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BWW Interview: Best Solo Show Nominee MIKE BIRBIGLIA

Whether it's cursing while on stage with the Muppets, insulting the guest of honor at a Hollywood awards show or joking about Jesus during a Christian-college gig, Mike Birbiglia knows firsthand that there are certain things that certain people just don't find funny. And while he firmly believes that's no reason for he and his fellow comedians to ever censor their humor, he's willing to explore both sides of the issue. Which is exactly what he does in his one-man show Thank God for Jokes, now in the final month of an extended run in the East Village.

Thank God for Jokes received nominations for best solo performance from both the Lucille Lortel Awards and the Outer Critics Circle. Birbiglia is not new to New York's theater awards circuit, having won the Lortel Award for Outstanding Solo Show in 2011 for My Girlfriend's Boyfriend and been nominated by the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk for both My Girlfriend's Boyfriend and 2008's Sleepwalk With Me.

In Thank God for Jokes Birbiglia shows
a clip of Jimmy Kimmel introducing him
at the 2012 Gotham Film Awards

He was, however, new to the movie-biz awards circuit when he hosted the Gotham Independent Film Awards in 2012, an experience that frames his Thank God for Jokes narrative. As host, he took a jab at director David O. Russell, who received a lifetime achievement award that night--or almost didn't since, as Birbiglia tells it, the joke made Russell so angry he was on the verge of storming out of the ceremony.

Birbigs (as he's called by the many friends and fans who trip over his surname) also weaves tales from yoga class, meeting President Obama and vacationing with the cat into Thank God for Jokes. Its set piece involves Birbiglia's story of getting arrested for driving with a suspended license, from which he segues to asking audience members to share their stories of being arrested.

Both an actor and a stand-up comic, Birbiglia has raised his profile considerably since his breakout with Sleepwalk With Me (which was made into a 2012 film). He's had recurring roles as prison official Danny Pearson on Orange Is the New Black and boyfriend Drew on Inside Amy Schumer and appeared in such movies as Trainwreck, Annie, The Fault in Our Stars and Your Sister's Sister.

Birbiglia spoke with BroadwayWorld the day after Don't Think Twice--which he wrote and directed and costars in with Gillian Jacobs and Keegan-Michael Key--screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. On another night off from his own show last month, Birbiglia performed Nassim Soleimanpour's White Rabbit Red Rabbit at the Westside Theatre in midtown. Thank God for Jokes continues through May 29 at the Lynn Redgrave Theater on Bleecker St.

Does it feel different doing this show compared with your previous shows in New York?
If I'm being really candid, I think I'm a better performer than I was when I started doing these shows in 2008, when Sleepwalk With Me premiered, because I've acted a lot since then--Orange Is the New Black and Trainwreck and my movie Sleepwalk With Me. I feel like as a performer I've just evolved. I feel more agile and able to drop into being Obama or being one of the Muppets or being the woman on the plane with the nut allergy, as opposed to just describing them--which I think comes from experience and time. At this point I've just logged a lot of stage hours. The other thing is, people have different takes on the show in relation to the other shows. Some people say it's less personal, some people say it's more personal [yet] it's ultimately universal about jokes and how jokes affect the world at large and our future as a human race.

Did you come up with the premise for the show first, or did you formulate the premise based on the stories you wanted to include?
After My Girlfriend's Boyfriend I was craving the thing that drew me to stand-up in the first place, when I was 18 years old...getting on stage, in clubs and theaters, and just free-associating, doing material from my notebook that I want to improvise, and just doing jokes. There was something about that that I was missing. My Girlfriend's Boyfriend and Sleepwalk With Me are so precise to the word and so refined. Of course the illusion of it is that I'm quote-unquote "just talking" and telling those stories, but the truth is Seth Barrish, my director, and I pore over those scripts for hundreds of hours. So I was kind of craving the spontaneity of it.
In the process of doing [comedy like] that over the course of probably a year, of honing that stuff, Seth came to one of my shows, and I said [to him afterward], "I feel like there's a theme here, running through all these stories--which is jokes themselves. Our relationship with jokes; how they get us in trouble, and how they draw us closer to each other. I don't know quite what to do with it, but I think that there's something forming here." And Seth said, "I think the whole show could go toward the David O. Russell story." I could see that, so we started experimenting with what if the order is: the being-late stuff into the yoga story into the Christian-college story, etc., and then eventually landing at the David O. Russell story. So we worked on it on the road--I've performed this show in about a hundred cities--for almost three years. It was only about eight months ago in the process when we decided, "Yeah, this is theater, this has a very defined arc."

