Mike Birbiglia isn't in love with standup comedy, and he's not exactly hot on the one-man show either. The workman-like storyteller says he's more interested in blending his favorite aspects of the two, as in his latest standup special My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, which came out on DVD, Amazon, and iTunes this week. In the show, Birbiglia offers his skeptical views on marriage as a through line to a series of stories on his own mortification and frustration in relationships, each executed with his self-deprecating wit and a surprising strain of earnestness.
I talked recently with Birbiglia about ending his 70-city tour of the show, the personal reactions of fans, and his desire to offer something more than just jokes.
We talked to you back in May just before you were about to perform My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend at Carnegie Hall. How did it go?
That experience was an anomaly because it actually lived up to the expectations that I had for it. Usually I’ve found in my career, when I do things, they end up being much smaller, much weirder, and much more uncomfortable than I had dreamed them in my most exciting dreams to be. That one was actually legitimately exciting and cool. I handed out ice cream in the street afterwards with Ira Glass, Monica Bill Barnes, and Anna Bass, the dancers Ira Glass does shows with. And there’s nothing more joyful than handing people free ice cream after you’ve done a comedy show for them which they liked. There’s nothing like it. It was a little bit of a homage obviously to Andy Kaufman who did something similar at Carnegie Hall in the '70s.
It’s so funny — I was doing shows in Nashville right before I did Carnegie Hall and two weeks afterwards. Robin Williams came to the show; he was shooting a movie in Nashville. He didn’t call or anything, just showed up, sat in the back of the room, and then came backstage afterward, and he said, “What have you been up to?” And I said, “I did Carnegie Hall, it was the craziest thing. And you know, a little bit of an homage to Andy Kauffman.” And he said, “Oh, I was in that show!” And I was like, “You were?” He’s like, “Yeah, I played Andy’s grandma!” I was like, “Oh my God! How strange, I didn’t even realize it.” He like dressed up as Andy’s grandmother, knitting in a chair or something.
There's something about being a New York performer. There’s a price you pay in show business for not moving to Los Angeles, and there’s a certain amount of opportunity that you sacrifice by staying in New York, but I feel like there are moments like playing Carnegie Hall for people — there’s something about it that was really thrilling. Like, “Oh, I live here and I’m performing in this beautiful concert hall.” That just felt really special. It really did.
How has it been leaving that show behind after spending so much time developing it and performing it in 70 cities?
It feels great. The most satisfying thing so far has been the people. The special kind of soft launched on Netflix, so people have been able to see it there, and it’s this weird kind of a double-edged sword where in some ways, you’re like, “Oh, I guess a lot less people are buying CDs and DVDs than they once did.” It’s all like Spotify, Pandora, Netflix — all these channels where you can get unlimited entertainment, so that’s kind of a weird thing because you’re like, “Oh, I spent all of these years on this thing,” and you just get it for free or for eight bucks a month, you get unlimited things. So I know for sure that I’m going to sell fewer albums and fewer DVDs than my other albums, which is so strange because more people know me now and more people come to my shows. I’m going on a 30-city tour starting in January and playing bigger venues, so that’s the odd thing about it.
But then the really exciting thing about it is that the response on Netflix has been really, really positive. A lot of people have seen it and have tweeted at me that they never expected to cry or get choked up watching a comedy special, and it’s really meaningful to me that it’s connecting to people in a really specific way. I’m really thrilled about it. I feel like we filmed it as cinematically as we possibly could. We got this great cinematographer Ben Kasulke from Seattle, and a lot of his crew shot it. We filmed it in the beautiful Intiman Theatre in Seattle, which is one of my favorite theaters in the whole country. And we shot it on Alexa, which is the same camera we shot Sleepwalk With Me on. We choreographed the opening shots to be very specific. We wanted to have it feel like an intimate comedy experience, not in the way that these comedy specials sometimes feel kind of big and grand. I didn’t want it to feel that way. I wanted it to feel like we were having this small special moment with these people who are there. I feel like, so far, what people are saying over Twitter and Facebook and stuff is that it’s like connecting with people in that way, and it’s really, really exciting for me, honestly.
Could you describe some of the personal ways people have connected?
The personal reactions have been really great. I mean, multiple people have proposed at the live shows onstage. The goal of the show, and the goal of Sleepwalk With Me, the show, also was this idea that you don’t have to have it both ways. I guess when people think of one-man shows, they’re like, “Oh, it’s gonna be this thing where this guy or a woman talks about their life, and it’s not funny but it has a moral and blah, blah, blah and they play characters.”[Laughs.] And I wanted to rip that down because I hate most one-person shows. And I tend to not love standup comedy so much. [Laughs.] So the fact that I merged standup comedy and one-person shows is in some ways kind of misleading because it’s not what you think of when you think of one-person shows or what you think of when you picture a typical standup comedian. I wanted to pick my favorite things about one-person shows and my favorite things about standup comedy and merge them into a thing that is personal and, hopefully, knock on wood, as funny as a regular comedy album, but then also leads up to a point and has like an emotional weight to it in that, in some ways, I’m kind of giving something to the audience.
