The pizza-obsessed, bear-fearing boy from Massachusetts is developing his own Comedy Central series, prepping a new album and headlining a winter tour. So what’s next? Scrabble, anyone?
By Dylan P. Gadino
Though he’s the one that requested the sound guy turn up the volume, Mike Birbiglia has clearly never heard the disposable dance song now pumping through the speakers at Caroline’s. No matter. He’s determined to lip-synch every word, earnestly mouthing every verse, flailing his arms at each chorus and dropping to the stage floor for a rousing finale that leaves him breathing heavily and sweating — a lot.
This isn’t typical behavior for Birbigs. But the crowd is smallish at this weekday show at one of the country’s most famous comedy clubs, and you can tell he wanted to give the fans something special.
“I liked that show. It was fun,” Birbiglia says a month later. He’s now in a rental car, buzzing along somewhere between Indianapolis, Ind., and Columbus, Ohio, where he’ll be doing a string of shows. He has been known to play 300 of these shows a year, hitting up to 40 different cities, spreading Birbiglian — as some call it — to colleges, clubs and thousand-seat theaters.
“I’m trying to learn to navigate that kind of show,” he says of his set at Caroline’s. “I need to know if that kind of thing just amuses me or other people as well. The public has a consensus sense of humor, so I have to test out what parts of my humor translate to other people.”
The audience that night clearly appreciated the impromptu musical number. It was hard not to. His catchy brand of stand-up allows him flexibility that other comics don’t have. He’s unassuming on stage. So it makes sense when he’s self-deprecating or admitting his greatest fear — bears — or when he’s chatting about his obsession with pizza. (Near the end of his Caroline’s show, he even has the waiter bring a woman a pizza from the kitchen).
But at any time, he could whip out a rape joke, albeit, a PG-13 one. It’s almost surprising. He couches even that subject matter so well that the joke ends up being slightly endearing. “People are sometimes confused by me, because they think I’m even more normal than I am,” he says.
That may be true. But still, Birbiglia is not the stereotypical bundle of neuroses, insecurities and frustration that usually makes a comic great. Nor is he overly confident or aggressive. He’s just funny.
Mike Birbiglia has no home. Or he has three, depending on how you look at it. At the time of this writing, he hasn’t had a place of his own for two months. He usually bounces between his parents’ home, his girlfriend’s Manhattan apartment and his office in Tribeca, which has been a busy place of late.
He’s currently writing a pilot script for his own Comedy Central series, prepping new material for his sophomore album, Author of the Month , and is workshopping his one-man play Sleepwalk with Me , the subject of which isn’t totally unrelated to why he got the office in the first place. “When I first moved to the city, I couldn’t go to sleep, because I was just thinking about jokes,” he says. “Everything had a punch line.” Now, he writes only at the office.
It makes sense for a guy like Birbiglia to show up to an office every morning. He looks like a nine-to-fiver anyway, what with his neatly kept hair — receding ever so slightly — his clean-cut cuteness and whitish-pink bound-to-a-cubicle complexion. It sort of follows that Birbiglia, even at the age of 27, is compelled to find structure in an occupation that would, without question, allow him at least 20 more years of unstructured lunacy.
“I always wanted to be a rapper or a rock star when I was a kid,” he says. “But that’s the story of my life. I always wanted to live large, but I ended up living medium. Like at night I’ll do some 2000-seat place with an amazing crowd, and instead of going out drinking, I’ll go home and play Scrabble with my girlfriend.”
This dynamic is at the center of the pilot he’s writing for Comedy Central — an adaptation of his Secret Public Journal, a few-times-a-month letter sent out to fans that is full of Mike’s faux-poignant commentary about his recent encounters with life, and his struggle to maintain a semi-normal existence while working in the most abnormal industry.
Not only did his Secret Public Journal and his regular readings of them on Indianapolis-based, syndicated radio program The Bob & Tom Show bolster Birbiglia’s fan base but it has also offered Birbigs some consistency in his otherwise mobile lifestyle.
“My journal has become the one constant in my life,” he says. “Every week I find myself in four different cities and seven different beds. My laptop is my home in a way. It’s familiar.”
