Mike Birbiglia and the Importance and Power of Jokes

Mike Birbiglia has a very unique ability: the ability to tell any story, like the story of jumping out of a hotel window in Walla Walla, Washington, and make it relatable. To a certain extent, this is one of the primary goals of standup comedy. Although Birbiglia saw great success in the traditional standup circuit early in his career, he didn’t feel that he had produced an act that was true to his own form. So, after appearing on Comedy Central’s Premium Blend at age 23, Letterman at 24, producing a Comedy Central Presents special at 26, and his album Two Drink Mike at 28, he opened a one-man show that was completely different. Birbiglia began building a bridge between standup and storytelling.

Since 2008 he has appeared regularly on NPR’s This American Life, produced a book, a film, and two one-man shows: Sleepwalk With Me is a reminder that the failure to be honest with others and ourselves can only come back to haunt us; My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend underscores the dangers of always needing to be right.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Birbiglia about his new show Thank God For Jokes, which examines the double-edged nature of jokes, as they have the power both to forge bonds and build walls between people.

I’m sure people are constantly asking you about your part with the children’s audiobook ’Bear Has a Story to Tell.’ 

You have broken the cherry on that interview question, that’s hilarious! No one has ever asked me about that. I love it though, I really like the story. I’ve never been asked to read an audiobook. It was super fun. I love the writing and I love the artwork. I actually have some of the artwork up on my wall here: a framed picture with three bears, one has a circus hat on, one of them is like scratching his hind legs and his belly, and then one of them is doing stretches, and it’s really great.

How’d you end up doing that?

I guess the writers of it were fans of my comedy, so they kind of just cold called me and asked if I would do it.

Do you get a lot of people approaching you about things like that?

Yeah, it’s so funny, because it’s very indicative of what my life has become in the last year or so. For like thirteen years I auditioned in vain for movies, voiceovers, commercials, all kinds of crap… TV shows, pilots… I never got anything. I think I’ve pretty much never been cast in anything. And then in the last year, they asked me to be in The Fault in Our Stars, to do Bear Has A Story To Tell, to be in Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, and Amy Schumer asked me to be on her TV show. There have just been a lot of people asking me to do stuff and I think a lot of it has to do with Sleepwalk With Me, the movie, because I’m in so many scenes. I think people see it, and they’re like, “Oh, he can do that in my thing” and it’s just like… I didn’t intend it to be such, but it ended up being like the ultimate audition tape.

It’s interesting, because you’ve developed your own character of yourself through your comedy, so in the end you just had to present yourself in the movie, which is no small feat. I remember, when I was in high school, I saw you on Premium Blend and your Comedy Central Presents when that came out. Then as I got older I listened to This American Life and heard your stories on that, and we kind of experienced you evolve into a more storytelling mode. 

Yeah, totally, I agree. It’s a weird thing that I definitely didn’t intend. In a lot of ways, I aged on camera. I was on TV when I was 23 on Premium Blend, and I look back on that and I am nothing like I was when I was 23. I just turned 36 this weekend, and I perform and write comedy in so many different ways. I have to say, it’s a really strange thing to experience. I think people change so much in their 20s, in a way that’s underestimated. I feel like so often people talk about your teenage years as being the formative years of your life, but I think between 20 and 30, you change so much in these profound ways that are kind of mindboggling.

So it is strange. I met this guy who writes for The Nation, his name’s Ari Melber, and he came up to me at the David Wain They Came Together thing the other night at BAM, which by the way is a super funny movie, like oh my God is that a funny movie, actually hilarious. Anyway, Ari Melber recited for me verbatim my Busta Rhymes joke from my first album. Like verbatim – it was like six sentences, word for word, like ‘Busta Rhymes! Mike Birbiglia!’ And I was just like, “I don’t even know the words to that joke.” You’re saying the words to me and I’m so impressed because I wrote that joke like twelve years ago. Just a different period of my life.

Did you anticipate that you would end up doing movies, books, shorts, shows, voice-overs, et cetera when you were getting into comedy?

You know, to be honest with you, I expected a lot of the stuff that has happened to me in the last two years, but I expected it immediately. I didn’t expect it to take 15 years. One of the things I’ve learned about show business is that if you love it, don’t quit, because the biggest indicator of failure that I’ve witnessed around me, is people stopping.

It takes an absurd amount of endurance to succeed in comedy, because you’re just failing for years and years and years, and you’re not getting the things that you want. I feel like if you’re persistent, eventually you get what you want, but it’s generally about seven years after you thought you were going to get it, and thought you deserved it.

It’s hard to push through that for one year, let alone seven.

