two critics one show

Is Mike Birbiglia’s The New One a Broadway Show or Stand-up? Our Critics Talk It Out.

Mike Birbiglia in The New One. Photo: Joan Marcus

Ed. note: Mike Birbiglia’s The New One, a standup performance opening on Broadway tonight, falls across the two fields covered by our theater critic, Sara Holdren, and our comedy critic, Jesse David Fox. Both saw the show, after which they got on Gchat to compare their reactions.

Jesse David Fox: Hi!

Sara Holdren: Hello! Did you like it? 😉 Oh, God, the emojis on here look awful.

J.D.F.: I feel like they used to be less threatening — which feels thematically appropriate.

S.H.: As in, Mike Birbiglia used to be less threatening, too? Or more so?

J.D.F.: A little bit of both! But, yes, I did like it. The comedy was super strong. Lots of different types of jokes, expertly crafted. I probably say this after all of his shows, but it’s the funniest one yet. More than anything, though, I was most impressed by how it’s structured.

S.H.: Honestly, I laughed much more than I was even expecting to. I think his storytelling and joke craft are pretty watertight. There were also things about the narrative that he thinks he’s living (of Obsolete Doofy I-Have-No-Agency Father Figure) that made me raise my eyebrows a bit. But as a thing built to make me laugh, really well done.

J.D.F.: I saw it Off Broadway and was really moved by it. This time I was more focused on the intricacies of how the story develops.

S.H.: Did anything big change?

J.D.F.: I’m sure he did a bunch of passes on the script and the jokes, but the fundamentals of the story and how it was told were the same. The big changes are what it’s like to see a show like this on Broadway vs. Off vs. all the theaters he performed in around the country as he was shaping the thing. Both Off and on Broadway, most of the staging was in the lighting.

S.H.: Which does its job in a pretty straightforward way: red for the red-light district in Amsterdam, blue when he and his wife visit the blue whale in the Museum of Natural History (because she’s enormously pregnant and wants to go see “the other mammals” — ha!). Pull to the downstage corner for an intimate, serious moment … I mean, there’s one big scenic gesture that we shouldn’t talk about that is pretty fantastic.

I think what interests me about a routine like this is how entirely personal it is. Some comics talk generally, philosophically — “This is how life/kids/parenthood is” — but a show like this is entirely in the first person and it goes to some intimate, dark, intentionally uncomfortable places. Which is moving and also, always, makes me think about the other people whose stories are being told. I thought so much about his actual wife during this show.

J.D.F.: I agree — that’s the most interesting point of discussion. I think it’s intentional. It was his wife who encouraged him to do the show in the first place. He read her some stuff from his old journals, and she said, you need to do this onstage. I think she’s credited as a writer, partly because Birbiglia reads some of her poems during the show.

S.H.: Yeah, I just found her in the program — “Additional Writing.”

J.D.F.: And when I saw it on Broadway, I was really interested in how they were used in the narrative. My first thought is her poetry represents clarity that is meant to contrast his befuddlement. But also I do think you’re supposed to just like his wife more than you like him — to want to hear her side. (And it should be noted they sell a book of her poetry at the show.)

S.H.: Well, in lots of ways he’s playing — in a clever, modern-dude way — into a really old sitcommy narrative of Magical Motherhood and Clueless Fatherhood.

J.D.F.: Yes, definitely. I do think his goal is to take this trope and reveal the sort of darkness behind it. Also, I think it was just really what happened.

S.H.: That darkness is one of the more interesting aspects of the show. The bit where — as he’s feeling useless and sidelined from his relationship with his wife after his daughter is born — he admits to understanding “why dads leave.” Or when he talks about how a man with the same sleepwalking condition he has unknowingly killed his own wife in his sleep? You can feel the audience tense up. There’s a lot of scary, bleak stuff happening, though he knows how to keep things bouncing along. His energy is sort of … pessimism with a dopey smile? I actually ran into a friend walking out of the theater and he had a sort of glazed look on his face and the first words out of his mouth were “I’m so depressed.” And he really meant it! I think he felt like the ending, which is maybe a couple of clicks too “awwww,” wasn’t entirely earned. That for him, the bleakness still carried the day. I don’t entirely agree but I get that point.

J.D.F.: A lot of this gets into what I actually loved about the show. Before I continue — have you seen any of his other performances?

S.H.: I’ve seen long pieces of Sleepwalk With Me, but it was years ago. I haven’t seen the Netflix specials — I’m definitely not a stand-up connoisseur. So with me, you can see the play “through baby’s eyes!”

