Comedian Mike Birbiglia takes an erudite look at comedy.
When did you develop an interest in comedy?
When I was a kid I would write songs, little plays, and poetry in school. If you’re an adult and you’re a poet, it’s all about love and pain, but if you’re a kid it’s, “Does anyone know a word that rhymes with shark?” In high school, I would do little skits about things on campus. That was pretty well received. For my sixteenth birthday, my brother took me to see Stephen Wright. It was the first time I saw live comedy and it really floored me. I was laughing so hard and I walked away thinking, “That’s what I want to do.” When I was seventeen, my sister Gina moved to New York City. I came to visit her over Christmas and she got me tickets to see the Letterman show. It was a dream come true because I had been watching Letterman since I was kid. Gabriel Byrne was the guest and I remember thinking, “Who is this guy?” I was mesmerized by the lights, set, and seeing Letterman in person.
Did you start writing one-liners after that?
Yeah. When I was in high school, I went home and wrote Stephen Wright inspired one-liners. That’s all I wrote for a long time. I won the funniest person in college contest and got a job working the door at the DC Improv. I studied a lot of different comedians. For a long time, I did sound like Stephen Wright. I was saying surreal one-liners and then it reached the point where I said, “I’d like to do something a little more biographical and more real.” I started studying Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, and other comedians I related to.
I met Lucian Hold, who passed away last year, and he became my first manager. He was also the former manager of The Comic Strip. He pushed me in that direction as well. He said, “You should try talking about yourself more onstage. It allows the audience to connect to you in a different way.” Now I do a hybrid of one-liners and personal stories.
What were the writing classes that you took in college?
I don’t know what it entails in other schools, but at Georgetown I was in the dramatic writing program with professor John Glavin. And when I was in Washington D.C. recording my album for Comedy Central, I spoke in his class, like I do every year, about pursuing writing careers. I had writing classes and workshops where you try out different techniques, genres, types of scripts, and get feedback and notes from the professor. It was a rigorous class. Over the course of three years I wrote two feature length screen plays and a three act play in addition to all sort of pieces. It was an amazing playground for comedy.
Is television something that impacted you greatly growing up?
To some extent. In terms of television, I’ve related more to Saturday Night Live, Conan, and Letterman than I have to sitcoms. I’ve never hooked into sitcoms in any real way. I feel that, on television, I like the talk show format. When it comes to story lines, I’m a huge fan of film. Long term, I’d like to get into film. That would be the ideal. To figure out someway to combine my skills in dramatic writing, script writing, and comedy. I really admire, probably more than any filmmaker, Woody Allen. My favorite ones being Manhattan, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Crimes and Misdemeanors. He makes this films that are hilarious and extremely compelling.
How do you feel about his earlier films, like Bananas, compared to his later ones?
I think they’re hilarious, but not what I’d like to make. I’m a huge fan of them. I think his whole career is so remarkable. People are quick to say that he hasn’t made a good film in years, but it’s hard to criticize a guy who’s made about twenty great films. Even recently he made Sweet and Low Down, Bullets Over Broadway, and Mighty Aphrodite. What I think that Woody Allen does best is use comedy to make the drama more bittersweet. The movie that I saw, recently, that did that very well was The Squid and the Whale.
Are you a fan of Woody Allen’s short stories that he’s written as well?
I haven’t gotten into his prose as much. I saw Shopgirl, which was interesting. It’s based on Steve Martin’s novella. I’m also a big fan of his. I found it fascinating. A very interesting, personal, and honest film.
What’s your opinion on the recent trend of adaptations and remakes?
I’ve never been in a rush to see big budget films. I’m not against them. It’s just not something I go out of my way to do.
Do you see many foreign films?
