I associate Mike Birbiglia with a number of other popular stand ups I know best from the Internet but of whom I first became aware in the alt-comedy boom of the ’90s: comedians like Louis C.K., Mark Maron, David Cross, Janeanne Garofolo and others, who first gained audiences—and my attention—on cable television. They were comedians working the periphery, if they were lucky, of the mainstream entertainment. They toured like mad developing sharp, often highly personal and raw material that killed at the Luna Lounge in New York and Largo in L.A. and the Purple Onion in San Francisco and they took their chances at every shitty chuckle hut in between; and they held on long enough for the web and the conduit to their, respective, people. In the meanwhile, they struggled through failed and/or terrible pilot sitcoms, cable talk shows, middling movie careers.
I associate him so but entirely incorrectly.
Birbiglia is a full decade younger than most of those comedians and while no stand up (save, perhaps, Bo Burnham) leaps into the spotlight without trauma, Birgbiglia’s path has been perhaps less arduous and compromised than some. His first comedy record was released just six years after his graduation from Georgetown University. Eight years out, his one-man off-Broadway show, Sleepwalk With Me, was called by The New York Times “simply perfect.”
I point this out not to question Birbiglia’s bona fides. Whatever they may in stand-up years, a half-a-dozen-plus years on the road are a lifetime in normal human years. But Birbiglia’s career developed with the Internet (and the online distribution of his offline radio appearances on NPR). He found an audience without working in or toward, it seems, some sort of studio deal. I wonder how much this has to do with the fact that—for a stand-up, especially—he doesn’t seem to be an angry prick.
Birbiglia’s vibe and pacing are slow and patient, almost shambling. For a comedian who has made much of his sleep disorders—the topic of both his award-winning one-man show and the self-directed movie version of that material—this is apt: He comes across as a little, well, sleepy. He speaks in slow, elongated phrases; if he weren’t from Shrewesbury, Mass., you’d be tempted to call it a drawl. He ambles across the stage; when a bit calls for a mime of running, the action resembles the clichéd dreamlike ineffectiveness of flight. In some promotional material somewhere I read that Birbiglia’s forte is the embarrassing, self-revealing story. I won’t quibble, but I’ll differentiate for those who, like me, might have a standard of embarrassment formed by very different comics. Birbiglia deals in embarrassment, but not self-loathing. In his bits about his Catholic school education, his early career, his married life and interaction with his pets, there is silliness and there are foibles. There is little of the anger or outrage I expect in many comedians. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.
One of my favorite of the bits that Birbiglia performed at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall last Friday (March 21), for example, was one dealing with the difference between those people who are on time and those he refers to as “laties.” I’ve given it away, haven’t I? You know which he is. It was a warm, funny bit with some nicely incorporated crowd work about those of us (his wife included) who simply cannot be on time; those of us who might cause him self-consciousness at attempting to save an adjacent space on the floor next to him at the yoga practice we ultimately miss.
In another favorite bit and the only one in which he worked “blue,” Birbiglia used a word that drew an actual collective gasp from the audience. It is conventionally regarded as the worst, non-race-specific hatespeak/vulgarity in English. But it was a quote. (Specifically, if you must know, it’s what director David O. Russell called Lily Tomlin in an on-set tirade. Look it up.) Birbiglia clearly loved telling the story, and I clearly loved hearing it, of how he recounted—in fact, recited verbatim—this rant with Russell present while presenting him a lifetime achievement award at an independent film festival. Pretty great story.
But not really embarrassing in the way I think of the word. For a stand-up comedian, that’s a pretty triumphant story. But this is, again, a sleepwalker. Not a junkie.
By comparison, the show’s opening comic, Chris Gethard—the host of a truly weird NYC public-access comedy show and sometimes sketch performer on Jimmy Fallon’s show—told stories of his terrible Smiths-themed tattoos and his absolutely related lapses in sobriety. Both comedians were affable and easy. Both had very strong material (Gethard’s bit about the Gatorland amusement park in Florida was very amusing.) And both worked an audience-friendly, almost family-friendly, side of stand up.
Next, I’d like to see Gethard with a longer set; and Birbiglia in a roomful of drunk cowboys.