Friday, 26 January 2018 14:58

New and Improving: Acclaimed comedian and filmmaker Mike Birbiglia returns to GR

Written by  Eric Mitts
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Mike Birbiglia Mike Birbiglia Photo by Brian Friedman

Known for his long-form storytelling, self-deprecating confessionals and heartfelt humor, comedian Mike Birbiglia has kept a tight lid on his latest one-man show, simply titled The New One.

Like many of his favorite movies from last year, including The Big Sick and Get Out, the 39-year-old comedian said he feels his show is best experienced with as little background knowledge as possible.

“I always tell people the most generous gift I can give them when I see a great show or a movie as a comedian is just to say, ‘Watch this. Don’t read a review or watch a trailer,” Birbiglia said.

With two of his own comedy specials, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and Thank God For Jokes, available for streaming anytime on Netflix, he added he doesn’t feel like he has to explain his style or his humor anymore.

“If you like those (specials), then I’m sure you’ll like the new show,” Birbiglia said. “And if you don’t like those, it’s probably not for you either.”

Performing for nearly two decades, Birbiglia has built a loyal following. From his early days touring the country on the comedy club circuit, to his long-standing contributions to National Public Radio’s This American Life, where he developed his knack for longer narrative arcs, he has honed his craft into something that has connected with a growing number of fans.

“I say this in Thank God For Jokes, I think of myself as something of a niche comedian,” he said. “I’m not mainstream, I’m not widely known, I’m not a household name, but what I do is very specific, and people who like it often really like it. And that’s great. I prefer it that way.”

Since he’s returning to perform at Fountain Street Church — which he fondly remembers from his 2011 LaughFest performance — he did want to make sure people here in Grand Rapids knew one thing for certain: he does curse in the show.

“I would say it’s not gratuitous in any way, but it’s definitely for adults,” Birbiglia said of The New One. “I feel like I have to explain that for people because people are very sensitive to language, and I am too. I think about all the words of the show, and why they’re there. So there is some minimal cursing, but I don’t think unnecessarily.”

Raised Catholic, Birbiglia isn’t one to normally curse in church. In fact, he’s not really a comedian who curses much at all. But in order to remain honest to himself, and his craft, he doesn’t want to set limits on where he can go with his comedy.

Don’t worry though, his wife Jen Stein approves of the show. As does his brother Joe Birbiglia, and his longtime friends Judd Apatow, Ira Glass, John Mulaney and Pete Holmes, who all appear on his latest podcast, The Old Ones, which he launched on his website in conjunction with the show. Revisiting his old albums, the podcast explores how Birbiglia got to here and how his past continues to influence his future.

“Ira Glass recently said to me on my podcast — he had this half-question: ‘What’s it like to have told this sleepwalking story, which there is no way you’ll ever have a better story than that?” Birbiglia said. “‘Do you feel like there’s a degree to which you can have a story as good as the story you’ve already told? Do you get anxious about that? Do you worry that you’ll get known as the sleepwalking guy?’ And I think, ‘Yeah, I do.’ It’s a really outrageous story, and it provides a metaphor, and has got a lot of drama to it and a lot of comedy, and it’s really extreme. So basically, I have to get better at the craft of what I’m doing so I can tell my story in a more interesting way.”

More recently, Birbiglia has ventured both in front of and behind the camera, having adapted his one-man show, Sleepwalk With Me, into his directorial debut film, and appearing in hit TV series, including Orange Is The New Black, Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer. In 2016, he made his directorial follow-up with the hit indie film Don’t Think Twice, which drew inspiration from his experiences starting out in improv comedy nearly 20 years ago.

Even though a lot has changed since then, especially with the immersion of social media into the comedy world, Birbiglia said he feels it’s still that direct interaction with fans, developing that sense of shared trust as performer and audience, that keeps things so exciting for him.

“I feel like that’s sort of what’s special — and also dangerous — about live performance combined with social media,” he said. “People can quote you out of context if they choose to. As a performer, you walk onstage and take the risk, but I feel like ultimately it’s worth the risk.”

Mike Birbiglia
The New One
Fountain Street Church
24 Fountain St. NE, Grand Rapids
Feb. 3, 7 p.m., $35,, (616) 459-8386

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