FROM DOORMAN TO HEADLINER
Birbigs started doing stand-up in Washington, D.C., when he was 19 and attending Georgetown University. The Shrewsbury, Mass., native also started logging some serious hours working the door at The Improv, where he saw the likes of Brian Regan, Dave Chappelle and Margaret Cho all living the life he wanted. “It really annoyed my father because he was partly paying for college and thought that my priority was school,” he says. “And I was like, ‘Hmmm, no it isn’t.’ So it was really contentious for a while. My family (Dad, Vincent, is a neurologist; Mom, Mary Jean, is a retired nurse) is pretty pragmatic.”
So he made the most of his time in school, where he majored in dramatic writing. He was hugely successful in his major courses and equally the opposite in his others. “My goal in college was to do well enough so that my family wouldn’t disown me,” he says. So he spent much of his time prepping himself for comedy. He acted in the university’s improv group freshman year and ultimately won The Funniest Man on Campus award, which helped land him his initial gigs at The Improv.
“I remember I said to my brother that I was going to become a comedian and work the road because I had found out Brian Regan made a lot of money each week. And my brother goes, ‘Yeah… but he’s Brian Regan. I just paused and was like, ‘Yeah, but that’s what I’m going to do. That was my logic. So I moved to New York, and I became very poor for about a year.”
Positioned in a town where you can trip over half-a-dozen nationally known comics in a single night of barhopping, Birbiglia wasted little time. True to his word, he set out on the road when he was 22.
Maybe just as important, he found a manager in the late Lucien Hold, the former general manager and talent coordinator at New York’s Comic Strip Live. Hold got him seen at the Montreal Just for Laughs festival, which helped him score an appearance on Late Show with David Letterman when he was 24.
“When I did Letterman, it kind of quieted my family for awhile,” he says. “But my dad still drops hints. Like he always says that this comedy thing may parlay nicely into advertising. And I say, ‘The doctor thing may parlay nicely into being a clerk at T.J. Maxx, but I wouldn’t count on it.’”
It’s hardly past 10 a.m., and Birbiglia is hopped up on coffee — “my meds.” Sitting comfortably in his Tribeca office — a piano, fridge, computers, Sharper Image massage chair, hand-sculpted pizzeria castle and stuffed panda wearing a “porn star” t-shirt are all near by — he starts perusing his wall that is filled with bizarre fan mail.
One woman from Texas — go figure — writes the following: “I might receive a response from you, Mike within an hour, within a month, within a year, within five years or anytime after that — maybe to tell me that you reported me to the proper authorities or maybe just something about me has piqued your interest. If God draws together our paths, then great. And if not, life is still great.” Exactly. There’s others. One is more twisted and incoherent than the next.
“I free write a lot,” he says, describing his joke-creation process. “I’ll just think about something that struck me as peculiar. I don’t start with funny; I start with interesting. Then if I find funny in it, I’m psyched. But I do have a lot of crap — thousands of pages of crap.”
When asked to describe his style of comedy, he stalls. It’s suggested that’s he’s “edgy-wholesome,” that he’s not Seinfeld nor is he Chris Rock. He laughs and agrees. “I’m wholesome in the sense that I’m positive, and I want people to just laugh at the absurdity of everything,” he explains. “But in a certain way, I’m a bit edgy because I’m not willing to discount things like death and politics. Those things are in our subconscious and to pass over them would feel fraudulent.”
Regardless of labels, it’s obvious that Birbiglia’s comedy has been catching on rapidly the past couple of years. In addition to his development deal with Comedy Central, he’s also in the middle of the Friends of The Bob & Tom Show Comedy Tour and, come winter, will be headlining The New School of Comedy with Mike Birbiglia, a college tour set out to expose the nation’s up-and-coming stand-ups.
Despite the successes Birbigs has had so far, he never loses perspective — the memories of all-too-humbling shows are never far from his mind. “I did one show at a college in western Pennsylvania, where I showed up, and they had me performing at a walk-a-thon for cancer,” he says.
“I was in the middle of an indoor track, performing for the people walking. I was basically an oscillating, revolving comedian.”
“In my experience, you can never get cocky as a comedian, because the cancer walk-a-thon is always right around the corner.”
For more info on Mike, visit www.birbigs.com .