A Conversation With Mike Birbiglia

By Hollister Dixon

I’ve been a very big fan of Mike Birbiglia since I started getting into stand-up comedy. I started with Dog Years (an album that, when listing his works, Birbiglia himself doesn’t even include), a self-released rough cut of the more polished Two Drink Mike, and quickly embraced the comedian he grew into over the proceeding 8 years. Since then, he’s released three more specials, each of which aren’t as much stand-up specials as one-man-shows, each centering on a different aspect of his life. This culminated in Sleepwalk With Me, a feature length film based on his show of the same name, which he directed and co-wrote with This American Life‘s Ira Glass. His last special, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, premiered on Netflix late this summer, which debuted to outrageously good reviews. In the coming months, Birbiglia will be touring a new act, called Thank God for Jokes, which he considers to be an attempt at returning to more typical stand-up – even if, in the end, it still has a loose narrative. This tour will be stopping at the Newmark Theater here in Portland for two shows on January 24th, with another in Eugene on the 25th – tickets can be bought right here.

I had the immense pleasure of spending some time chatting on the phone with Birbiglia this week to promote these shows, and it proved to be one of the most enjoyable conversations I’ve ever gotten to have at 5:30 am on a Thursday.

Hollister Dixon: So, Thank God For Jokes. What can you tell us about it?

Mike Birbiglia: I’ve had four albums: Two Drink Mike, My Secret Public Journal Live, Sleepwalk With Me Live, and the new one, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend Live. In a certain way, I conceived it as a return to form to Two Drink Mike. Two Drink Mike was very joke-based, it was kind of the “best of jokes” of the first five years of my career, and with the subsequent albums, I told more stories, and with Sleepwalk and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, it became more narrative-based, with a single narrative through a series of stories. I really thought, “I’d really like to return to Two Drink Mike: there’s a joke on Two Drink Mike that, when I drink, I become a different person: I become Two Drink Mike. Two Drink Mike likes dancing and knows a magic trick, Zero Drink Mike likes biographies and has serious opinions about wildlife, and Five Drink Mike likes dancing with wildlife. I always thought I should make an album called Five Drink Mike, as a callback to that joke.

The more I started to write – I probably started writing about two years ago – the more I was like, “There’s definitely an emerging theme in all these stories I’m telling, these stories are probably the funniest stories I have, and there’s a recurring theme which is that I just love jokes, that I almost have a religious experience with jokes. There these things that bring us together, but they also alienate us from people, they have this really powerful potential, so I came up with this idea of calling it Thank God For Jokes.

HD: So what you’re saying is, in trying to go back to just telling jokes, you actually found yourself with another narrative thread to follow?

MB: That’s exactly what happened, yeah. But it’s a looser narrative, when your narrative is just based on jokes and humor, it’s a pretty easy guideline to abide by as a comedian.

HD: It’s funny that you say that about returning to simple joke-telling: since Sleepwalk and everything else, it’s seemed like you’re more of a performer, just doing one-man-shows, than a straight stand-up comedian, and when I saw the name of the tour, I wondered if you were going back to basics.

MB: That’s definitely a funny intersection that I’m in right now. There’s all these year end lists right now, and a lot of them, I was left off of, but a couple of them, like Vulture and Paste put it at number one. I feel like the ones that left it off were like, “Oh, that’s just another thing, that’s not stand-up comedy.” The thing about stand-up comedy it’s that there’s room for a lot more than people sometimes think there’s room for. I think people have a really regimented idea of what stand-up comedy is, but what it actually is is more nuanced and powerful. You look at Richard Pryor’s special, Live on the Sunset Strip, where he talks about how he was freebasing cocaine and he lit himself on fire, and he’s running down the street on fire, and then he’s in the hospital and they’re taking the bandages off, and he says that the worst part about being on fire is when they take the bandages off. It’s so emotional, and it really puts you into that moment.

When I started working with my director, who did My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and both of my one-person-shows, we were using Richard Pryor as a model, where we can take things that are hilariously funny, and go to that extreme, and then go to painfully sad and relatable, and go to that extreme as well, it would be the best to be. That’s been sort of a guiding principle. I feel like, in comedy, that’s sort of an overlooked side of things, and a lot of people try and pay homage to Pryor as the greatest comic of all time, but they don’t try and do what he did. It’s too bad. There are other ones, too: Doug Stanhope’s new special talks about letting go of his mother, but it’s very funny, and very human. And Maria Bamford, too – which is funny to talk about, since she recorded that special [Ask Me About My New God!] in Portland – that album is extraordinary, and it really goes there in that really Pryor place, where it’s so deeply confessional and funny at the same time, in the same breath.

HD: Do you still consider yourself to be a stand-up comedian at this point?

MB: Yeah, absolutely! That’s what I’m trying to say. The format is basically “One person talks to more than one person,” and I think that’s the freeing aspect of it. That’s something that’s so beautiful about stand-up, it’s also the least censored artform; nobody can tell you what to say, because you don’t have a boss, your boss is the audience. If people keep showing up, then you can keep doing what you’re doing.

HD: It seems like you’re one of the few comedians who embraces that, and is willing to say what you want and be emotional. Would you consider yourself as something of a pioneer in that regard?