I feel like, so far, the reaction of some people has been they feel that way, that they feel this is really special, and you can see that this is something that really connected with me on a really personal level. Some people have said, “This has allowed me to let go of some things in my life that I’ve had a really hard time letting go of.” Sleepwalk With Me and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend were the first times where I’ve done comedy work or work in art where I feel like it’s actually a service of some kind, like it’s actually accomplishing something for the audience and not just kind of like a home run derby of jokes.
How does it feel different to you, performing in that more personal style and with a purpose with more at stake?
I always think of it as I like serving a full meal for the audience, as opposed to, like, chicken wings. That’s what I think of jokes — they’re chicken wings or pizza or ice cream or something. I love those things; I’d be the first to line up for all of those foods, but if a chef can deliver you a full meal, that to me is sort of euphoric. And that’s how I want people to feel about it. I want people to feel satiated from it. And I want it to kind of simmer in them. For them to be thinking about it the next day, like, “Oh, remember when we watched that thing?” [Laughs.] That’s really the hope.
How much are writing and performing for you acts of processing and synthesizing your thoughts? Does it feel therapeutic for you?
I oddly don’t experience a lot of therapeutic feelings from writing the shows, although you know what I feel therapeutic from? When I go out and perform the shows and then people are laughing at the things that I was embarrassed to talk about, I actually do feel a sense of community with people from it. Like, “Oh, I’m not alone. It’s not totally insane that I did that.” I tell the title story of My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend of when I had my first girlfriend and then she introduced me to this boyfriend and we met his parents, and it’s a strange thing meeting your girlfriend’s boyfriend’s parents for the first time. In some ways, you’re angry, and in some ways, you want to make a good impression.
And I didn’t tell that story for years, literally years after it happened. Not my friends or my girlfriend, my wife. No one, because I was so embarrassed. I was so embarrassed that I was like, 'This is the most shameful thing that could happen to someone.’ You’re so embarrassed about being led along, believing that you’re the boyfriend and then you’re not. And it was one of those things where eventually, like 10 years after it happened, I started telling close friends. This is how most things get into my act – I started telling close friends about the story and they laugh and I go, “Well maybe I should try to say it onstage.” Then I say it onstage and then if they laugh, it becomes part of the show. But in that instance it was one of the ultimate examples of when the audience laughs it’s really therapeutic. I was like, “Oh, this has happened to other people? People can relate to having a girlfriend who has another boyfriend?” And then I would have hundreds – I’m not exaggerating – hundreds of people coming up to me on my tour and saying, “That exact same thing happened to me.” And I’m like, “Are you serious? That exact same thing where you met your girlfriend’s boyfriend?” And people were like, “Yes, absolutely.” It’s apparently a very common experience.
You’re currently in the process of adapting My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend as a movie. How’s it going?
I would say, at this point, the screenplay is loosely based on the show. It’s interesting because the more I’ve been writing the screenplay — I’ve done like three or four drafts of the screenplay at this point — the more I’ve realized that there are certain elements that I wanted to blow out, certain elements I wanted to pull back. And then the other thing is, because Sleepwalk With Me was a movie, it was a book, it was an album, a live show album, and I would sometimes get this criticism from people who were like, ‘We love the book and the show, but we’ve heard this story.’ And I think that that’s a totally fair point. I did my best to make all of those things very, very different from each other, but that’s a fair point.
It used to be all of my stuff was so under the radar that it didn’t matter. In other words, my career was so small that I could do a book and then I could do a movie and the cross section of people who had seen both wasn’t substantial enough that it would be too bad. So many people who hadn’t read the book just saw the movie — people at Sundance, people at South by Southwest, were like, “Oh my God! This is a crazy story this guy jumps through a window!” And then there are people in the book community who read this book and were like, “Oh my God! This guy jumps through a window.” And eventually there became a certain cross section of people who had a foot in both of those worlds who were kind of like, “Yeah, I like both, but I also kind of wish there was only one, you know?” And I’m starting to appreciate that point of view. I’ve been kind of forced to face that. And so with my spec moving forward, I’m really working hard to make sure that I don’t double-tell a story, basically. Like, my new tour, Thank God for Jokes, is all new stories. It’s a 90-minute show of all new material.
What are you excited about in this upcoming show?
This new show is probably the 20th live show I’ve ever toured, and I feel like I’ve learned the lessons from Sleepwalk with Me and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and My Secret Public Journal Live that I feel like this actually is the most comedically robust show I’ve done. It’s interesting because it’s not at the point of being a one-person show yet. It doesn’t have a full arc, but joke for joke and story for story, I think it’s stronger than anything I’ve ever done, and I’m thrilled to do it. There’s two ways of looking at my career. In one sense, you can look at it and go, ‘Oh, Birbiglia never broke wide. Not like Zach Galifianakis or Louie. He doesn’t have that kind of mass, like selling millions and millions of copies of his album.’ But then the other way to look at it is I have a really loyal group of people who listen to all my albums, watch my specials, and follow me really closely and who’ve been so great to me. And it allows me to keep creating and creating more and more stuff. And so in some ways, it’s really invigorating that I get to keep living a normal life. And my life isn’t like extravagant or fancy — I’m not constantly hanging out with celebrities and having these completely unrelatable life experiences. My life is very normal, and I’m able to make comedy about what people’s lives are like. [Laughs.]