by Klaus Kinski
Veteran readers of this dope ass website are probably cognizant of the fact that Mike Birbiglia is a certified Klaus Kinski Gold Pass Top Tier Favorite Comedian Of All Freaking Time. I haven't crunched the numbers but I'd venture to guess that over fifty percent of my posts mention Birbigs in one way or another. I've been a fan of Birbigs for about as long as I've been aware that I enjoy comedy more than most anything in this world that serves to distract us from how awful life really is. And in the time I've been following Birbigs I've seen him make a very clear evolution from stand-up comedian to brilliant, long-form monologist without ever losing the funny. Mike's two blockbuster monologues Sleepwalk With Me, which became a book and a movie, and My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, both dominated the off-broadway and international circuits with an unprecedented amount of consecutive sold-out performances. He was also nominated for and won shitloads of awards and accolades and stuff. It was crazy.
Mike has been performing My Girlfriend's Boyfriend all over planet earth since 2011 and over that period of time the piece has enjoyed an evolution of its own, having undergone a series tweaks and adjustments to get the piece to where it is today. For better or for worse, Mike is closing the book on My Girlfriend's Boyfriend with a final gigantic send-off show at the venerable Carnegie Hall in NYC on Sunday June 2nd at 8:00pm (sharp). If you are light on funds, have no fear. Discounted $21 balcony seats can be obtained by simply using promo code MGB17398 at the Carnegie Hall website. In addition to a performance of My Girlfriend's Boyfriend one last time, the evening will be rounded out with very special guest appearances by This American Life's Ira Glass and more. A handful of tickets are still available to what is sure to be a bittersweet evening of comedic greatness.
I had a chance to ask Mike a few questions the other day and he was kind enough to answer them for me, us. Thanks Mike!
KK: Hi Mike! You are billing this Carnegie Hall show as the final My Girlfriend's Boyfriend performance ever. Do you think that's a bit of a premature assertion? Do you think that in your journey to old age you might find more insight into that period of your life that would allow you to reprise the performance? After all, in the immortal words of Pink Floyd, "You are young and life is long."
Mike Birbiglia: That is a much more profound question than I have an answer for. Yeah, I never thought about that, I guess that is in the realm of possibility. As a matter of fact I sometimes think about the idea of performing at some point a limited engagement of repertory performances of Sleepwalk With Me and My Girlfriend's Boyfriend together because in some ways one is a sequel of the other but...I don't know that I'll ever have the energy.
I almost shit my pants when I heard you'd be performing at the venerable Carnegie Hall. How did your pants handle the news?
I almost shit my pants when I read this question because I was concerned for your pants. Because I'm an anxious person, it was never true joy that I felt. I think I will only be capable of joy after it happens. But we have some surprises lined up so I think the ending--wink, wink--should be genuinely joyful.
You've always walked a super-fine line between monologist and stand-up comedian. With My Girlfriend's Boyfriend and Sleepwalk With Me I feel like you've shed your stand-up comedian skin in favor of strict monologue; though, without for a second losing any of the funny. Is the central-theme-based, long-form-story format how you envision your future works being organized? As opposed to, say, an hour of several funny but unrelated bits which, for me, is the generic stand-up format.
The loose jokes format is in some ways more fun for me, because it's a little bit like eating chicken wings. But I feel like when I do one of my full shows, like Sleepwalk With Me or My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, it's more like a full meal. And ultimately that's the most satisfying thing to serve to an audience.
Your stories cover topics that transcend nationality and the reviews I've read of your shows overseas were unanimously positive. Were your personal experiences with audiences overseas any different than here in the good ole US of A?
I did shows in Australia and London in the last year and I had a tremendous time in both of those places. One of the things that's fun about work shopping a show in those places is that what you ultimately want to find are the elements of the show that are the most human versus the most referential culturally. As I was rewriting and rewriting the show there would be things that would pop more in Australia or London that made me think oh I should delve more into what's there as opposed to leaning away from those things.
The best Birbiglia interview I have ever seen has to be the one you did with Dead Frog. It explains your pedigree as a stand-up comedian in such phenomenal detail. Was there a specific time in your evolution where you became consciously aware that you could turn a single anecdote into one long-form singular work?
It's kind of like when someone asks you, "what was your big break?" because it's essentially a thousand breaks that makes up a single break. My evolution as a storyteller was similar. The scene with me and Marc Maron--the Marc Mulharron character in Sleepwalk With Me--where he says "hey you should say that on stage," is definitely a conversation I've had with older, wiser comedians but it's a conversation I've had 100 times as opposed to just one time. And similarly becoming a storyteller was this combination of starting to do The Moth, and working with my director Seth Barrish, and working with Ira Glass and This American Life, and getting advice from my writing professor from college John Glavine--all of these elements led to me trying at least to dig deeper and deeper and find something that had more layers to it.
You always seem to exercise material at teenie-tiny places like the basement of Union Hall. I feel like the answer to the following question varies slightly from comedian to comedian: how does workshopping material in such a small room benefit you and your act?
First of all I like doing Union Hall because I can see that the audience members aren't recording me with their phones. Which is a problem in stand up comedy right now. If you can't see the audience you can't see if people are videoing the rough draft of your act and putting it on the Internet. And then second of all, there are certain rooms that are just magical for comedy. And Union Hall just has that. When I'm there I feel like I'm just performing for a bunch of friends.
Your brother Joe is such a huge part of your process on so many different levels; creatively, logistically, managerially... How did he get to be such an integral part of your comedic orbit? I feel like it's very rare for a comedian to have a close family member working so closely behind the scenes.
Joe was extremely instrumental in me becoming a comedian, he started writing comedy in high school when I was in middle school and sort of taught me how to write comedy. And then I sort of ran in a performance-focused direction and he ran in more of a satire writing direction and then we convened in my twenties and started formally working together. We have a great collaboration because ultimately I'm obsessed with story and Joe is obsessed with jokes and the combination of those obsessions tends to be joke-filled stories. Which are two elements that are good to be fighting with each other.
A few summers ago he gave me his extra ticket to see The National in Central Park. In my estimation, he is a great, great man.
That sounds like something he would do. He will be expecting something in return but I don't know what that is yet. Nor do you.
Do you ever get out to comedy shows as a spectator these days? Anyone out there floating your boat?
Yeah, probably some of my favorite comics I've seen recently are Tig Notaro, Nick Offerman, and Maria Bamford. My wife and I always try to see Stanhope when he's in town.
You approach very awkward personal experiences with an incredible amount of grace, delicacy, and lucidness. Any hints as to what your next endeavor will be?
Right now I'm just trolling comedically for what it is I want to talk about on stage next. I'm going to pop up in the next six months here and there in small rooms and figure out what it is I want to talk about. Without being too specific I feel very excited about the possibilities because I feel like I have a clearer understanding of what it is I like in comedy now and how I can achieve it, but who knows. We'll see.
This is a music blog mostly so I reckon it's only proper for me to ask what bands really float your boat.
The National (like you mentioned), Sharon Van Etten, I recently saw Youth Lagoon at Sasquatch, I saw Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, I saw Mumford and Sons. I love Fun. and Steel Train, I love Tegan and Sara, I love Regina Spektor. My wife listens to a lot of music podcasts like All Songs Considered, KEXP's Music That Matters--so I kind of take all my cues from her.