A darling of the NPR demographic, Mike Birbiglia's affable everyman persona lends itself to longer bits based as much in storytelling as they are in standup. With a series of classic specials including Thank God for Jokes, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend and Sleepwalk With Me (which he also adapted into a feature film of the same name) under his belt, each new hour from Birbiglia feels like a major event — though he's also been increasingly busy with appearances in Trainwreck, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and Orange is the New Black, as well as behind the camera on Don't Think Twice and the aforementioned Sleepwalk With Me. This maestro of embarrassing experiences will be rolling into Denver on October 20 with a fresh hour of material for two days of shows at the Paramount, and he's never been in finer form.
Westword caught up with Birbiglia over email to discuss his newest hour, the unique creative ecosystem of improv comedy and how fatherhood has shaped his work.
Westword:You're currently touring with a new hour simply called The New One. How would you characterize this material? Are there any departures from your usual methods in this one?
Mike Birbiglia: In some ways, The New One is a followup to my Netflix special My Girlfriend's Boyfriend. It’s very personal, and it's very much a single story, but I’d venture to say it's even more confessional and maybe even funnier? But that’s not for me to decide…
The new thing that’s happened in the last few years is in general people who come to my shows have seen either Sleepwalk With Me, or My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, or Thank God for Jokes, or Don’t Think Twice, and so my advice is generally if you like those, then you'll like this. If you don't like those, you probably won’t like this. I try not to tell people what the show is about, because I realized recently that I don’t like knowing anything about what I’m about to see.
My favorite movies this year were The Big Sick and Get Out. The greatest gift I could give people after seeing those movies was urging them to see those movies, but don’t watch a trailer and don’t read a review. Generally, people appreciate it when you do that. By the way, these shows in Denver and Fort Collins are particularly cool because the Lucas Brothers are opening the shows. They are an extraordinary act. They have an amazing Netflix special called On Drugs that you should check out. They are the stars of tomorrow. Or today? They’re stars.
Thank God for Jokes premiered on Netflix only last year. Do you think you've gotten more prolific as a standup over the years?
I think so. I feel like early in my career, I spent so much time cold-calling comedy clubs and begging for people to let me perform, and in recent years that part of it has fallen away and now I can actually spend a majority of my time on the writing. So it actually has opened up time to write, which is really the goal.
Do you know when or if you'll be filming a special with all the New One material?
No. There’s no plan to film it, because with these shows you really don’t know when you’re done until you’re done. When I perform the show in Denver, it will be different than when I performed the show last week in Boston. And it will be really different from when I performed the show in July in Rochester. The show is a constantly changing piece. I performed the show in D.C. last week, and there were people who came to see me workshopping the material in D.C. this winter who were tweeting about how different it was. And that’s why I don’t plan to film things in advance, because I don't want to prematurely say it's done before it's done.
Don't Think Twice is set in the insular world of improv comedy. Why did you want to shed light on this under-explored corner of performing arts?
Improv was my window into comedy in the first place. I was cast in my college improv group when I was a freshman, and it really turned my world upside down. I’ve always loved it. It's always been part of my process of developing jokes and stories.
After I directed Sleepwalk With Me, I realized how much the principles of improv, having to do with this giant collaboration and yes-anding other people's ideas, contributed to me directing a film. Which is an insane task that I didn't understand before I did it. What got me through it were the principles of improv. After I directed Sleepwalk With Me, I wanted to go back and improvise again, which I hadn’t done in years. So I started doing a regular show at Upright Citizens Brigade in New York. While I was doing that, I came up with the idea for Don't Think Twice.
I think the thing that drew me to the idea of Don’t Think Twice was that improv is this great metaphor for life in the sense that in improv everyone is equal in theory, but often we learn that’s not true, and in life we definitely learn that’s not true. When I was a kid, if my brother got something that I didn’t, I’d say, “That’s not fair,” and my mom would say, “Nothing’s fair,” which I think is the best thing you can tell a kid, because it's one of the more true statements. That’s what Don’t Think Twice is sort of about. That’s sort of a long-winded answer, but if there’s anything in there that makes sense, print it.
What do you think makes an improv troupe such a unique ecosystem for creativity?
I think it's very rare that a person is able to be creative in an environment that has no hierarchy. So if you’re working at an ad agency, you’re ultimately working for the client. If you're the client, you're reporting to your CEO. There’s always someone above you. In improv there technically isn’t anyone above anyone. When there’s no hierarchy, it's possible that the most creative ideas will emerge, because your inhibitions go away, because you’re not trying to impress anyone. Which makes me want to go over to UCB and do improv right now.
Do you think the format of your specials has changed over the years? My Boyfriend's Girlfriend and Sleepwalk with Me originated as one-man shows, but Thank God for Jokes definitely had the feel of a more traditional standup special. Do you see much of a difference between the two approaches as far as writing them goes?
With Thank God for Jokes, I decided to go out on the road and return to the style of comedy that I started with when I wrote 2DM, which is just the funniest jokes I could think of back to back to back. Along the way, this theme emerged, which was: Why do we tell jokes, and what do they mean, and who gets hurt, and how do jokes make us closer, and how do they alienate people? It started out as a traditional standup special, but the end result is actually pretty similar to Sleepwalk With Me and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend in that it's a series of stories that when told together feel like one story.
Do you have any other projects or developments coming up on the horizon that you'd like to mention before we wrap up?
In terms of new projects, this is it. I’m really putting my heart and soul into this show right now and rewriting and rewriting and cutting stuff and adding stuff and trying to make this the best show I’ve made. The goal is always to make something better than the last show you made.
By the way, the last time I was in Denver, I had a really great experience at the Mayan Theatre. Lisa Kennedy moderated my Don’t Think Twice Q&A, and it was really generous of her. I’ve always had a great time in Denver, and I’ve always really appreciated that people come to support my shows and movies. I love the Paramount Theatre, and it should be noted that the Denver Comedy Works is one of the best comedy clubs in the country – which is worth noting, because if people don’t know that already, people should definitely go there. It's a real gem.
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Byron Graham is a writer, comedian and gentleman thief from Denver. Co-host of Designated Drunkard: A Comedy Drinking Game, the deathless Lion's Lair open mic and the Mutiny Book Club podcast, Byron also writes about comedy for Westword. He cannot abide cowardice, and he's never been defeated in an open duel.