Kris Rothstein's Blog

JFL NorthWest 2018: Mike Birbiglia

Kris Rothstein

The New One is supposedly a comedy but, to me, it was a tragedy.

I was on board for the first half of this show, in which Mike Birbiglia catalogues and explains the many, many reasons he does not particularly care for children and definitely does not want any of his own. They range from the biological (which gives him an opportunity to discuss his vast array of bizarre illnesses) to the social (he really likes the life he has created with his wife). Imagine my disappointment, as someone who agrees with all his reasons, when he capitulates to his wife’s desire for children, despite having made it clear when they married that he would never want to reproduce. The journey includes embarrassing medical tests and painful surgery. I know that Birbiglia's wife has to be set up as the bad guy in a way, and I’m sure she puts up with A LOT in this marriage, but it is a terrible thing to make another person have a child they do not want, no matter how much you are sure they will love it. I know, I know. I’m taking this way too personally.

Birbiglia's material, for me is all about the craft. In his previous show, Thank God for Jokes, he really attained a new level in his narrative, which deconstructed the act of comedy itself, while still telling a story that was full of emotion and unexpected twists and turns. Thank God for Jokes was so structurally complex and nuanced and insightful and packed such a punch. It did all this while remaining a story that it was fun to listen to. It was a tour de force. So it is not fair to compare it to this new show, although I did.

The New One is a reset. Perhaps Birbiglia will work back up to something large, but now, as a new father, he has to tell the story of having a baby. It is not his best work, but he is a great performer.

Now I understand that having kids changes your life. That is what this show is about. And Birbiglia is used to mining his life experiences for comedy. And when you are too wrung out to really have other experiences, the interplay between wife and baby and comedian becomes the world. Another one of the best comedians, the British stand-up Stewart Lee, has a whole show, Carpet Remnant World, which is just about how he has no material because all he does is drive around (to perform comedy) and look after kids. But Lee turns the banality of watching a Scooby Doo film dozens and dozens of times into one of the best critiques of capitalism I have ever heard, while also being uproariously funny. The cartoon jungle canyon rope bridges become an example of crumbling infrastructure thanks to Thatcherism. So having kids and not having any material is not really an excuse for comedy to get a little flabbier.

Birbiglia is such a character on stage: shuffling and bumbling and self-deprecating. He is great at being, in a way, part of the audience, along for the ride, reliving it all. I love the way he anticipates laughs and groans with, “I know! I am in the future also.” He uses his voice well and delivers his story with perfect pacing. It hadn’t occurred to me until today that there is a similarity between Birbiglia and Spalding Gray, the superb monologuist who created such shows as Monster in a Box and Swimming to Cambodia, who always churned up his life experience into a mediated story presented on stage at the crossroads of stand-up comedy, storytelling and one-person theatre.

I would have been happy just to hear Birbiglia expounds at length on the couch, the topic he begins and ends with. The couch, he says, is a pal, one who hugs you no matter what, unlike the bed which is pompous, wanting a whole room named after it and refusing to touch the floor. Birbiglia is a little like that couch, and I find it impossible not to love him, even when he is not the best.



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