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An interview with Mike Birbiglia, master "theatrician"

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Mike Birbiglia is the finest humorist of his generation. He appears Thursday at Clowes Hall with his new show, Thank God for Jokes. I saw him testing material for the show at a small comedy club last fall and laughed harder than I've laughed in a long time. In addition to the tour and numerous appearances on TV and radio, Birbiglia has been busy acting. He played the support group leader in The Fault in Our Stars, he'll make an appearance in the upcoming film adaptation of Annie, and he's joined the cast of Orange Is the New Black. We chatted by phone recently.

NUVO: In my review of The Fault in Our Stars, I referred to you as “my favorite comedian-storyteller-actor-writer-director” and I heard from a reader who thought I was making a joke, but actually I was just trying to be accurate.

Mike Birbiglia: (laughs) I'm working as an actor now on season three of Orange is the New Black, and yesterday, one of the actors and I were talking about the world of theater and film, and how you do end up wearing a lot of hats, inevitably. And he said there should be a new name for it, for that kind of hyphenate, and he suggested the word “theatrician” (laughter), which I thought was really smart.

NUVO: That's nice! Rolls right off the tongue (laughter).

Birbiglia: Yeah, theatrician, and you don't have to say all the hyphens.

NUVO: I went to Cincinnati last October to see you … I'm sitting in the comedy club, you're on stage trying out material for a production called Thank God for Jokes, but what I felt was “this is a one-man show, I'm not just watching stand-up.” What's the line between a stand-up set and a one-man show?

Birbiglia: I think when something crosses into the realm of a one-man show, in theory, what you're doing is, you're taking a group of stories and you're creating a single through-line that threads the narrative together, so that someone can walk in at the beginning and almost be witnessing someone tell a single story, you know? Start to finish. In stand-up, it's really kind of a mosaic of different stories.

There's a really fine line, though. The Thank God for Jokes show is really close to having a single narrative, but it's not there yet. It's probably going to be another year or so before I bring it off-Broadway, or on Broadway. But it's very, very funny. I actually think it's the funniest show I've ever done. But, like My Girlfriend's Boyfriend is about how I decided to get married despite not believing in the idea of marriage, and Sleepwalk with Me is about how I nearly killed myself being in denial about my serious sleepwalking disorder, this show, right now, I'd say is loosely about jokes and how jokes, for me, and in comedy, are almost a religious experience. Because there's a group of people in a room laughing at these sort of borderline insane ruminations and stories that someone onstage is telling, and we're all laughing at the same time, and that's sort of what it's about. In that sense it's a one-man show. It's not quite done yet, that's the only way I can describe it.

NUVO: Do you see a place it's heading for or are you just letting it develop on its own into a cohesive narrative?

Birbiglia: It's a little of each. I look for the narrative, and I also let it breathe and have fun with it. Ultimately all anybody wants, whether they're they're coming to a show in Indianapolis or wherever, they just want to come laugh, they just want to have a good time. That's my foremost goal. I bring everything I have and I leave it on the floor. I tell the funniest stories I can. Then when I'm offstage, when I'm on the tour bus, when I'm back at home talking to my wife and my brother Joe, or my director Seth Barrish, I'm talking like. "How does this story relate to this story?" or "Maybe this story could be the bookend for the whole show, or all these stories." So it's a little bit of that, but ultimately people just want to come out and laugh, and that's the main goal.

NUVO: When you're not touring or filming you still do stand-up at that little comedy club every Monday, right?

Birbiglia: That's right. Yep, at Union Hall.

NUVO: Is there a difference in how that feels now as opposed to the days when that was all you did?

Birbiglia: Yeah, I've become such a niche performer, in the sense that when I do the Union Hall shows, the audience is kind of with me. It's almost like a group of friends. It sells out right away, it's in this little room in Brooklyn, and I can work on anything with that group of people. And so when I have a new bit that goes well enough in that room, I actually take it to the Comedy Cellar in Manhattan, where people aren't there to see me. They're just there because it's a famous comedy club. Typically, the audience doesn't know me. As I said, I'm a niche performer, I'm not massively known and that is fine — it's actually kind of my favorite thing about my career. And so I put stuff on stage there so I can find out how it would really do in the world if it weren't just my fans in the audience. Because I want it to work both ways — I want it to work with strangers as well as people who know all four of my albums.

