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice offers a harshly authentic look into the rough and tumble world of professional comedy, and the often depressed, existentially bewildered and ultimately confused players that writhe in it. While movies about the unique struggles that plague comedians have made a resurgence in the past few years since Annie Hall in 1977 (notably Obvious Child and Birbiglia’s own Sleepwalk With Me), Don’t Think Twice is the first to deal with improv as a unique art form. Balancing the arduous duty of creating good art with furthering one’s own professional goals becomes an impossible task when even your teammates, students or partner is competition. Miles (Birbiglia), the nearing-40 founder of The Commune, an acclaimed NYC improv troupe, serves as the de-facto patriarch of its current six members.
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.