I try to. I had more time to do that in college. Lately, it’s been a struggle to see even two or three movies a month. A lot of times I’m in towns that don’t have foreign movies showing. I tour almost perpetually. I’m up to my ears in work right now more than I have been ever before in my career. I just recorded an album for Comedy Central called Two Drink Mike. In two weeks I’m recording my second Comedy Central Presents special. Meanwhile, I’m writing a television pilot for Comedy Central of My Secret Public Journal, which is the one constant in my life. I write this journal and send it out to my list. It started out as a mailing list with tour dates and I was writing more and more in them. Humorous pieces and anecdotes. Eventually, I made it more concise and wrote them like bits. The name is a play on Blog culture. It’s a radio segment now on The Bob and Tom Show, which is syndicated in about 120 radio markets. I tour in theaters in those markets as part of the Friends of Bob and Tom tour. I did about twenty theaters this fall. It’s neat because the people who read the journal feel like they know me and it’s personal stories. When I get onstage at these places, I don’t have to do a lot of work of winning over an audience, which is often a difficult part of standup. The first three minutes are spent getting some laughs and feeling comfortable.
What sort venues do you prefer to perform at?
I love theaters. I was at the DC Improv this weekend and I thought, “This is great too.” Each type of venue affords you a different type of experience. When you’re playing clubs with about 300 people you can connect on a very personal level. You can have it even feel like a conversation. When you’re in a theater you get the luxury of perfect condition. Like, if you’re sailing a ship, a comedy club is like sailing into stormy waters. You never know what you’re going to get. It could be storming or a clear day. In a theater, there are no conditions. There are no waves. People are seated nicely, there’s not a whole lot of drinking, or talking. People are there to listen, which makes it easier. Clubs can be amazing but sometimes you’re fighting off them putting down the check in the middle of your set.
Do you notice, among young people, if comedian is a career that people aspire to have?
I speak to quite a few people that want to try to do comedy. A lot of people ask for advice. The best advice I can give is to reiterate what Jerry Seinfeld said in the Laugh.com interviews called On Comedy. Those, to me, are the perfect instructions for developing a comedy act. He says to work, write, and perform as much as you can. There’s no easy way to do it.
I have the Jerry Seinfeld one. How’s the Woody Allen one?
It’s great too. If you talk to any of these great comics, they’ll tell you the same thing. Write and perform. There’ no quick way to get to it. It takes years and years. It’s like going to medical school.
Were you performing before the Funniest Man on Campus show?
I was doing Improv before that in a group called The Georgetown Players. That was my first solo performances and it ended up being one of the best things I’d ever done because it’s turned into a career. I was very fortunate.
What were the next several years like for you after that?
One of the prizes was to perform at the DC Improv and to open for one of the shows. The first person I ever opened for was Dave Chappelle. That went pretty well. I wasn’t great. I was good enough that they wanted to have me around but not good enough that they wanted to book me regularly. They said, “If you want to work the door, we’ll try to get you onstage more.” Eventually, I was the emcee on Thursdays. I did a few full weeks there as the emcee. By the time I graduated I was at the featured act level, which is the next step up. Then, I moved to New York, which was on graduation day, and did temp work and hustled to make the rent. At night, I would drive to Upstate New York to do gigs that basically paid almost enough for my tolls and gas to get there. I woke up in the morning and went back to temping.
Is emceeing something that you enjoyed doing?
I never really liked it. I feel like it has this built in stigma to it that you’re going to come out, talk to the crowd, and be very hosty and energetic. That was never how I was. It was always a struggle to maintain a compromise between being a good host and being a good comedian. Recently I hosted shows. In theaters it’s much easier to host and I enjoyed it.
What are some misconceptions about standup that you’d like to clear up?
I wouldn’t even know where to begin. There’s nothing that’s so extreme that I feel the burning compulsion to set the record straight.
Was the move to New York a difficult one to make?
In retrospect it was. I think when you want to do something so badly you ignore how difficult it is. I was hustling day and night to make it happen. I was living on nothing and had no personal life at all. I was flat broke. I used to sleep on an air mattress on a bedroom in Queens. I didn’t have any furniture. I just had cloths stacked up in the corner of my room.
