It might be a little jarring that the first voice you hear in Mike Birbiglia’s new Netflix special, Thank God For Jokes, isn’t Mike Birbiglia. Instead, a video recording of Jimmy Kimmel starts playing, addressing a crowd of celebrities that we can’t see. After the clip, Birbiglia walks out and officially opens the special. He explains that the footage is from the 2012 Gotham Awards, and says that what took place that night was one of the craziest experiences he’d ever had. Subsequently, he leaves the Gotham Awards story a mystery for the time being and makes it a focal point for the rest of the special. Throughout the following hour-and-ten-minutes, Birbiglia teases out the events of that night, slowly building up to what happened.
Birbiglia uses the majority of Thank God For Jokes to tell a series of separate but semi-connected stories. He talks about religion, accidentally cursing on The Muppets, and the time he got arrested for having a suspended driver’s license. He even has a solidly funny audience interaction at one point with a guy who can’t seem to get over the one time he was arrested by, to use his words, “a woman cop.” On stage, Birbiglia is confident, but not arrogant; casual, but not aloof. He labels himself as “niche,” and immediately engenders some respect from the audience by showing humility with his level of fame. “I’m not being falsely modest,” he says, “like I get that we’re all here right now. But I also know at some point this week, you told someone where you were going tonight, and that person said, ‘Who?’”
Birbiglia’s a natural-born storyteller—he’s an indie filmmaker and his comedy has been featured on This American Life. His conversational style almost makes you forget how smart his jokes are. He tells stories in a way that invites the audience into a specific experience; it doesn’t matter if you’ve never had the same thing happen to you. He provides just the right amount of context so that the specific becomes universal. He always seems to be in sync with his audiences, too. There’s a seamlessness to the way each story flows into one another, and even though you know the material’s been prepared, his easy-going nature makes it feel less stilted and rehearsed.
Toward the end, he finally reveals what happened at the 2012 Gotham Awards. I won’t spoil the whole thing, but it involves Birbiglia reciting a transcript from the now infamous expletive-filled rant from David O. Russell. It’s one of the high points of the special. Even if you’re familiar with the story of what happened, it still works great because of everything that leads up to it. Had he decided to tell it at the very beginning, it might not have the same impact.
There’s a delightful optimism that Birbiglia exudes in his work that’s on full display in Thank God For Jokes. One theme in particular that shows up throughout is an appreciation for jokes as an artform. Early on in the special, Birbiglia declares that all jokes are offensive to someone. It’s a sentiment that a lot of people (not just comics) share. He smartly critiques this notion of political correctness without actually getting too political. “Jokes have been ruined by people who aren’t good at telling jokes. A joke should never end with, I’m joking, or Get ‘er done.” Birbiglia also acknowledges that there’s a balance to keep in mind. He says he gave a lot of thought as to whether or not he should have told his joke with David O. Russell, but ultimately decided to do so because he wanted to be true to himself as a comedian. As his special ends, he reminds his audience of how closely interconnected we all are now—people across the world now feel like our next-door neighbors. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence, then, that Birbiglia tells jokes like they’re stories: He’s concerned with how people talk and interact with one another today, and a lot of that gets filtered into his comedy. If jokes can help communicate better, then thank God for that and thank God Birbiglia keeps telling them.