Mike Birbiglia can get laughs with a deft punch line, but it’s his storytelling craft that really sets him apart from his standup peers. The frequent This American Life contributor’s material almost feels more appropriate for a conversation over pizza than for a comedy club. Even his first film, Sleepwalk with Me, showcased his Woody Allen–esque knack for witty and neurotic self-examination as a writer-director. In other words: You could do worse for a New Year’s
Eve date. —Seth Sommerfeld
Is your new show Thank God for Jokes a departure from your narrative style?
That’s the title of the show, but the show itself is about ten stories strung together. And the theme that runs through it is jokes. After doing Sleepwalk With Me and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, which are so narrative based and telling a single story, I was like, “What would happen if I tried to go back to the kind of stories and jokes I was telling on my first two albums: Two Drink Mike and My Secret Public Journal Live? Will I have grown from it? Will I be better at telling those kinds of jokes and stories? Will I be worse?” So it was really kind of an experiment. It was something I was trying out in clubs. I was just like, “Let me just go out and try to make the funniest show I can possibly make, and then see what happens.”Aand along the way, what started emerging was that a lot of stories were about jokes. They were about how jokes can get you in trouble and alienate you from people, but ultimately how I think they’re worth it.
I started out trying to write a show about jokes or write a bunch of jokes to stories, and then what I found was just like “Oh, jokes are actually important.” They’re actually emotionally integral to my life. Jokes are an anchor into being truthful and being honest with people about how you feel. Jokes are the sugar that makes the medicine of truths go down.
You taped your most recent special—My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend—in Seattle last year at the Cornish Playhouse. Why did you choose that venue?
I’ve been coming to Seattle probably as long as I’ve been doing comedy professionally. I performed at Bumbershoot in 2003, and I actually remember being at the Intiman Theater (now the Cornish Playhouse). It was beautiful. It’s like three-quarters in the round and you’re really like on top of the audience; the audience can feel you, and you can feel them. You feel like you’re just hanging out with your friends in that room, but there’s 500 people in the room. That's a really incredible quality. And it just stuck out in my brain as like, “That’s one of the coolest shows I’ve ever done.” I’ve never felt that way at a show. It just stuck with me for years and years.
And then when my director, Seth Barrish, and I were talking about where would be a good place to do something special we thought, “That venue in Seattle is really incredible. And Seattle’s audiences are so smart. They’re just an interesting group of people.” Even that ridiculous thing in the special when the guy was wearing no shoes and no socks. (Laughs) Like, of course. Of course there’s someone in the audience with no shoes and no socks in the middle of a filmed comedy special. The crowd is so indicative of the city of Seattle.
Are you planning on adapting My Girlfriend's Boyfriend into a movie?
Yeah. I’ve written drafts of that as a screenplay. It’s in progress.
And would you be looking to direct that one as well?
I hope to direct it. I think long term in my life, I want to direct about ten or so films. I really love directing. I love the control element of it. I think that’s part of the reason I’m a comedian—you control all the elements of it. There’s no censor. There’s no one giving you notes unless you ask for them.
Have any good memories from playing NYE gigs?
Probably my most memorable New Year’s Eve show was in 2003. I opened for [the now deceased] Mitch Hedberg, Lewis Black, and Dave Attell in Philadelphia at Tower Theater. I said to the crowd at the time—and it ended up being sadly prophetic— “Just so you guys know, this will be the best show you’ll ever see in comedy.” I mean, obviously, I wasn’t including myself.
New Year’s Eve is a nice night for comedy. I’m not a big let’s all go out and rage kind of guy, so a comedy show is perfect for me. You do something, but you don’t lose your shit.
You can celebrate a year coming to an end without swinging off chandeliers.
No one will end up in the hospital. You won’t lose articles of clothing.
Yeah, I can’t account for what happens after the show.
You’re in the next season of Orange Is the New Black. How did that come about?
I’d auditioned for so many things, and I was just like, “I give up.” And then I made Sleepwalk with Me, which was me casting myself as the lead in a film that no one would ever cast me in. And then I was offered a bunch of small parts in cool things like The Fault in Our Stars, Joe Swanberg’s new movie Digging for Fire, and Judd Apatow’s movie Trainwreck with Amy Schumer. And then my agent called me and she’s like, “There’s a part in Orange Is the New Black, and I think you’d really have fun with it. But you have to audition for it.” And I love the show. I mean, my wife and I are really obsessed with the show. So I auditioned and they told me the next morning that I got it. Two days later I was on set filming.
Do you now fear being typecast as a lesbian inmate?
Yeah, I mean obviously that’s always part of it.
This feature appeared in the December 2014 issue of Seattle Met magazine.