There was a friend of mine from college named Jen. She offered to give me a chest of drawers. All I had to do was pick it up from her place in Westchester. My sister Gina said that if I came up on the train, that she would drive me over to pick it up and drive it to my place in Queens. It was five dollars to get up to Westchester and I realized that I did’t have five dollars. All of my credit cards were maxed up and I didn’t have a dime in my bank account. I couldn’t even get on a five-dollar train to get a free dresser.
I had a joke early on that I don’t tell anymore because it’s not accurate to my life right now. I did it on my Letterman set, I think. It was, “Someone stole my wallet the other day. The guy called me up and was mad at me. He said, `You have to get your finances together. You have no cash, your credit cards are maxed out, and you don’t even have minutes on your calling card. I had to use my calling card to call you.” It was pretty accurate.
What sort of temp work were you doing?
I worked at various places. Pfizer, W Magazine. I worked for this agency that would send me to different places. I was so bad. I would literally fall asleep because I was so tired. I was doing data entry at one job and this woman came over. I had fallen asleep for a while, I woke up and was back to work. I was actually checking my e-mail. Then she came up and said, “I caught ya. You’re checking your e-mail.” And I remember thinking, “Five minutes ago I was asleep.” I don’t even remember her reaction after that.
Did you pick up on any business speak from your temp work?
No, I didn’t pick up anything. All I would do is try to do well enough so that I could collect a paycheck.
What would you say are the differences between you onstage and off?
I’m more confident off stage. I think a lot of comedians’, and I’d say I fall into this category, onstage and off stage personas are quite similar. Onstage is a heightened version of the off stage.
When you were still in school, would you come home and spend your time writing?
I spent a lot of my spare time writing as a kid. I’ve always had a penchant for writing and have an active imagination.
Were you a member of the creative writing club at your school or submitting to any publications?
In high school, I was the editor of the school newspaper. I won the journalism prize when I graduated.
How do you deal with being recognized by fans?
It tends to be pleasant. It’s a few times a week kind of thing. It’s not like I’m dealing with that multiple times a day. It’s funny. I have so little recognition on television or in print, that sometimes people are surprised that they recognized me and feel as though they should win a prize for recognizing me. “You’re Mike Birbiglia, what do I get?” Like I’m going to take out a bouncy ball and say, “You win this.”
I am told that a big part of comedy is networking, but do you have any experience with the other type of networking: Amway?
No. I almost know nothing about it. I’ve just seen it parodied.
Have you decided on the backdrop to use for your Comedy Central special?
I think it’s either going to be a polar bear or an arctic fox. My first special had a big brown bear in the background. I like simple backgrounds.
Tell me about the tour you have in the works.
It’s called The Medium Man on Campus tour. I’ve performed in a lot of colleges over the years. Starting out, it was tough for me to be booked as a headliner and do half an hour of material, so I started out being book in colleges. They book only one person for the whole show. I ended up developing a lot of college jokes and college students would e-mail me. It describes me of what I would be if I were a college student now. I never perceived myself as the big man on campus, but I’m also not mousy. I’m a medium man.
Who will be joining you on this tour?
It’s me and friends. Different people in different places. Greg Geraldo’s going to do some and various other Comedy Central acts.
Will you be documenting any of it?
We’ll probably be putting some footage online. February ninth is when the Two Drink Mike CD comes out and the tour starts.
Have you seen The Comedians of Comedy tour documentary?
I saw one episode. I saw the movie on Showtime. It was great. Those are great comedians.
And you’re also on the Invite Them Up compilation?
Yeah. I got an advanced copy and it sounded great.
Do you enjoy being an adult?
So far it seems alright. I like it cause there’s less structure. I always found school to be very imposing and when I had to fit into the constraints of school I didn’t thrive well. With less rules comes more general responsibility, which is tricky sometimes because I can be a flake.
Do you have a special message to leave our readers with?
Just general gratitude to people coming to my shows lately. It’s been a great year. People have been starting to come to my shows on purpose versus the random Friday/Saturday night crowd. I really appreciate it.
Visit Birbigs.com to sample Mike’s material, read or listen to his Secret Public Journal, and to sign up for his mailing list.