“I think it was 2011, right before My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend went off-Broadway, that I brought that show to Cincinnati to work out the beats,” Birbiglia recalls. My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, about how Birbiglia met his now-wife and the mistakes he made, grew out of a story from his stand-up set, similar to the way his film Sleepwalk with Me, about his rapid eye movement sleep disorder, developed. (Sleepwalk also had a run as a one-man off-Broadway show.)
The theater tour, slated to start in a few months, will visit between 70 and 100 cities, Birbiglia says. “This may be breaking news,” he adds, “but it’s going to be called Thank God for Jokes.” The show is going to be somewhat of a departure from his previous efforts, while simultaneously returning to his stand-up roots.
“It’s going to sound cerebral,” he begins with a laugh, “but it’s really just a bunch of jokes. All new stories, and ultimately it’s about how meaningful jokes are to me. I find jokes cathartic, fun and they make me feel connected with people. Then there’s the flipside to that; they can make you feel completely alienated from people and very awkward with people. It’s about telling jokes in my real life and how that didn’t go so well.”
Birbiglia’s style of comedy has developed from straightforward joke telling to long-form stories.
And it was the storytelling that brought him to the attention of the producers of the NPR radio program This American Life, including that show’s creator, Ira Glass. Birbiglia had several of his stories featured on This American Life, which has proven to be an excellent vehicle for his comedy, and Glass went on to produce the film version of Sleepwalk with Me.
After performing at the live storytelling show The Moth, which is now also a radio show and podcast, Birbiglia realized he liked the long-form construct and began moving his act in that direction. “What I discovered over time,” he explains, “is that I like the idea of telling stories that are funny, but also having these stories making up a larger story. And there’s something really satisfying about it. It’s like eating a full meal as opposed to eating chicken wings.”
Another inspiration for the new tour was the realization that, as popular as his current style is with audiences, long-time fans really enjoyed his first album Two Drink Mike, which was comprised of jokes and smaller bits. “I’d really like to make a follow-up to Two Drink Mike called Five Drink Mike,” he says. “Two-drink Mike likes dancing; zero-drink Mike loves dancing and has serious opinions about wildlife. Five-drink Mike likes dancing with wildlife. This new show is kind of a hybrid of Two-Drink Mike and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.”
In addition to getting his winter theater tour sorted, Birbiglia has also turned My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend into a movie, now available on Netflix. “So if people have Netflix they can watch it,” he says. “And if they don’t have Netflix, they can borrow someone’s password and then they’ll have Netflix.”
Unlike Sleepwalk with Me, the new film is loosely based on the one-man show. “There were a lot of people who loved Sleepwalk with Me,” he says of his first film, “but a few people said, ‘I know this story, and I want a new thing.’ I’m pretty aware of that.”
Toward that end, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend the film takes place in the world of radio as opposed to stand-up comedy, and has more characters.
What should help the separation between the one-man show and the film is that this story is more relatable to the average person. “I had so many people come up to me after My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend saying, ‘That exact same thing happened to me.’ I thought there’s no way that could have happened to two different people.”
But that’s the brilliance of Mike Birbiglia. He can make you care about stories that are personal, like a sleeping disorder, as well as tales about the pitfalls of romance that have befallen us all.
MIKE BIRBIGLIA performs at Go Bananas in Montgomery Thursday-Sunday. For tickets and more info: 513-984-9288 or gobananascomedy.com.