NUVO: Do you ever get any big surprises when you test new material that way?

Birbiglia: Oh, yeah. There's this story I told on Jimmy Fallon about a creepy guy next to me on a bus staring at a pretty lady on the bus. I told the story at Union Hall in Brooklyn and it went well, but at the Comedy Cellar it fell flat, so I had to work on it rigorously for weeks, punching it up a lot. There's often a rude awakening with a joke. That's why I'm on a 100-city tour that's going to span three continents and probably five or six countries. I want to see how the material does everywhere before I film it.

NUVO: How far into the tour are you?

Birbiglia: I'm about 50 cities in to the 100 city tour.

NUVO: Jesus Christ!

Birbiglia: (laughter) I know. The week I do Indianapolis, I'll be in St. Louis the night before, and then that Saturday, the Chicago Theatre. It's a gorgeous facility — it's worth the ticket price alone just to tour the theater, just to walk around. I'll be performing a sold out show inside a work of art.

NUVO: When you played Clowes Hall for My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, it was so cool. There was this great big stage and you just owned it.

Birbiglia: Oh, thanks. That was one of my favorite shows on the whole tour. I had such fond memories of that show.

NUVO: Prior to a show, did you walk the stage when you do a new theater?

Birbiglia: Yeah, I do. I try to walk on the stage a little while, I lie down on the stage a little bit, you know, sit down, lie down. I'll sit in all different seats in the house. I'll sit in the front row, I'll sit in the back row., in the balcony. Yeah, I really try to inhabit the room before a show to make sure I understand it.

NUVO: At this point, what's it like doing talk shows as opposed to earlier in your career?

Birbiglia: It's funny you should say that, because a couple of weeks ago I did Jimmy Fallon's show, and it's my favorite talk show appearance I ever had. I accidentally spilled some water and … I've done 40 or 50 talk shows, and in the past I would have just been frozen up and gotten nervous, and the stage manager would have come over and said, “We're going to start again” or whatever. But I just felt so loose … at this point, talk shows are just like visiting someone's living room … that I just jumped off the stage, and I went behind the curtain, and I re-entered, Questlove picked up the cue and played the entry music again and I came out and there was all this water on the chair and I started screaming at Jimmy about why there would be water on the chair when he was having a guest over. It's so rude of him to invite me over and have water on the chair! (laughter) It ended up being this amazing moment … it was like This is so fun! This is exactly like when I grew up watching talk shows, watching Carson and Letterman, and the guests would really mess around And it took being on talk shows for 12 years basically – I made my debut on Letterman in 2002 – and it took 12 years to be like, No, this is supposed to be fun. It's not supposed to be tense, it's supposed to be a ball!

NUVO: I wonder if the practice of pre-interviewing guests is why we don't see more of those kind of spontaneous moments?

Birbiglia: I wonder that too. It's such a fine line. Fallon's great, Kimmel's great. Kimmel has a pre-interview so he knows a lot about a guest but sometimes he'll just ask about whatever. He's really interested in what his guests are all about. Kimmel and Fallon are really raising the bar on late night right now.

NUVO: Will you be doing Letterman again before he retires?

Birbiglia: I don't know, I don't know. They've never asked me to do the couch, they only have had me do stand-up. I've done it four or five times. I've always wanted to do the couch, but they don't seem to want me for that. So I don't know. I'd love to do it and they have my number.

NUVO: Do you get different reactions in public since you appeared in The Fault in Our Stars?

Birbiglia: You know, I don't think so. Stuff like that, I feel, effects your relationship with the public for a week or two. Our culture is so ADD, in a sense. I met Pete Townsend backstage at a Who concert and he said the only times he'll get recognized are when he goes on The Daily Show, and people will recognize him for a week and after that it kind of fades away. If that happens to Pete Townsend of The Who, then all bets are off. Fascination, then forgetfulness.

NUVO: It sounds like you have the right level of fame to not be driven crazy.

Birbiglia: I love it. I hope this doesn't change, but I'm at this point, I've been at this point for about 10 years, where I really like my fans. It's kind of like a trope of artists to say that about their fans, but I actually like them. When I sign stuff for people after the shows, I think I could stay there all night.

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