J.D.F.: I just didn’t want to mansplain Mike Birbiglia to his No. 1 fan …

S.H.: No, I’m not that. I mean, I think even 80 minutes of him gives a pretty clear feeling of his M.O…

J.D.F.: Yeah. And keyed on to his best assets — telling long stories with tons of jokes and thoughtfully putting together super-tight narratives. So anyway, Birbiglia has a few phrases he’ll revisit in all of his shows, the best-known of which is “I know … I’m in the future also.” Another is something like “Before I continue, remember you’re on my side.”

S.H.: I don’t remember hearing either of those tonight.

J.D.F.: Exactly! They were in there at one point, but he took them out. (His wife’s idea.)

S.H.: Interesting. So this really did become, in a way, both a continuation and a departure. Like adding a baby to your life. “Nothing will change.” Well, everything changes. And also sometimes nothing. And everything.

J.D.F.: Knowing his work as I do, it felt to me like a culmination. I saw it as the third part of a loose trilogy, with Sleepwalk and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. (There’s another special, Thank God for Jokes, but it’s kind of a side story. It’s like his Han Solo: A Star Wars Story.) And that trilogy is essentially about watching this guy grow up.

So back to these catchphrases: They’re a clever comedy device, because they create two characters: There is the Mike Birbiglia in the story and the one telling the story. And the one telling the story also knows that the one in the story is wrong. This duality ultimately makes an audience more comfortable laughing at bad behavior, but it also lets the Mike Birbiglia character off the hook a little. But he clearly didn’t want that this time. He wants to let the audience to see this person for who he is.

Which is what I think the point is when, in the show, he says that the most a man can hope for is “decent.”

S.H.: I think the “decent” part is a great bit … but also kind of B.S. That’s a narrative I think men choose to live. Especially right now, where it’s the easiest and most fashionable thing in the world to hate on straight white dudes — and for them to hate on themselves. He’s very funny talking about it, but I actually don’t buy it as a universal truth about men at all — that they’re incapable of being more than “decent.” That’s still letting himself off the hook. And it’s interesting you saying this trilogy is about growing up, because just coming in on part three I’m like, friend, you’re charming, but if in fact you have made it out of prolonged adolescence, it’s just by a hair.

It’s funny, because I saw Will Eno’s Thom Pain yesterday — they open on the same night — and it too is a monologue by a white guy in early middle age who’s questioning a lot of things about his own decency/abilities/general humanity. Birbiglia’s is much more generous and humane. What the two share, though (aggressively in Eno’s and much more softly in B’s) is a base-level assumption that their reality is pretty universal. That their experience is Experience with a capital E — that pretty much all people either think like them or, if they’re straight, are married to someone who does.

And I want to be clear that this didn’t keep me from laughing my ass off at a lot of Birbiglia’s show. But it’s something I felt hovering in the air. A kind of befuddled self-deprecation as a mode of demonstrating self-awareness while not actually taking that many active steps to be a better human.

J.D.F.: I have not seen that play, but I do think you’re getting at one thing that changed when the show went up on Broadway. Off Broadway is a smaller audience, but also a place for smaller stories. A Broadway theater has a way of saying “This story is important.” It’s true that his personal growth is pretty small, although I liked that.

S.H.: I hear that. Honestly, I don’t think the venue is what’s affecting me here — I think even in a small room I would have walked out (having laughed a lot) thinking similar thoughts about, “Wait but also is your great triumph really that you got around to washing the dishes once?” “Wait, how low is the bar for men?” “Wait, why is it still that way?” “Wait, is our tradition of charmingly self-deprecating, oh-this-is-the-best-we-schmucks-can-do stories kind of also keeping it that way?”

J.D.F.: I guess my questions about your questions are (1) Do you think they are interestingly raised? (2) Do we think those are the questions he wants you to ask? I do feel as though this itself is an annoying question. Or two questions.

S.H.: I do think they’re interestingly raised — in that the show carries you along and, like his couch that he keeps returning to in the story, hugs you. The show is well constructed and takes care of you, it never drops you. As for, “Are they the questions he wants me to ask?” — I really have no idea. It’s a sort of brain puzzle about self-awareness. How much does it really help us to change ourselves?

J.D.F.: The thing I will always come back to is the construction. Because, to my comedy-writer eyes, here is what I found most impressive. Stand-up is a medium where you tell things. “I felt like this.” “This made me think of that.” “Then I realized this thing.” But Birbiglia succeeded here by actually showing the character change, even if slightly.

