Mike Birbiglia on New Material, Mitch Hedberg and the Difference between Theater and Stand-Up

While Mike Birbiglia’s My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend enjoys it’s run at the Barrow Street Theater, the comedian stopped by Gothamist to discusses comparisons between Girlfriend and his previous one-man show Sleepwalk With Me. While working with the late great Mitch Hedberg, Birbiglia realized for the first time the peculiar tension between giving the people what they want, and surprising them with new material that will actually strike them as funny. “I was opening for him, in central Pennsylvania at a theater, and it was all these superfans and they were just shouting like, BANANA!, or whatever joke they wanted to hear,” the comedian says. “That’s a paradox Mitch had to deal with. He would get these people shouting, and then he would do the joke and people wouldn’t laugh, because you don’t really laugh because there’s no surprise. They would just applaud. And in a way applause is the kind of the enemy of the comedian.”

While some people take great pains to differentiate between stand-up, storytelling and/or theater, for Birbiglia they are all different parts of the same creative process. “I kind of workshopping a one-man show two or three or four hundred times, which most playwrights don’t have the luxury of doing. Most playwrights are able to workshop it [for] a week in Chicago, four weeks in Denver, that kind of thing. Take a look at it, do a re-write. But I re-write every night. It’s an unusual process,” Birbiglia says, noting later: “If your performance isn’t better at the end than it was on opening night, then you are doing it wrong.” As anyone who has seen the new show can attest, Birbiglia is clearly doing it all kinds of right.

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