At what point did it get the title Thank God for Jokes?
It was there for a while, because jokes were important thematically and God was important thematically because I have all this stuff about being raised Catholic. I don't say this in the show, but when I was a kid I was an altar boy and I wanted to be a priest, and I've always thought, even though my mother would disagree--she's very Catholic--it's not too far from being a priest. [Laughs] That's probably a completely blasphemous idea, but at very least the sermon or homily part is not too far. Maybe I don't do the transubstantiation...

Seth has directed all your shows. How'd you find each other in the first place?
Seth and I came together in a chocolate-and-peanut-butter kind of way 12 years ago. I basically stalked him because I saw Martin Moran's show The Tricky Part that Seth directed--one of my favorite solo shows of all time, if not my favorite pieces of theater. Made me laugh, made me cry, and I just thought, "I gotta get that director." I sent him my solo-show script I was working on, my comedy CD, and he really tried to duck me in about 10 or 15 different ways. Finally I convinced him to listen to my comedy album, and he liked it. I give a lot of credit to Seth...he's really a guru: the artistic director of the Barrow Group, he's written books about acting, he taught Anne Hathaway and Tony Hale and a lot of great actors.

Does Seth do more to shape the show or to shape you as a performer?
I would say both. Seth works at an absolute genius level of dramaturging, which I'm lucky to have because not all solo plays have a dramaturge. He is phenomenal at it. He [also] has an extraordinary understanding of performance, and the way he teaches it, he has a really nice light touch. And it fits with the style that I enjoy, which is to make less of things, versus making more of things. To me, when you watch a show and you feel like the performer is working so hard, for me it's stressful.

You told the story of you and your wife's relationship in My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, so I was surprised you don't talk much about becoming a parent in your new show. What do you have to say about it?
It's been very broadening, very eye-opening. It's extreme; it feels death-defying all the time. Our baby, Oona, just turned 1 and has been walking since 9 months. Whenever I tell that to parents, they're always just cringeing on our behalf, because it basically means we're jogging around the house grabbing her away from dangerous objects and outlets and everything else all the time. So the cardio element of parenting when your child can walk at that age is very high. We also, my wife and I and Oona, we laugh a lot. I say in the show [that] inside jokes are for me the most special types of jokes. Sharing a joke with your wife or husband is in some ways the most profound experience, and then sharing a joke with your wife or your husband and your 1-year-old baby is transcendent to another level because you don't even know what she's laughing at exactly, you don't even know what she understands of what's happening. So, yeah, she's a real character, and we laugh quite a bit. She laughs hard and she cries hard--she has all the makings of an actress.

Will you talk about her more on stage in the future?
I think that it's unavoidable. I think about it all the time, because I want to spare her from being the subject of comedy, but there's a real conflict of interest going on: I talk about my life, and she is my life. I don't know what to do! [Laughs] I'll report back in six months.

You've been doing the show here in New York since February. Has it changed over time?
It changes all the time. One thing that's never the same is, when people are late, I stop the show and I talk about how they're late. And I always ask people whether they've been arrested, and that's always different. Those answers vary far and wide, and they're fascinating. And I'm always making changes. My brother Joe, who's one of the producers, and my director, Seth, we get on the phone for a few hours a week and talk about how the show's evolving. By the time it's done, it'll be, I'd say, 20 or 30 percent different from when we started.

Did you have to "settle in" to your performance in the early going?
Sure, in some ways. I'm always trying to experiment, I'm always trying to understand the show in a different way. The audience itself shapes the experience of the show. One of the advantages of doing a run that's 17 or whatever weeks is you get to experience the show in front of so many types of audience. One night I'll get a huge laugh on the Muppets story, and another night I'll get huge laughs on the Obama story... As a performer I've learned that ultimately it's not about the laughs, it's about the stories. That's the lesson I have to keep learning and relearning, because the laughs can be seductive and in some ways can veer you off the path of the story. Seth and I always talk about What is the core of this story that we're trying to tell, and how can that be present in every single moment of the show?

