While his special Thank God for Jokes and feature film Don’t Think Twice are still rippling from critical and commercial success, Mike Birbiglia is gearing up for his next project, a one-man live comedy show called The New One. The theme of the show is somewhat secretive so far. His official press release only says that he “approaches an entirely new subject in a new way with the same heart and humor we’ve come to expect” and that “it may be the best one” of his shows yet. He’s been developing the show on the road with a run of Working It Out stops before kicking off the official The New One 25-city tour in July. I talked to Mike about the mysterious new project, how to build a loyal following, and why being good isn’t good enough.
I know that you’re keeping the content of your upcoming show kind of guarded, but I’m going to use my best investigative skills here to try to figure out what’s going on.
[laughs] Or as Trump would say, “What the hell is going on?”
So, I watched your topless video announcement, which you shot at the beach. You mentioned part of your show has something to do with the beach. I also know you’ve been working out the show with some smaller tour dates as well. Where do you feel the show is right now in terms of where you want it to be when the official tour kicks off in July?
I think it’s probably around 70% of where it will be in July. Hopefully by the time I bring it to an off-Broadway place it’ll be at 90%. There’s a great quote I have on my wall by Louis C.K. from an interview he did where he said, “My rule is that if you have someone or something that gets 70% approval, you just do it. ‘Cause here’s what happens. The fact that other options go away immediately brings your choice to 80. Because the pain of deciding is over. And when you get to 80%, you work. You apply your knowledge, and that gets you to 85%! And the thing itself, especially if it’s a human being, will always reveal itself, 100% of the time, to be more than you thought. And that will get you to 90%. After that, you’re stuck at 90, but who the fuck do you think you are, a god? You got to 90%. It’s incredible!”
When I do these club shows the audience is really liking it. One of the good signs is that people can’t really tell it’s not done. At the end of the shows I say, “This was a show called Working It Out that will become a show called The New One. You might come see me in six months or a year and go, ‘That’s better. That’s funnier.’ But inevitably there will be something in the show tonight that you will miss, like, ‘What about that joke? Where did it go?’ And the answer is: it’s gone and the reason it’s gone is because of you. I want you to think about that.” What I’ve been trying to do with My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, Sleepwalk with Me, and Thank God for Jokes – and I’d like to think I’m getting better at this, but who knows, it’s not up for me to decide – is I want people to have an experience that is funny first and foremost and secondarily makes you feel something. If I can do those two things I’m thrilled. In terms of the mystique of it all I like to tell people as little as possible in the same way I do with my favorite movies like Once, The Trip, and my recent favorite, Get Out. To my best friends I’ll say, “See this movie Get Out. Trust me. You have to see it. I refuse to tell you anything.” That is the best gift I can give you and I ask for that gift in return.
I’m conflicted right now because I agree with you. I don’t even like to watch trailers before I see movies. I don’t even like when someone says, “You should check this out. It’s kind of a blend of this and that.” I’d rather go in off of a vague recommendation or personal interest and attempt to have a pure viewing experience. But right now I’m trying to do my job and I was secretly hoping that if I just let you talk long enough hopefully you would leak some kind of great tidbit about the new show. It’s purely selfish of me to want to break some piece of news about The New One.
I feel like in this media era that we’re in there are so many fucking things, so many movies and shows. What I’m trying to do is make a thing that people will watch now and watch again in 10 or 20 years. That’s a thing that I think all of us as artists have a responsibility to do – make something truly unique. There are so many things that are just like other things. To your point about “it’s kind of like this and kind of like this,” I almost don’t want to see things to where there’s a comparison to anything else. One of the things that’s been weird for me in this modern age is that I’ve had people say to me, “I don’t know how to explain you to my friends because there isn’t like a clip that gets across what your show is like.” On one hand I’m like, “Fuck, what am I going to do?” That’s a real quandary. They’re right about that. Then on the other hand it’s like, “Well, that’s what makes it special.”
What you’ve tapped into is something that I talk about a lot in these interviews, and that is a sense of discovery. Not only is there so much content being thrown in our faces all of the time, but there’s also so much talk about all of the content, especially the good stuff. It’s virtually impossible to avoid opinions, critiques, and spoilers. If someone can watch one of your specials or one of your films and not really know what they’re getting into, you’ve almost recreated that feeling that existed before everyone and everything was on the internet.
I think you’re right. One of the things I remember when I started fifteen or so years ago was that I wanted people to come see me on purpose whenever I would perform clubs as an opening act, like at the Stress Factory in New Jersey. I remember playing there when I was starting out in my twenties, opening for a comic – I won’t say the name because that seems obnoxious – who is very big, over the top, broad, and was crushing every night. Just obliterating. I was the opening act and I wasn’t doing so great with the majority of the audience. But a minority of the audience, like 15 or 20 people, would come up to me at the bar afterwards and be like, “We like you better than that guy.” Basically over the years I’ve convinced those 15 people in every city to come out when I come to town. Now those are the people who come to my shows. I feel like it’s a godsend. I feel so lucky to have those people come to my shows.
I think as a comedian you have to put in enough time to not only find your voice, but to also allow your audience to find you. It’s not until you know your voice that your audience will start finding you. It sounds like that’s what happened in that club. You knew enough about your voice to know that you’re not going to connect with the whole room, but that you could connect with, say, one tenth of the room and begin to build a following.
There’s a famous quote of George Carlin’s where he says, “I don’t need 99% of America to like me. I just need 1% to love me.” Something like that. I think that’s an entirely true sentiment and I think it can make way for truly great work. It’s not enough to do something that’s good anymore. It’s only interesting if it’s great. If you’re just aiming for good, go home. Great is the only thing that has a chance of enduring.