Yeah, that’s definitely kind of a mind-fuck of a reality. So in other words, to answer your question in a long-winded way, I actually thought I was going to be a filmmaker/director in college. I directed short films in college and wrote feature-length screenplays, and I was like “This is going to be this really cool thing; I’m going to cultivate my standup persona, and I’m going to sort of meld it into my screenwriting skills, and be an auteur like Woody Allen!” And then I moved to New York, and I got the crap beaten out of my by the reality of New York and how hard everything is, and then I made my first film at like age 32. Like it took – not that that’s so old – but it took so much longer. That’s a solid 10 years after I thought I was going to make my first feature film.

But you did say that you were on Premium Blend at 23. How did that even occur, and did you feel like you were ready for that?

No. I probably did at the time, in retrospect. I did New Faces at the Montreal Comedy Festival when I was 23 and then from that I got Premium Blend and Letterman. I did Letterman at 24; I booked him when I was 23 and it took a year to get a date, basically. And yeah, I was really not formed enough to be on television at all. Although, I feel like that happens to a lot of people. Like, I remember talking to [Greg] Giraldo once when we were working the road together; I was opening for Giraldo and he was like, “You know, you sound a little bit like [Mitch] Hedberg right now, you sound a little bit like this comedian, and like this comedian. I was like that too; I used to sound like [Dave] Attell.” He was like, “I love Attell. I wince when I see old TV spots from when I was really young, when I was basically doing Attell, and then I figured out who I was.”

And that goes away. Everybody has that. There’s like a school of people who sound like Mitch Hedberg, some of them are very famous now. And there’s a school of people who sound like Dave Attell, you know what I mean? It’s hard not to sound like the people who you admire, because that’s your point of reference for how to do comedy. It’s not like you’re going to “comedy college.” All you’re doing is watching great comedians who essentially become your professors inadvertently.

It’s a process of self-discovery. I feel like your stories are so unique to yourself, and yet you’re pulling your audience along with the self-discovery act, so it feels like to a certain extent that it’s deeply relatable while still being entirely unique to you. 

A big turning point in my career is when I started working with Seth Barrish, who directed the one-person show Sleepwalk With Me and the one-person show of My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. And he’s going to direct the next show, Thank God For Jokes. Basically at the time that I met him, which was around 2003, I wanted to start forming my standup into long form shows. And so I went and saw all these plays on and off Broadway, these one person plays, and this play he directed called The Tricky Part was my favorite one by far, so I started working with him and our goal, our sort of mutual goal and the thing that he taught me early on was like that you need to make your stories about the audience, and not really about yourself, even though you’re saying a lot of details about yourself, you’re really trying to tap into what it is that you and the audience have in common. So in other words, like with Sleepwalk With Me, not everybody’s jumped out a window, but a lot of people have ailments or problems or things that they’re in denial about and can’t say. So our feeling was, we’ll tap into that and we can make people feel what I felt. A key phrase in that show was “I read this book, The Promise of Sleep, and I read up on sleep disorders. And I remember thinking ‘maybe I’ll see a doctor’ and then I remember thinking, ‘maybe I’ll eat dinner,’ and I went with dinner for years.” And that’s one of those lines where pretty much everyone in the audience can be like, “Uh, yeah. I totally have done that. I totally acknowledge a problem of mine, and I had a moment of saying to myself, I am not going to actually deal with that.”

And what is Thank God For Jokes? Is it going to be another standup-storytelling mix?

It is, yeah, it’s about ten stories right now. It’s all these stories. It started out that I had made these two very narrative shows, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and Sleepwalk, and I want to go back after I learned all these things about writing jokes, writing in general, and performing. I want to make the funniest damn show I can possibly make, because I’m a much better writer than I was ten years ago. I went at it from that angle, and from that, thematically, this through-line started emerging. The stories were kind of about jokes themselves, about how in a lot of ways jokes make us feel closer to people, in particular they make me feel closer to my wife, and my brother, and my parents, but then also – I’ve gotten in a lot of trouble with jokes in my life. Like I’ve gotten into a lot of situations where I’ve offended people or alienated people, and I actually genuinely feel conflicted about that. Like I don’t want to make people feel bad, but as I say in the show, jokes have to be about something.

When it comes to the stories that you do jokes about, or your one man shows about, how true to reality do they remain as they develop? Do you ever feel like you have to make a more positive representation of the people in the story because they’re real people?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I always defer on the side of thinking the other character is better or nicer or smarter than me in the story. Especially my wife. My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is so much about my wife and my relationship with my wife, that she really wrote some really key sections of the show. She played a part of the process, developing that. So she came to the show, she was like, “That’s not how I remember it. I said this and you said this and I said this,” and then I just would have a pen and be like, let me write that down.

