In 2003 Mike Birbiglia was just another comedian making the rounds throughout the New York clubs. In 2004 he began workshopping a one-man show called Sleepwalk With Me, and everything changed. The live version, book and 2012 film having cemented him as an NPR darling and the most lauded storyteller in the industry, 2013 follow-up My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend delved a bit deeper into his emotional hang-ups, but threatened to brand him as a standup lured permanently into the world of theater.
Thirty dates into his 100-city Thank God for Jokes tour, the Birbiglia of 2003 has reemerged swinging. Onstage at the Moontower Comedy Festival’s Paramount Theatre, he looked thinner and less rumpled. He praised/bemoaned the merits of yoga and differentiated himself from “The Late People” (“The Laties”) of the world, some of whom raised him and one to whom he’s now married. And as the title winkingly implies, he shared some thoughts about religion. “He’s a Jewish socialist,” Birbiglia explained after attempting a purposefully awful, Woody Allen-esque impression of Jesus. “He’s the least popular demographic…especially with Christians.”
Amid the well-placed callbacks and superfan bonuses—including fresh insight into his fear of bears and updates on his brother Joe—arose subtle revelations more striking than those in Sleepwalk and Boyfriend. Where those prior efforts cataloged the external manifestations of his neuroses and repression, Jokes begins getting to the root of his roadblocks. As with many comedians, naturally his parents’ failure to believe in him had something to do with it, as did attending Catholic school for eight years. Now, getting arrested in Weehawken, being forced to eat his onboard sandwich in an airplane bathroom and bombing hard on a shared bill with the Muppets (Statler and Waldorf are probably gay, FYI, because “They go to the theater seven nights a week and they bitch about everything,”) are presented as embarrassing narratives spotlighting his befuddlement and inappropriate reactions. At the same time, Birbiglia almost subconsciously hints at the sense of injustice and rage these and similar situations trigger. Even a few minor run-ins with actor James Van Der Beek, he confesses, made him rethink every decision he’s ever made.
It may sound like heavy stuff, but Jokes remains surprisingly nimble. Spots where Birbiglia utilized the entire stage to reenact his cat Ivan repeatedly batting away an emboldened mouse, or his condemnation of himself, Fozzie Bear and Larry the Cable guy in one fell swoop for their egregious reliance on joke-parachute catchphrases supply loopy, innocuous gags, ensuring most audience members won’t even fully comprehend the show’s depth until long after the fact.
It’s a seamless show and an impressive career move; when Birbiglia took an encore request to tell the infamous story of jumping out a second-story window of the La Quinta Inn in Walla Walla, Washington, the juxtaposition of styles illustrated the change further. Ten years after his first, it feels like he’s on the cusp of making a second major performance breakthrough and unleashing some of that long-hidden anger onstage. When he does, chances are it will be Birbiglia’s best material yet.