S.H.: That’s true — there’s a dramatic arc (even if it’s a purposefully humble one) that not all stand-up is about.

Which sort of brings us to the surprise ending — did you love it because it felt like the conclusion of that arc?

J.D.F.: I did. Though … I have met this titular One, so maybe I was bit primed to be moved.

S.H.: Oh, man. Well, that’s a killer right there.

J.D.F.: But, seriously, yes. It’s a pretty humble story told subtly. It’s possible that the way the ending lands depends on people’s feelings about kids. Did he cry when you saw it?

S.H.: He didn’t, but he definitely glowed.

J.D.F.: Sometimes he cries. The first time I saw it he did. The second time he choked up. And I’m a sap!

S.H.: I don’t doubt how completely this is straight from the heart at all. And I mean, I do think kids are like … near-death experiences or first heartbreak or actually finding real love. I’m sure you can’t understand it at all — whatever it is going to mean for you — until it does happen to you.

J.D.F.: Something I am wondering: When you watch something like this, do you judge the performance like you would an actor’s? Afterward, waiting for the restroom, two men were debating if the show was real or not. Can you believe that?

S.H.: That’s so strange! No, I don’t think about it the same way at all. I mean, I think comics have personas, and those things are crafted, but I don’t think it’s the same thing as acting inside of a fiction. And I would never really think of him as an actor. A performer, yes, but not an actor.
(I mean, except on Orange is the New Black).

J.D.F.: Does it make you want to see his other shows?

S.H.: Yeah, I’d be interested. But actually, another thing that this made me want to do was go watch Ali Wong’s special. Because I found myself wanting to hear the pregnancy story from the other side, too. I don’t know if she actually talks through the stages of it in the same way …

J.D.F.: She does! Natasha Leggero does also in her recent special.

I have two questions for you, and maybe we can end there. Did it make you want to have kids more or less? And did it make a case for stand-up as an art form that should be on Broadway?

S.H.: Good ones!

J.D.F.: That’s the name of my podcast, so thanks for the plug.

S.H.: Anytime. Well, it didn’t scare me out of wanting to have kids. Which I do want — and now I’ve admitted that on the interwebs. And in New York! And at this moment! Which is full of anti-child-having messaging. I suppose it didn’t make me want them any more or any less, although parts were intimidating (can’t wait for my hormone levels to quadruple every day, or whatever those stats were). But really, I’m a woman and am already totally terrified that the fact that I want kids will destroy my body and derail my career and all sorts of fun things. So he didn’t scare me that much more. We’ll see what happens.

J.D.F.: I want to as well, and I’d say the show fortified me a little.

S.H.: Your question about Broadway is really interesting. I think it’s not so much about should for me as can — and I’d say absolutely Yes to “can stand-up/storytelling find a home on Broadway?” I think I’m interested in seeing Broadway become much less homogenous in general. Which doesn’t just mean adding a Bruce Springsteen or a Birbiglia here and there — it means lots of other things about what kinds of theater producers dare to mount and support — but it does include them. I often feel like we still think about Broadway as this rarefied Be All End All — the holy grail that all theater/performance is aiming for, when that feels like a ridiculous notion to me at this point.

The visible reality is that it’s mostly a theme park, with some openings for classics and big new things driven by star power, and the occasional curio. Anything that can be done to shake that up — whether it’s stand-up or unique things like The Band’s Visit or The Great Comet or Indecent — seems like a good thing. The Broadway that we’ve built will not support any number of life-altering shows or formats right now — and so we should stop thinking about it as the place of final exultation and validation.

J.D.F.: All of that is really well said. It’s also part of the cultural shift toward considering stand-up an art form in its own right, not just a thing that accompanies a two-drink minimum. I’d add that comedians obviously have played Broadway before, but they were usually famous or — in the case of Whoopi Goldberg, when she did it — they were doing things much closer to theater.

S.H.: Yeah, he’s not doing a play. He’s straight/great comic storytelling. But yeah, not “theater” in terms of bells and whistles. I thought of people like Daniel Kitson on the way home — who I’ve seen in Edinburgh and at St. Ann’s Warehouse and the Connelly. And whose storytelling is art, as is Mike Birbiglia’s.

J.D.F.:  I assume the headline will be: “Two New York Magazine Writers on Whether They Want Kids.”

S.H.: Well, the cat’s out of the bag now.

The New One is at the Cort Theatre.

Is Mike Birbiglia’s The New One a Broadway Show or Standup?