In terms of how truthful the stories are, I would say they’re all emotionally truthful, but in terms of every detail, I would say I’m not sweating the details. I would say that true details tend to be funnier, but true details can be kind of confusing in terms of telling a narrative. In other words, in Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, it’s hard to be like, “So I got into an argument with my girlfriend, and then the next morning I woke up and I missed a flight, and then I missed another flight a few days later, and then I had another argument with her a few days later about this other thing that wasn’t exactly related to that first fight. Then the car accident happened.”

There are certain conveniences in storytelling that tend to not bore and confuse the audience, because when you’re telling a long-form narrative, really what you’re gonna do is convey like a big, long story as though it were a really simple story. Like, I think one of the really good exercises that one of my college writing professors taught me about screenwriting is that – and I think this goes for storytelling too – you should be able to tell it really quickly. Supposedly Steven Spielberg doesn’t like movie pitches that are more than 25 words. I’ve heard of that at least. If you look at Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, it’s a story about how I didn’t believe in the idea of marriage and a series of incidents occurred in my life where I was hit by a drunk driver and made to pay for the other driver’s car and I came around to this idea that in this car accident, as well as in life, you can’t always be right. I haven’t pitched that in so long that it’s probably 75 words and not that sharp because my headspace is just off, but you get what I’m saying. You want to be able to just convey it quickly. Because ultimately, those details and those kind of long strung out unrefined narratives, those are for your therapist. Audiences come to see refined, thought-through, well-articulated stories.

And that takes a lot of time. That takes a lot more effort than a lot of people realize, to make a story short. You have to be developing and honing material, while also writing new material, and you personally are adding to that, adding to your shows off-Broadway, practicing new material, going out on the road, filming things, and I imagine filming is a million different things on its own. How do you organize all that?

It’s a lot of… I don’t know. It flows in terms of organization. Sometimes I’m super organized, other times I’m completely discombobulated. In my office every wall is corkboard. I’m a very visual thinker so I put all these three-by-five note cards on a wall so that I understand visually the story I’m trying to tell. Organization is one of the hardest parts.

How do you test out new material?

Primarily at Union Hall in Brooklyn. I do this show called Working It Out pretty much every Monday or every other Mondays. I don’t even advertise. I don’t put it on my website, not on Twitter, not on Facebook. It’s pretty much that the Union Hall Bell House email mentions it, and then I just workshop the new show.

For like the finer tuning, I’ll go to the Comedy Cellar because those audiences are kind of tougher. They’re not my people, which is good. They’re not there to see me; they’re there to see comedy. In some ways, they kind of want to see rougher comedy. This weekend I did the Comedy Cellar and there’s a point in the show where I said “I was being heckled by this person at a show in Atlantic City in a casino, and the audience member said to me, and I apologize for cursing, but he goes, ‘I’m gonna fucking kill you’.” Big Jay Oakerson was hosting and he came up afterward and he goes, “You just apologized for cursing after I did a bit about vagina sandwiches,” or something… I don’t remember what the exact thing was but it was really ridiculous and dirty.

Do people ever approach you and it’s weird because they know so many stories about you?

Yeah, totally. People really get me or they’ve never heard of me. The majority of people have never heard of me. And then this group of people that comes out to my shows, they’ve listened to all four albums and they’ve seen the movie, they’ve seen the specials. They’re just really clocked in. And it’s funny because it’s a very extreme thing. My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend came out last year, and it was like on the end-of-the-year list of comedy specials. A bunch of them were like “Number 1 Comedy Special” and then another bunch were like, “Not on the list,” [laughs] I was like, “Oh. Okay.” I guess this is how it’s gonna be: some people super on board, and some people not thinking what I do is standup, or I don’t know what they think.

It’s hard to tell the same stories and have the same freshness every time, but you’re literally going from place to place telling this long, emotional, drawn-out story and you have to do it with the same intimateness as the last place. But at a certain point it must be hard to keep reproducing it. Do you do anything in particular to get yourself in that mindset?

A lot of it comes from the audience. After a while, you do feel at points like, “Oh, I don’t know how I’m going to say all this stuff again that I’ve said all these times” but then the audience is laughing really hard at something or the audience laughs a certain way at something. I guess laughing transports me into what I thought was funny in the first place, or new things that are funny about it.

