Soft-spoken and charming, Birbiglia owns his niche as a comedian-storyteller.
Fresh off the release of his second (and first non-autobiographical) film, Don’t Think Twice, Mike Birbiglia brings a new stand-up special to the usurping regent of filmed comedy hours, Netflix. Like Birbiglia’s other stand-up, especially the special My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, Thank God For Jokes softly allows the comedian to barge non-threateningly into his audience’s hearts like an old roommate that you’d never thought you’d see again.
Birbiglia’s self-awareness of his own niche appeal, a sleepy introspectively intellectual goofball, is a hallmark of indie success. You have to know yourself before you know your market, but you have to know both to move forward. Birbiglia, a self-described niche comedian and independent filmmaker, has these two ends of an industry-wide production chain wrapped up. His comic anxiety and curtain-parting come from a place of professional savvy as well as personal aptitude. He really understands and enjoys talking about the comedy process. It helps that he’s found a way to do it that reaches an audience that enjoys it.
He’s aware that all jokes are offensive to someone and he goofs around with the tease of a volatile behind-the-scenes story from his hosting gig at the The Gotham Independent Film Awards, and well, we stay focused because we don’t quite believe him. He doesn’t seem to be the person that pisses anyone off. Even his stories about disagreements with his wife are fun and charming. But that’s just it, it’s charming because they’re his story. Jokes, he says, are just your side of the story. All those contributions to This American Life have rubbed off. He’s begun to adopt an Ira Glass style of storytelling, explaining jokecraft like a story designed to keep you idling in your driveway, listening to the radio long after you’ve arrived home. That same potent structure: a hooky set up, the punchline, the reconsideration and application.
Birbiglia’s delivery is often more winning than his actual content. He’s so low key, a human ASMR machine that has you giggling to yourself while you get NPR-style goosebumps, that his self-aware jabs at his lack of fitness or inopportune cursing when opening for The Muppets warm you so slowly and surely that you’re not even aware of how utterly charmed you’ve become or how loudly you’re laughing. His is a quiet, thrumming intensity – an efficient scooter rather than a roaring, sputtering sportscar.
The funniest part of the set is an unscripted collision of two energies. Birbiglia steps off stage to discuss his speeding ticket arrest with another former criminal in the audience. When the guy, in lieu of admitting his crime, describes himself as having been put in a headlock by a “woman cop,” Birbiglia’s skeeved-out reaction to the phrase spikes the show’s blood pressure by 100%. At first he’s speechlessly taken aback mad at the guy’s sexism but then he’s more gigglingly outraged by the man’s lack of storytelling clarity: where is the detail? The setting? The stakes?
Birbiglia dabbles his routine in politics but seems uncomfortable with the whole idea of it. He’s clearly got strong opinions that he enjoys sprinkling into his bits, but the heart of all his humor is, like the best comedians, his life. He’s a party comedian, the guy telling stories to the younger brother of the host trying to get laughs. Even then, they sometimes fall flat – like when a more commonly explored experience (going to church at a young age and being starstruck by the whole production) fails to reveal anything as unique as the other narratives in the show. But whether he’s talking about his life earlier in his career being both broke and low to the ground, and the correlation between the two, I get that.
I also get his stories about having an uncommon job in the real world. Comedians always complain about being comedians off stage, how they get questioned and prodded and requested for humor. They then take these stories and turn them into jokes. It’s similar to being a film critic outside of these reviews, being hounded by cab drivers for recommendations, except I don’t get to turn those stories into film reviews because that’s just not how it works. I picked it all wrong.
Birbiglia takes this common thread – the comedian’s plight of constantly being “on” and having jokes demanded of them – and weaves it into hilarious hypotheticals about terrible office co-workers that ruined the phrase “I’m joking” and Larry the Cable Guy’s (and also Fozzie Bear’s) catchphrase parachute. A masterclass in callbacks, we get a “wocka wocka wocka,” a “get r done,” and some excellently low-effort cat puns to tie the set up in a neat bow before he finally, finally makes good on his Gotham Awards promise.
He’s like if Bob’s Burgers was a person: sweet, weird, and always on the brink of obscenity or outburst. His comedy is just too calm and funny to be completely benign. It has the sense of danger that simmers behind the eyes of an old pro who knows they have you in the palm of their hand, whether they be a Game of Thrones villain or a seasoned storyteller. So when he brings out the painfully hateful David O. Russell speech he quotes from in the joke he told at the Gotham Awards, we’re shocked and elated and somehow not surprised at all. We’ve been won over by this low-threat, understanding, trustworthy crowd-dad. He zinged Jared Leto and we felt like his neighbor. Mike Birbiglia may not be revolutionizing comedy but he’s surely mastered what he came here to do.