comedy review

The New One Buries Mike Birbiglia, and It Will Bury You, Too

Mike Birbiglia in The New One. Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

Mike Birbiglia’s new special The New One is the kind of thing that makes you want to speak in superlatives. It’s the most moving, most honest, most surprising and tender, and it’s also wildly funny. The New One is a gorgeous longform piece of storytelling that unspools slowly, looping back on itself to secure its thematic anchors more and more tightly as it goes. It’s a story about Birbiglia’s concern about having children, and throughout the hour-plus performance, he builds and returns to many of the same images, each time layering them with new angles for humor and pathos.

Birbiglia begins with a couch. He weaves in his medical history. He introduces running jokes between him and his wife, creates side characters, and establishes the physical space of the story. He lingers on reluctance and on self-indictment, wrestling with the unwinnable tug-of-war between wanting to be a better person and the fact that it’s impossible to be anything other than who you are. He tells jokes. And yet, I’m not sure it’s stand-up comedy.

The New One is a “comedy special,” for sure. It’s hilarious! It’s a long performance of a painstakingly constructed one-person comedy show that’s been honed and perfected until it’s tight as a drum. It’s a stand-alone hour, not meant to tell a continuing story beyond this one performance. It also fulfills many of the contemporary stand-up tropes that tend to appear again and again — it’s a man talking about his marriage and the mundane annoyances of his life. Birbiglia is the exterior narrator of his own life story, stepping into and out of events as he’s retelling them to point out their absurdities. Much of The New One is strung with jokes, familiar set-up/punchline constructions that do exactly the job they’re meant to do. “Parents are like zombies” is a setup that twists to a first punchline as Birbiglia describes the way to kill them (shotgun to the head, which, he says, is also how you kill anybody), and then that punchline becomes a new setup as he describes his own wife’s sudden announcement that she’d like to have a baby. Birbiglia turns, slow-motion miming the hand-pumping action of preparing to fire a shotgun. “You got bit!” he yells, assuming the stance of a zombie-movie hero.

But The New One’s structure and its aims make me reluctant to call it straight stand-up. It’s not that it’s better than traditional stand-up, although there’s an analogy that’s been playing through my mind that does suggest “betterness” in a way I wish wouldn’t muddy the waters. In certain ways, The New One is to most stand-up what prestige TV is to the rest of TV. Again, I don’t mean that “prestige” is the same as “better,” here; it’s more that The New One is embedded with many of the aesthetic and structural markers that has made prestige TV feel different over the last decade. It is narratively complex, with a kind of complexity that relies on length, and on one story being sustained for a long time. It’s less interested in joke density than most stand-up performances; Birbiglia builds long stretches without major humor-release valves.

The prestige TV analogy even works in terms of one of TV’s favorite bugbears, the “it’s more of a ten-hour movie” claim. Where many stand-up specials are a collection of several relatively self-contained jokes that work like individual sequences within the hour, The New One’s sequences are all subordinate to the larger story. He makes a nice joke out of that structure, too. In one of the first long digressions of the special, Birbiglia launches into the seven reasons why he never wanted to have a kid. The first reason is long, a bullet point with several of its own subordinate stories and sub-jokes operating inside it, as he lays out his lengthy medical history. He goes deep into the details (his sleepwalking disorder, his sleeping arrangements, his doctors, the impact on his marriage), deep enough that you’re designed to forget for a moment that this is all part of some other story. When he gets to the end of the sequence, you’re so far down this rabbit hole with him that you’ve forgotten how you got there, until he pauses for a moment and then announces “… number two!” as he loops back up to the list.

The most shocking moment of The New One is also a big, stagey, glorious, and effective moment of formal inventiveness, the kind of “I didn’t know you could do that” moment that, yes, often plays into definitions of prestige. (And what I’m about to describe could be called a spoiler, so fair warning if you care about that kind of thing!) One of the repeated motifs of The New One is Birbiglia’s anxiety about how a child will change their lives — their relatively simple, clean lives as demonstrated by the basic rug and single, spare stool on the stage. When Birbiglia gets to the point in the story where they do have a baby and they bring her home from the hospital, he returns to the idea that their lives were not supposed to change. Then, in one massive, startling whoomp, a cascade of baby paraphernalia falls onto the stage from above, surrounding Birbiglia in ankle deep foam-and-plush detritus.

He stumbles around the stage, furiously holding aloft thing after silly useless baby thing, at one point shaking a Merlin’s Magic Sleep Suit in the air and desperately explaining that parenthood makes you so frantic to get your baby to sleep that you will believe in magic. It’s a big, dramatic, visceral device, an unbelievably effective representation of what it feels like to survey your life after coming home with a baby. The toy drop feels related to prop comedy, except where comedians often use the prop as a stand-in for something, The New One instead buries Birbiglia in an avalanche of the thing itself, so that the special creates the experience of change Birbiglia’s working to describe. In The New One, as in life, the world Before Baby and the world After Baby look very, very different.

Again, I don’t mean to entangle The New One in an argument about prestige being the same as quality. Nor do I want to suggest that more traditionally defined stand-up is somehow less impressive or less meaningful because it’s not trying to be this. (If anything, this is precisely the same problem the prestige TV debate has had for the last decade: Calling something “prestige” as a way of short-cutting to “good” generally shows a laziness and lack of imagination about what “good” means.) It’s more that calling The New One “stand-up” falls short of a full description of the work Birbiglia has created, and it doesn’t encompass how distinct it feels from a typical stand-up set. The New One has Big High-School Speech-Club Energy (which is lovely!). It is sincere and open in a way that comes closer to the experience of a monologue than a comedy routine. Its central aim has less to do with humor and more to do with showing a character changing over time.

Stand-up does both of these things as well, but generally its priorities are swapped. Usually something like deep personal growth is the setup, the thing that becomes the premise of the jokes. In The New One, the jokes feel like the opening salvo, a surface-level understanding of absurdity as a way to make an introduction. Underneath, at the center, is a man talking about fatherhood. It’s often very funny. Mostly, though, it’s like being told a gorgeous, well-built story.

The New One Buries Mike Birbiglia, and It Will Bury You, Too