Mike Birbiglia Gets Personal at the Arsht: "I've Been On This Path of DIY"
Photo by Evan Sung
Mike Birbiglia is a joke. No, really.
He's better known as a comedian, actor, screenwriter, author, and performer, of course. But when he steps onstage next Thursday at the Arsht Center's Knight Concert Hall, he says, he wants the audience to laugh not only with him but also at him.
"Early in my career, [my comedy] was just doing ruminations," Birbiglia tells New Times. "I was really just doing what I saw other people doing, tonally." He started out modeling himself after his deadpan comedy heroes, Mitch Hedberg and Steven Wright.
But bit by bit, he began to insert more of himself into his act. "I was like, what if I make myself the joke?"
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In the years since, Birbiglia has turned his standup act into a hybrid of comedy and personal revelations. His 2007 album, My Secret Public Journal Live, is a collection of true stories ranging from selling products door-to-door as a child to his worst onstage experience ever; it was named comedy album of the year by Time Out New York and ranked among The Onion AV Club's best comedy albums of the decade.
He followed it in 2008 with Sleepwalk With Me, an off-Broadway show about the comic's somnambulism and the stresses in his life that affected it. It fused traditional standup with a consistent narrative arc; many reviewers called it a one-man show rather than a comedy performance. Sleepwalk With Me later morphed into a book (2010's Sleepwalk With Me & Other Painfully True Stories), earning Birbiglia a spot on the list of finalists for 2011's Thurber Prize for American Humor. He also released the show as a comedy album in 2011 and turned it into a feature film that premiered at Sundance in 2012.
Along the way, he earned recognition through radio, working with Ira Glass to contribute his stories to This American Life and being featured on The Moth Radio Hour. His 2011 off-Broadway show, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, followed Birbiglia through a lifetime of romantic missteps that affected his relationship with his girlfriend Jenny, who would eventually become his wife.
He's addressed topics so intimate, from embarrassing first kisses to his fraught decision to get married, that his fans are more than admirers of his comic skill. They're basically friends he hasn't met yet.
"People come up and talk to me like we've spoken before, but we haven't," Birbiglia laughs. "They'll sort of talk to me like I'm an old friend and reference things from their life. But I don't know them. I have never met them."
Now, after nearly a decade of mining the personal details of his life for public performances, Birbiglia is turning his attention outside himself again. In his latest show, Thank God for Jokes, Birbiglia examines the many ways humor can go wrong. "The show is about how jokes are a thing that can get you into trouble but ultimately can bring you closer to people than anything. Ultimately, I think they're worth it for that reason," he explains.
But offensive jokes are an especially touchy subject lately. The wrong statement about a sensitive topic can end, or at least severely damage, a career -- just ask Gilbert Gottfried or Don Imus. Even ordinarily untouchable comedians like Stephen Colbert and Louis CK have felt the wrath of the offended masses in recent years. In 2012, after Daniel Tosh made a rape joke at the expense of a female audience member, the entire comedy community seemed to pile onto Twitter to debate (at best) and hurl insults (at worst) over the issue of whether rape jokes can ever be funny.
Birbiglia isn't taking sides. "It's very volatile right now... I've actually tried to write jokes about those topics [race and rape] and failed." He tried, for example, to address Michael Richards' widely publicized racist tirade onstage in 2006.
"I wrote this thing about Michael Richards, and this is the punch line," Birbiglia says: "'Michael, we need a punch line for that great joke you wrote.' Because [it] was just this weird, racist, hateful rant, and there's no joke in it. That's the problem. I feel like if it had humor in it somehow -- if he had pulled an Andy Kaufman thing where... from the failure emerges this brilliant monologue or Andy Kaufman song or Elvis impersonation, we all would've been like, 'All right. Michael Richards. He's out there.' "
His own joke, Birbiglia admits, needs work. Miami audiences likely won't hear it next Thursday. But that doesn't mean he's opposed to controversial humor -- or audiences' uncomfortable reactions to it.
"I talk a lot in [Thank God for Jokes] about how people have the right to tell jokes, and they also have the right to be offended by jokes. Those two things can peacefully coexist... When someone gets offended by a joke, some comics get mad at that person. They're like, 'You shouldn't be offended by this -- it's a joke!' But there isn't such a thing as 'shouldn't be' when it comes to feelings."
Freedom of expression is a big deal to Birbiglia. He says he's sworn off collaborating on projects with networks and other corporate entities after a bad experience he had creating a TV show pilot.
"It watered down my voice, and I was so spooked by it," he recalls. "I thought, I can never do that again. So I really hit the road hard, and that's when Sleepwalk With Me evolved, and I did My Girlfriend's Boyfriend off-Broadway, and since then I've been on this path of DIY -- make my own shows, make my own movie, make my own specials."
That drive is what keeps him going on this "100-city tour," which Birbiglia says will actually reach 120 cities by the end of its run -- a schedule most comics would find punishing.
"When you tour, you have no studio or network or corporate overlord saying, 'You can't say this to these people.' It's really the audience that tells you what you can or can't say, just by their reaction... So the onus is on me to entertain the hell out of the audience, and if I do that, people keep coming. If not, they'll just stop coming. It's actually very freeing."
All of that freedom might mean Birbiglia never quite becomes a household name. But that's fine by him.
"It's a dirty little secret in show business that a lot of times, entertainers get so famous -- which is not something that I've experienced -- but they get so popular that their fans get a little watered down," Birbiglia reasons. "Eventually some people come to hate their own fans. Entertainers are just like, 'Ugh, my fans are a bunch of drunks who shout at me during shows...' But there aren't too many people I meet [at signings] where I'm like, 'Oh God, this person is unbearable.'
"A lot of people who don't know me will say, 'Do you think you'll make it in comedy?' " Birbiglia laughs. "And I'm like, I think I have! I mean, I'm on a 100-city tour of America, and I sold out the Chicago Theater and Carnegie Hall and the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House. I'm fine."
Mike Birbiglia performs Thank God for Jokes at 8 p.m. Thursday, November 20, at the Adrienne Arsht Center's Knight Concert Hall, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $35 to $79.
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