Comedian Michelle Wolf's earth-scorching routine at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner last month was spectacularly uncomfortable in part because the subjects of her ridicule were in the room — and in the case of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, mere feet away.
Fellow standup comic Mike Birbiglia watched the high-profile roasting like everyone else. Coincidentally, on his latest Netflix special, Thank God for Jokes, he told the audience that he follows this rule: Never tell jokes to the people who are the butt of those jokes.
"Or do so at your own peril," he tells New Times. "It's interesting. I was just interviewing [comedian] Hasan Minhaj for my podcast — he hosted the correspondents' dinner last year — and I told him I found him to be a very easygoing person who is open to discussing anything in a time when people are very, very sensitive about even discussing certain topics. And he said, 'Freedom of speech is a misleading idea because it's not freedom without consequences.' I think that's true: People have every right to not enjoy what Michelle said, but she has every right to say it."
Birbiglia says every comedian has the right to offend: "I find myself on [Wolf's] side. I thought they were skillfully written jokes, and they were funny... And in fairness, [Sanders] doesn't seem to laugh a lot. I don't ever see her chuckling it up, and she's on camera on a daily basis. One of the more astute observations I've heard about our president is that he doesn't laugh. He's really mean, but he doesn't laugh, and he certainly doesn't laugh at himself."
As a comedian, Birbiglia is best known for his Netflix comedy specials (including 2013's My Girlfriend's Boyfriend) and radio spots on This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour. He also wrote, directed, and starred in the surprisingly depressing 2016 comedy-drama Don't Think Twice, which followed the trials of a troupe of improv comics. His standup material usually steers clear of politics, outside of a sly jab or two, and focuses on personal stories told with real emotion and self-deprecating humor.
New Times caught up with Birbiglia ahead of his standup set at Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale Friday, May 11. In January, he shot a "topless selfie video" while getting splashed by waves in West Palm Beach to announce his touring comedy show, The New One. But after a decade and a half of performing standup, he's realized it's better when an audience has no idea what to expect from his show. So he's tight-lipped about The New One.
"There's nothing I say in this show that's appeared anywhere," he says. "You're not going to hear the stories on the radio, in the paper, on a talk show — anywhere. Fans get the best possible show." Birbiglia doesn't expect the new material to win over any new fans, however. As he observes in Thank God for Jokes: "I am absolutely a niche."
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"The people who are going to come to my shows are going to come to my shows," he says. "The people who aren't, aren't. I used to give people a really hard sell and tell them: 'The show's about this and this.' Now I think the decisions have been made." Which is great in some ways, he says. Hardly anyone recognizes him while he's walking on the beach, allowing him to go about the "unglamorous part of being a comedian" — basically, observing the world and taking notes.
"When people get really famous — the Kevin Harts and Amy Schumers of the world — I can't imagine how they pull it off because it's got to be hard to blend in," he says. "They become very recognizable people."
But Birbiglia is totally comfortable with being mostly anonymous and — unlike some U.S. presidents and press secretaries — laughing at himself.