In the middle of a 100-city tour with his new show, "Thank God for Jokes," comedian-cum-storyteller Mike Birbiglia is somewhat of a comedy anomaly. Birbiglia has shown audiences his life through many filters: stand-up, Broadway, film and print, but the constant throughout is his unique marriage of humor and heart. His previous specials, Sleepwalk With Me and My Girlfriend's Boyfriend each center around an incredibly personal and often embarrassing truth in the comedian's life. We sat down with him over email to ask him a few questions.
Where Y'At: This tour is about 'how jokes can get you in trouble in life.' Who is your favorite person you've ever offended?
Mike Birbiglia: Wow. That is a very complicated, complex question. Many years ago I was asked to perform at the MVP awards for major league baseball. This is on My Secret Public Journal Live album. I was seated next to Roger Clemens and I grew up in Massachusetts and I was a huge Red Sox fan. I'd watch like 70 games a season on TV. And I was sitting next to him and I made the joke, "When I grew up I remember going to a baseball card show and I paid 8 dollars for Roger Clemens' autograph and now I'm sitting right next to him and he tried to charge me 13." And he did not laugh at all. He had that face like when he was on trial, if you saw that on CSPAN. That was a moment where I offended one of my idols. I knew at that moment that my career as a professional baseball pitcher was out the window.
WY: '…Serious situations actually make for the best kind of belly laughs…but they're also the hardest to convert into comedy at the outset." (From your interview with TimeOut) Are there things in your life that are just embarrassing and aren't funny at all? Is something that's embarrassing always funny? If not, what seems to be the key to the combination of the two?
MB: Is there something that's too embarrassing to be funny? Sure. Everything is on a case-by-case basis. A lot of the stories on My Girlfriend's Boyfriend are actually stories that I couldn't say out loud, never mind on stage, I couldn't even say them to my friends for like 10 or 15 years after they happened. Because I was so embarrassed. Like the story about how I had my first girlfriend in high school but she told me not to tell anyone that she was my girlfriend—I couldn't utter that to someone because it was so shameful and so embarrassing. And then when I was like 28 years old I started telling that story to friends at bars and stuff like that and people would laugh really hard and I was like, oh, I should tell that on stage. Same thing with the Scrambler story, where I throw up on the Scrambler ride. I remember I told that story once at a comedy club off-stage to this other comedian named Steve Byrne. He and I were bouncing stories and jokes back and forth and I told him that story about the Scrambler and I was really embarrassed about it but he was laughing so hard. He was like, you have to tell that on stage. And I told it on stage like 5 years later, because I was still so ashamed. I think with comedy you have to throw your pride out the window and say, this isn't about me, this is about the audience. This is about the audience having a great time and if it means that I look a lot less cool, then that's what comedy is. I'm professionally uncool.
WY: In the Splitsider interview you stated, "My life is very normal, and I'm able to make comedy about what people's lives are like." You often talk about the relatability of your material and how much audiences connect with it, and by extension, you. Are you ever worried about achieving a certain level of success and losing that?
MB: I worry about a lot of things but not that. Basically everything else you could imagine worrying about. The apocalypse, the stock market crashing, climate change, framed posters falling off the wall for no reason, my cat being dangerously skinny, that Poland Spring will forget to pick up the empty six gallon jugs outside my home, standard slip and falls, a flood of the entire earth, a deadly meteor shower, everything that Neil Degrasse Tyson talks about on that show COSMOS, that my cable won't work and the phone number it's prompting me to call is just a busy signal—those are the things I worry about. I do not worry about my lifestyle being unrelatable.
WY: What's your biggest onstage regret?
MB: Over the years I've had situations where, in a few rare instances, I've been mean to an audience member. Because I've had a really hard day or I just flew in to Texas or Canada or wherever it is and someone is heckling me or something like that and I've just felt backed into a corner and I've said some mean stuff to people. On a few occasions. I've probably done thousands of shows in my career and I've probably been mean just a handful of times. And I'd love for that not to be the case but also we're all human.
WY: What do your parents think about all this?
MB: My parents still seem a little baffled by the whole thing. I feel like they're still waiting for me to go into advertising and then they'll say, I told you so. Or they're waiting for me to become a middle school English teacher or something like that. They just clearly want me to do something that their friends have heard of as a job. That being said, I wouldn't have any of the things that I'm fortunate to have in my life without my parents, so it's a Catch-22 with parents.
WY: Many of the stories you tell are about being humiliated or being overlooked or being rejected, but you're telling them at a taping for your comedy special/in a film you made/in your own book. There's a level of implied success that mollifies the blow of the story. How does this change the story?
MB: There's an interesting example of that in the movie Sleepwalk With Me. We tried to tell the story with the monologues embedded in the scenes in sort of a Ferris Bueller kinda way. So the scene would be going on and I'd look to the camera and explain the situation. We found in the edit that the stories themselves were so sad—it was about a breakup, it's about a sleep disorder—that we weren't getting the laughs that the one person show got originally. Literally the exact same jokes that used to get laughs were not getting laughs in the film. So what we did was we went back and re-shot the same monologues from the future. Pause and think about that for a second because I know that's a lot to take in. we shot them from the future, or the present. In the car. You'd have to have seen this movie to know what the hell I'm talking about. You can watch it on Netflix but I'm basically talking to the camera while driving a car. I look at the camera and say, so I'm gonna tell you this story, a few years ago blah, blah, blah. And it was because it had already happened and the viewer is watching me and they can see like, oh he's driving a car, he's talking to us, he seems like he's in a good mood, he's alive. The audience knows that they can laugh. And then all of a sudden the movie started to get these crazy huge laughs in the test screenings. It's an interesting example of what you're saying. They say comedy is tragedy plus time and I think you really do need the time. It's not that people need to know you're successful; it's just that they need to know you're alive.
WY: You have an impressive/exhausting touring schedule. Do you have any tour rituals?
MB: Artists always have a rider, which lists what they want backstage. Sometimes people get...I don't know...sandwiches, pizza, condoms. Mine is a razor, a toothbrush, and floss. So I try to shave and do some dental care before every show. And sometimes I try to take a nap. I try to at least close my eyes for a bit before I go on stage. Because I want the shows to feel like they're just happening and that the whole show is just a stream of consciousness as opposed to like, ta-da! Here's my show, here are my jokes, here's my act! I want it to feel like the opposite of a David Copperfield show. I want the show to feel literally fresh. Aquafresh. (Please keep this Aquafresh bit in, I am contractually obligated to mention them in every interview.)
WY: Is there anything you wish I had asked?
I'm glad you asked. It's my first time in New Orleans, I've never been there. It's my longest vacation on the tour. I'm spending four days there. I usually spend one day or at most 2 days. I recently went to Charlottesville, which was awesome, I went to Charleston which was awesome. But those I went to for 2 days and this one I'm going to for 4 days. So tell people to tweet at me pizzerias, restaurants, anywhere that people think is just a must-go place. Because I have a rental car and 25 to 50 dollars of disposable income.
Tweet at him at @birbigs all the New Orleans must-eats/sees/dos and check out his show at The Civic this Friday!