MB: I’m not sure. I think there’s a lot of good comics right now, like Doug and Maria, and Louis [C.K]… sometimes it feels like there’s just so many comics, that it’s hard to remember that. Have you seen Daniel Kitson?

HD: I have not.

MB: He’s an interesting one, because he’s so prolific and unique, but he doesn’t release albums and specials by design, but he’s one of the most popular comics in London, he just doesn’t believe in that for himself. He’s one that really goes there, too.

HD: It’s funny, the cycle of “tour the material, release the special” seems to be a big thing, it’s interesting to see someone break that cycle.

MB: My agent actually had to force me to even release My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, where he did this really weird thing where he said, “You have to stop doing this show.” I’d done that show in 70 cities in America, in Canada, in Australia, in London, he said, “I won’t book you anymore, you just have to stop and film it and release it.” I had become addicted to doing it, because the emotional response was so strong. It’s on Netflix right now, and I’d love if people bought the DVD because I’d love to have the money, but I really just want people to see it. Or they can just borrow someone’s Netflix password. It’s a real Sophie’s Choice situation.

I do read the comment sections. I know you’re not supposed to, but I do it anyway. You’re really not supposed to read your reviews, but I do want to read them because it’s helpful from my process to know what people are getting from it. A lot of people have said, “I never expected to cry because of a comedy special,” and that means so much to me, because that’s what I worked on for four of five years, to the point where it’s not just a comedy experience, but an emotional experience.

HD: Do the comment sections get disheartening at times?

MB: It’s disheartening to feel misunderstood. If you’re reading this, and you want to write a comment, you should write a comment or review, because it’ll offset the people who don’t watch the special, and then go write a review. One thing that’s funny about comments on My Girlfriends Boyfriend, there are some reviews that are like, “This guy is such a jerk, his feelings on marriage are so selfish, he just doesn’t get it,” and I’m like, “Oh, you watched the first minute of the special, where I rant about marriage! You didn’t even watch five minutes! You didn’t see that it comes full circle,” because that’s what’s so special about the piece: at the beginning I make this really emphatic case against marriage, and then I get married, which is the bait and switch of it. They got the bait, and then just walked away. They didn’t stay for the switch.

HD: Why do people do that?

MB: Because you can just say anything. They just want to get it out there. The review in Vulture came out, naming the best comedy albums of the year, and when they explained why they picked it, they said, “Jerry Seinfeld told The New York Times Magazine, ‘I wanna see your best work. I’m not interested in your new work’, and that’s why I picked it, because it’s Birbiglia’s best hour,” and then I got a tweet from someone in Portland, saying, “So what you’re saying is, what you’re bringing to Portland isn’t your best hour, just your new hour?” Leave it to someone from Portland to find the most cynical takeaway there, but I just found it hilarious. But it isn’t really true; the show is in great shape, and I do an all-new 90 minutes.

HD: Do you feel rusty at this point?

MB: Not at all. I’ve been doing this series of shows, called “Working It Out,” where I just do clubs, and I did Bonnaroo and Sasquatch, and I work out on my corner at this place called Union Hall, where we shot a lot of Sleepwalk With Me, where my character is a bartender at Union Hall. And now, life imitating art, I’m working out all my material there, since I have a weekly show there. This stuff is really refines, and in really good shape. This is the most excited to go out on tour I’ve ever been, and this is a 100 city tour – I’ve only announced 30 cities, but it’s really going to be 100 cities. It’s so exciting because I feel like I know how to perform in theaters better than ever, and I’m dying to get it out and bring it into those cities.

HD: How long has it been since you’ve been in Portland?

MB: It’s been a bit. I was at the Aladdin a few times, which I love, but the last time I was there was when the movie [Sleepwalk With Me] came out, and we did a Q&A at that beautiful theater you guys have.

HD: The Hollywood Theater?

MB: Yeah! That’s one of the best movie theaters I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been to a lot of movie theaters. Everything about Portland is like that. I’m a big Portlandia fan, and that’s why that show resonates so well, because there’s a lot of love in it.

HD: A lot of Portlanders actually hate that show, because they see it as a little cynical.

MB: I know! I guess it’s easier to say from the outside, but it seems like it’s less about Portland, but more about a certain type of person. It’s about optimistic, well-meaning to a hilarious extent people characters. That’s great fodder for comedy.

HD: Before you go: are you much of a ‘big picture’ guy, who could tell us what’s next for you?

I’m working on two film scripts, and I’ll release Thank God For Jokes as a concert film when it’s done, so that’s pretty much my next five years. But I also took a small part in The Fault In Our Stars, which is pretty exciting, which comes out in June. I also just had a little cameo in the new Annie, where I played opposite Cameron Diaz, who’s playing Miss Hannigan, and I think that’s going to be really great.

HD: Can you tell us anything about the scripts you’re working on?

MB: One of them is a pretty loose adaptation of My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, but the other one is kind of a secret. I feel like it’s going to take me so long, I don’t want to tell people, because by the time it’s written, I don’t want someone else to have written it. I’m not afraid of the people I tell, but the people they tell. [laughs]

HD: Anything else you’d like to add in?

MB: Not really. I’m just really excited to return. My brother, Joe, will be there selling merch, and I’ll be bringing my wife, so that we can take in Portland and Eugene the next day. Come say hi if you can make it out!

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