Mike Birbiglia’s ‘Thank God For Jokes’ Is a Deceptively Loose Meditation on Humor

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Mike Birbiglia’s latest one-man show Thank God For Jokes, which yesterday began a six-week run the Lynn Redgrave Theater, is about faith. The minimal stage décor consists of several stained glass windows on the back wall, a choice that felt especially deliberate since I attended last Sunday. But that creaky, timeless version of faith is contrasted with a fresher, more immediate, re-branded modern faith Birbiglia argues for over the course of the show.

On one level Thank God is an 80+ minute story about how Birbiglia fucked up a meeting with a famous director. The director in question is David O. Russell, if you must know, although that specific is somewhat arbitrary. Many specifics throughout the show feel somewhat arbitrary, probably because so much of Birbiglia’s work in the past (Sleepwalk with Me, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend) has been predicated on extraordinary events from his real life. This show is about real life events too, but the mundane ones. David O. Russell might as well be a teacher or a boss or a date and their meeting any scenario where we stood idly by and watched ourselves completely blow it.

On another level, though, this show is almost irresponsibly ambitious. A full play about jokes? Who would want to go see that? The whole subject has already been picked over by everyone with a podcast and/or blog. And even the “good” instances thereof aren’t especially “funny” or “enjoyable.” There can’t possibly be anything left to say. Well, that’s where the faith comes in. This show dwells in and celebrates the mystical dark matter element of humor, that thing that can’t fully be explained through formal argument, where a joke can transmute a small investment of trust into pure joy. Or it can go terribly wrong. Who can say how this works? Nobody. But the great achievement of Thank God For Jokes is Birbiglia (and long-time collaborator director Seth Barrish) clearly and succinctly show us.

And that’s also where Birbiglia’s experience comes in. This is a guy who started a whole standup-storytelling movement with 2009’s Sleepwalk with Me and has long been a mainstay in crunchy NPR circles. But let’s not forget he has real legit standup chops. This show pushes the limits of both of those. Like Sleepwalk, this show starts with a solid bit of observational standup (about lateness) that breaks the ice and lets Birbiglia flex his comedian muscles. He spends the rest of the show loping around the stage, rattling off one anecdote on top of another, as though trying to find the limit of exactly how relaxed a human being can be on stage.

I don’t think I can overstate exactly how loose Birbiglia is on stage. It’s as though he’s preemptively saying, “Hey, I know this is Theater, but this isn’t that pretentious kind of Theater.” To use a topical analogy, it reminds me of how Hillary Clinton has to be aggressively relaxed all the time to head off accusations that she’s a shrill woman. Maybe? But anyways, Birbiglia’s delivery can be so loose because the script is so tight. Comics sometimes talk about getting their act to the point where it feels like they’re wearing it like a glove; Birbiglia performs this script like he’s a kid wriggling around inside his theater teacher’s designer oversized sweater.

The one thing that kind of left a weird taste in my mouth was an off-handed dig at Larry the Cable Guy. Birbiglia basically uses his “Git r Dun” as a punchline about stupid catch phrases. It’s a pretty unequivocally mean joke. But it’s those little moments that make you remember, yeah, under all this aw-shucks, rumpled everyman silly-sarcasm, Birbiglia does have some edge to him. He is a little bit of a bastard, like every good comedian should be.

Photo by Joan Marcus.

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