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The 7 Words That Changed Mike Birbiglia’s Comedy Forever

Mike Birbiglia. Photo: Vulture and Photo by Getty Images

“I know … I’m in the future also” are seven words that represented both a creative breakthrough and directive for Mike Birbiglia, when he riffed it, working on a story about a charity set gone wrong. For years, from one one-person show to the next, the phrase became his signature, codifying his approach to storytelling, in which he’d both tell you what happened and comment upon it from the perspective of knowing it was wrong. However, in his new show running on Broadway, appropriately titled The New One, he parted ways with it. Instead of stating he knew his behavior was wrong in the past, the narrative depicts the realization. It’s masterful.

These seven words, the story in which they first appeared, and how it evolved are the subject of this week’s episode of Good One, Vulture Comedy’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them. Listen to the episode and read a short excerpt of the discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Let’s talk about seven words: “I know … I’m in the future also.”
It became everything, yeah.

What do you remember about coming up with that line?
“I know” came out organically. When I was telling “Celebrity Golf” for the first time, the audience really was judging me. And what they were judging was that I didn’t know that it was insane for me to be telling a joke about cancer in front of cancer patients. I had to be like, “No, I know.” And so I did it organically, being the apologetic person who I am. And the audience went nuts. I didn’t even tell it as a joke. It goes back to the Seinfeld thing — the audience tells you what’s funny about you. The audience is laughing at, “Oh my God, he knows! He knows the thing we’re judging him for right now!” So much of jokes are capturing a catharsis that’s existing in the room of people being like, “That’s how I feel about my parents, that’s how I feel about my girlfriend or boyfriend or wife or husband or brother.” But with that joke, you’re doing it literally in the moment. They’re judging you in real time. And then you’re going, “No, I know.” And they’re going, “Oh, he caught us judging him.” And it’s happening right now, which, of course, is one of the most exciting things about doing live comedy is you see things in real time. “I’m in the future also” was an improv. And then that was one of the ones I go, “Well fuck, yeah that’s funny.”

What does it offer to you as a storyteller?
Ira Glass has this really good prompt that he gave me once. I started working with Ira about ten years ago, when I did my first story with This American Life. And he says — I might bastardize this — “You’re telling the story and at a certain point you have to stop in the story and tell people how you feel about the story because they don’t know. They are just interpreting the facts as they interpret them, but you have to tell them how you feel about it. You need to do that and then you go back to the story. And then you go back to how do you feel about it.” What it does, as a comedian, a lot of how you feel about it can be jokes. And that’s fun!

Did you ever think about making an “I’m in the future too”?
Well, no. A lot of people paraphrase it as that and I don’t like it. I think “also” is funny because it’s wrong. No one uses also as the final word in a sentence. My wife is a great poet — I say some of her poems in the show — and she was quoting this Russian poet to me the other day. I’ll try to find it because she actually wrote it down for me in this thing. [Finds notebook] This is a Russian poet named Kharms, who I hadn’t heard of before. But he says, “A work of art has to exist in a world as an object, as real as the sun, grass, a rock, water, and so on. It must also possess a slight error. In other words, to be right, it has to be a little bit wrong, a tad strange, and thereby, truly real.” And I think that that’s sort of crucial, in relation to the “I know … I’m in the future also.” I’m wrong in the story, but I’m also aware that I’m wrong in the story. In The New One, the show you just saw, there’s tons of that. I would argue more than ever.

You use the phrase in Sleepwalk With Me and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and, at least, in the stage version of Thank God for Jokes, but you don’t in The New One. Why?
I used to have it in. Jen, who’s an additional writer on the show, my wife, goes, “I really think you should take it out because it starts to feel catchphrase-y. You don’t need it.” You want to convey the thing with as few words as you can. The master of that, I think, is Mitch Hedberg. You just go, “Oh my God, that joke only has like nine words in it. It’s perfect.” “An escalator can never be broken. It can only become stairs.” How many words is that? Eleven words? That’s like perfection. So, that’s what it is. I’m trying to do it with less.

Were you like, “I don’t care if the audience thinks I’m nice. I don’t need them to know I know I’m wrong”?
I had to come to grips with that. I had to throw that out into the universe. Some people had been pretty judgmental. Personally, to those people I say: The comedian who you maybe like more is maybe not telling you the whole story.

Stand-up is a very tell-y medium, but by not having this moment, you allowed yourself to show that you changed from the start of the story to the end. How did you approach this?
It built backwards from the ending, which I won’t give away. It’s not a spoiler to say it’s a moment of clarity. What leads up to that is a lot of confusion and frustration and anger and feelings of insecurity. So, once I found the clarity, it’s was like, Well, what are the stepping stones to the clarity that are logical? And how truthful are those to what I experienced?

I feel like in the last year, a question that people ponder about shows like this has reemerged. You are a stand-up. Is this stand-up?
It just doesn’t matter. Same thing with Hannah Gadsby and Nanette it literally doesn’t matter what you call it. I saw Nanette live in downtown New York. I loved it. I watched it again on Netflix and I loved it even more. I just had a real experience with it both times. People go, “It’s not stand-up.” “It is stand-up!” “It’s not a one-person show!” “It’s theater!” “It’s not theater!” It doesn’t fucking matter. It just fucking doesn’t. Can we all just get over the idea of labeling these things like, “This is a movie!” “This is a miniseries!” “This is a TV series!” “This is a special!” “This is a one-person show!” Shut up! You tell people to see it or you don’t. Just quit fighting about these stupid things. So yeah, I think of myself as a comedian. If you don’t want to call me a comedian, I don’t care!

The 7 Words That Changed Mike Birbiglia’s Comedy Forever