You really enjoy the audience-participation segment about getting arrested, don't you?
It's one of my favorite parts of the show because (a) it's improvised and anything can happen and (b) it lends itself to the communal concept of the show. One of the ideas of the show, which I harken back to very much at the end, is that we're all in it together. We're all in the theater itself, 200 people in a room simultaneously, talking about a lot of taboo topics, and that 200 people is a microcosm for what we're experiencing right now in the world. I allude to the Charlie Hebdo incident in France, where these 10 satirists were killed for drawing a disrespectful cartoon, and I make this point that the world is getting smaller. We're able to transmit images and videos and cartoons across the Earth in seconds, so basically everyone on the Earth is becoming our neighbor. We really have to come to grips with the fact that we all have the right to tell jokes and we all have the right to be offended by jokes. Those two ideas can peacefully coexist, and I hope that's the takeaway for people when they see the show.

What have been some of your favorite responses to asking audience members if they've been arrested?
Recently Rachel Maddow was in the second row, and she raised her hand, and it was this dilemma: Am I supposed to ask Rachel Maddow what she was arrested for, put her on the spot? But she did raise her hand, so I asked her and she said she was arrested for a protest many years ago, and she goes, "But we were arrested on purpose." And I said, "That's very convenient. If I'm ever arrested, I'm going to say that it was 'on purpose.'"
There's a funny thing when people say they've been arrested--it's a great icebreaker for a dinner party, asking people if they've been arrested--because the stories are so good. Usually if you ask people "Where are you from?" "What do you do for a living?" the answers are boring because people are self-protective and don't want to reveal too much. If you've been arrested, there's no way to get around what happened, what the charge was--but you get a lot of qualifiers. When I ask what they were arrested for, a lot of people say things like "Basically..." or "According to them...," "They thought..." or "There was a misunderstanding" or "I sort of this..." or "I kind of that..." People get really shy about it, and I'm like, "I'm not the police. You're not gonna get in trouble here." People say things like, "It was a drunk driving situation." No, no, it was drunk driving. There was one where a guy said he was arrested for larceny; he said, "I was accused of stealing from my own bar that I co-owned." I kept asking more and more questions, and after a while I thought, I think he's guilty. The more he's describing it, the more I'm thinking, like, He did this, I think he stole from his own company.

What answer do you hear most often about why people were arrested?
Most common is drunk driving. Second most common, I would say, is open container. Drunk in public is very common. And the thing I was arrested for, suspended license, is very popular. And then the Rachel Maddow one--protests, people who got arrested for protesting.

Do you feel like you have a unique niche as a writer-performer, or are there others who do what you do?
Sure, there's [comedians] who do solo shows--Colin Quinn obviously, Hasan Minhaj did one recently--but I feel like we have a play, a theater piece, that is chock-full of jokes and arrives at sort of a dramatic arc. And there are other descriptors: The performance is very casual, it's understated, the set design is minimalist--although it's very thoughtful. Behind the scenes Seth spends an extraordinary amount of time working with Beowulf Boritt and Aaron Copp, having the lighting design be very, very precise. But yeah, I do feel we've carved a niche, and I feel very lucky that the New York Theater community has accepted it. We worked on Sleepwalk With Me for about seven years before we even mounted it, because we wanted to get it just right. When we came in with Sleepwalk With Me, we had the sense it could go either way--people could love this and accept this, or they could say this isn't theater. Some people say it's theater, some people say it's stand-up comedy, some people say it's storytelling. We actually don't care what people call it, as long as they laugh and feel something. That's ultimately our mission with the shows.

Now tell us about your new movie, Don't Think Twice.
It premiered at South by Southwest and then Tribeca, and it comes out this summer, which is why Thank God for Jokes "must close May 29"--very dramatic language [laughs]. It's a film about a group of best friends where one of them gets cast in a Saturday Night Live type of show, and the rest of them don't. It's about what happens when people start realizing that their dreams may not come true in the way they thought they were going to, how that affects friendships. Sort of a Big Chill set with the backdrop of an improv universe.

Thank God for Jokes photos by Joan Marcus (5)

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