The other thing is, there’s pretty much never a show where I’m not trying out at least one new line, and a lot of times I’m trying out ten or fifteen new lines. Even with My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, I did the show off-Broadway and got reviewed by 60 publications or whatever and it reviewed really well and then like a year later I kept making changes on it. If you get the DVD of My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend we did this little documentary short, fifteen minutes or something, called “It’s Not Done Yet,” and it’s all about how after the show reviewed off-Broadway I kept touring the show and kept making changes on it because I knew I was going to film it. Until they say pencils down, it can always get better.

I look back at my old specials, and I’m like, “That could have been funnier, that could have been better.” I think that’s always the case. You have to get stuff ripped away from you. A lot of it’s my agent, Mike Berkowitz, I credit him on Sleepwalk with Me. He’s the best comedy agent there is. He reps Louis and Kevin Hart, he’s a real maverick in that universe. He’s kind of changed the game in terms of comedy concert touring. I basically stop working on something when he tells me to stop. “You can’t do this anymore, we’re going to do one night at Carnegie Hall and then you’re never going to do the show again.” I don’t always go along with what he says but I would say that 70% of the time he’s right.

Was the story of you meeting your agent really as coincidental as it seems in Sleepwalk with Me? You’re talking to that one comic who’s a sort of stereotypical, angry comedian, and all of the sudden it’s, “That’s my agent,” and she gives you a card. Was it really something akin to that? Or was it just that when you first met your agent you felt that you weren’t really ready for it, but it seemed cool and exciting?

That story is nothing like what happened to me. My relationship with my agent Mike is that I had a manager and he was working in the manager’s office and he started booking me on the road when I was like 24. I was kind of a side project in that office and then he went off on his own. At that time he booked me and Greg Giraldo. We were his first two booking clients. Now he books Louis [CK], [Bill] Burr, Aziz [Ansari], and Kevin Hart. He should have long forgotten me but fortunately he hasn’t.

You’re also very involved with This American Life. What was the story of how you met Ira Glass for the first time?

I was on The Moth, a storytelling series that became a radio show and a podcast as well. I’d been on The Moth a bunch of times and I recorded my sleepwalking story. I asked them if they would send it to This American Life because I thought it was a really good fit and I was a super fan of This American Life. I always thought it would be a great fit if I could get on that show. They just said “No. That place is kind of a fortress; we don’t really send stuff to them.” Then finally I may have been like, “Please, no, send the story.” Then I was in touch someone at This American Life who was like, “I think we’re interested in the story,” and this was like for six months or so. I was in loose contact with them. Then finally they were like “I think we’re going to run it.”

But I was like, “I don’t want it to be the live audio because it’s going to be part of my album and I don’t want to give away a free track of my album, which is basically going to be the best track on the album.” As a recording artist you don’t want to do that. And so Ira called me. I had never met Ira or anything. He called me and was like, “Hi, it’s Ira Glass, I’m calling to convince you to let us use the live audio track of your story.” You know, talking to Ira is very intimidating. Talking to him on the phone is like being on your very own episode of This American Life, interacting with the radio show. So I was immediately like, “Oh yeah, absolutely, whatever you want Mr. Glass.” We got a drink in New York, we just hit it off right away and worked together and have been friends ever since. We have a really good rapport because I tend to defer to him on stories because he’s a real master of storytelling and he tends to defer to me in matters of comedy because I’m a comedian. I think we’re kind of deferent to each other’s field and as a result it’s been an excellent collaboration so far.

How did you figure out the financing and marketing side of your comedy? That’s a difficult step for any comedian that I think you’ve done very well.

I feel like all of us, between me, Aziz, [Jim] Gaffigan, and Amy Schumer, we’re all just taking it as it comes. I don’t think any of us intended to be marketing professionals when we got into comedy. But you look around and you’re like, “Oh, the people who figure out how to market themselves get audiences at their shows.” Ultimately you just want people to come to your shows on purpose. That was always my goal when I was starting out, playing these shindigs like “Tonight! Comedy!” and it’d be just me and a bunch of other people. People would come for “comedy” in a very general sense. The shows would never go that well for me, people would be like, “I don’t like you that much, but I like your jokes.” But then there would be like three people in the audience like, “You’re my favorite.” The marketing over the years has just been about getting those three people to show up in every city. Eventually you’re playing for your fans and the whole thing feels like one big inside joke among friends. That’s what’s awesome about the tour: the moment I walk onstage I feel like I’m continuing where I left off. I can make a reference to Walla Walla and people know what I mean. I don’t have to be like, “I have a serious sleepwalking disorder.” People get it. There’s a lot of that.

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.

Mike Birbiglia and the Importance and Power of Jokes