It's a rainy day in New York as Mike Birbiglia reflects on comedy. Since beginning a career in stand-up in his early 20s, the Boston-bred comedian certainly has come a long way, both professionally and personally. Between starting out as a pizza-bingeing, commitment-fearing night owl with undiagnosed REM disorder to becoming a married, hard-working morning person in his 30s who manages to work on two screenplays before conducting an early phone interview with Jackalope Ranch, Mike Birbiglia has achieved the titles of writer, comedian, actor, and director.
Since his contributions to This American Life, Birbiglia has made a name for himself with comedy, book, and film adaptations of Sleepwalk with Me, a joke-fueled narrative that dissects the events leading up to Birbiglia's near-fatal and unconscious jump from a second story window of a La Quinta Inn as well as My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, a stand-up routine which ultimately evolved into a one-man screenplay.
Now Birbiglia is on tour and heading back to Mesa Arts Center with an anthology of his funniest anecdotes, Thank God for Jokes. Jackalope Ranch caught up with him over the phone before his show on Friday, May 2, to discuss words of wisdom, his favorite comedian, and why he's so thankful for the laughs.
You definitely have a distinct narrative style of comedy, where all the jokes tie together with a theme. How exactly does this process evolve? Does the story come first or do the jokes? With Sleepwalk with Me and My Boyfriend's Girlfriend, the goal was: Let's take a main event -- in the case of the Sleepwalk with Me it was the jumping through a window and in My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, it was this car accident -- and then let's build backwards from that. But in terms of this new one [Thank God for Jokes], honestly, it's just like the funniest stories that I could think of and then the themes of it had evolved.
So what are some of the topics you discuss in this upcoming show, Thank God for Jokes? It's all stories. There's about 10 stories in the show. Basically the theme of the show is I started thinking, "I'm going to tell the funniest stories that I have." And what evolved is a theme that all the stories are in some ways about jokes and about how jokes are kind of this volatile art form where when you tell jokes you're always running the risk of alienating people or making people feel bad. That in terms of the risks/rewards of jokes you have the ability to feel really close to people from jokes and I always say the times that I felt most connected to people in my life is sharing jokes with my brother, my wife, my parents, and that's sort of what show is about; times I've gotten in trouble with jokes and times I've sort of felt connected to people from jokes.
Who is your favorite comedian right now? It's funny actually, he lives in Arizona, Doug Stanhope. People always laugh when I say he's my favorite because I think people just assume we're so different from each other. But what he's saying is actually so concise and he has such a clear world view and it's so unique and funny and strange and kind of irrational and rational simultaneously -- the way that I think the best comedy is. His recent special, Beer Hall Putsch, it's on Netflix and it's excellent. Like it's my favorite special from last year.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever received as a comedian? John Pinette watched my set once probably about 10 or 12 years ago when I was opening for him and he was like, "I like the jokes . . . just put them together." I actually think that strangely that's like the simplest piece of advice anyone's ever given me but I actually think it's very sage advice. A lot of times just having jokes in isolation isn't enough. You have to be telling a larger narrative and having every joke add up to a larger story. That was a big step I took in my career when I started going from joke, joke, joke to stories.
Is there any concern about running out of material? People ask me that a lot. I think it's the most common question. People are very worried that I will run out of material. But I always say that comedy is really is tragedy plus time, and the tragedy, it's not going anywhere. Like I had this thing a few years ago where I was at Sundance for my movie, Sleepwalk with Me and I was on top of the world . . .
And then my brother Joe was like, "Let's go skiing in Park City." And so we go skiing and I was just flying down the mountain and I catch an edge and I go flying, and it's just a yard sale crash all up the mountain. Forty yards up the mountain are like mittens and poles and my hat and the skis and I actually broke my shoulder. So Joe was like, "Let's go get in the hot tub at the hotel." I get in the hot tub and I realize my cell is in my pocket.
And it's moments like that you realize, "Oh, comedy will never go away."
Mike Birbiglia performs Thank God for Jokes at Mesa Arts Center on Friday, May 2, at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $32 to $40. Visit www.mesaartscenter.com or call the box office at 480-644-6500.
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