With the release of his new Comedy Central offering, My Secret Public Journal Live, comedian Mike Birbiglia proves he’s no longer an up-and-comer. Punchline Magazine tells you why, at the age of 29, this New York City comic is his generation’s best.
When I interviewed Mike Birbiglia for Punchline Magazine‘s launch in September 2005, the then-27-year-old comic told me a story about how during his time at Georgetown University, he used to work the door at the D.C. Improv. He explained how that afforded him a unique view into the inner sanctum of the national comedy scene; in part, that meant he had access to the likes of Dave Chappelle, Margaret Cho and Brian Regan, all of whom Birbigs eventually opened for.
But it was Regan who seemed to impress him most — and for good reason. If you’re unfamiliar with Regan, let me sum up: He is arguably — that is, barely arguably — the best comic working today.
On top of that, in my limited experience interacting one on one with Regan — timidly asking him five years ago to sign his now classic 1997 album, Brian Regan Live for me, chatting with him earlier this year backstage at a theater in Tarrytown, N.Y., and interviewing him over the phone — I’ve also found him to be an incredibly nice person.
At least a half dozen comics I’ve spoken with have, without any prompting, had similarly positive things to say about the man. In short, he’s hardly the worst guy to pattern your career after.
As Mike’s story goes, manning the Improv’s door and getting stage time at a well-respected venue, not to mention realizing that Regan made a solid living performing comedy, eventually inspired him to tell his older brother Joe — Joe Bags, to dedicated MB fans — that he wanted to make money being a comic– a comic like Regan.
“I’m going to become a comedian and go on the road,” he told Joe, positing Regan’s success as reason enough to embark on the seemingly impossible goal.
Coming from a family of pragmatists, Joe’s response was, to put it nicely, pragmatic: “But he’s Brian Regan, Mike.”
“Yeah, but that’s what I’m going to do.”
That’s as far as his logic went. And it’s a good thing.
On Sept. 25, Mike will release his third album of stand-up comedy– his second for Comedy Central Records. Called My Secret Public Journal Live, it’s the best comedy album of this generation.
Let me explain.
On stage, Birbiglia has always had an engaging presence; he’s got energy enough to keep you hanging on his words but knows when to hold back.
He’s not a slacker; he’s not a hero; he’s not skinny-jeans, floppy-haired-hip like Demetri Martin; he’s not coolly aloof like Zach Galifianakis; and he doesn’t score many points for being ultraedgy or controversial. I could even understand it if, after a superficial listen, blue- or cringe-humor fans might label Birbigs too vanilla.
Regardless, up until now, Birbiglia has made a name for himself by being incredibly funny — and nothing more.
If Birbiglia put out an album as good — and with similarly veined jokes — as his first two efforts (Dog Years, Two Drink Mike) — it would’ve been an amazing accomplishment; consistency, especially in comedy, isn’t easy.
Instead, Mike has created something wholly unique. On Journal, named after his entries from My Secret Public Journal, which he periodically e-mails out to thousands of people and reads on the nationally syndicated Bob & Tom Show, the Boston-area native relays deftly constructed stories to his audience at the Funnybone comedy club in Columbus, Ohio.
This shift in style would be less noteworthy had Bibrigs been this type of comic all along. But he hasn’t — not on stage, anyway. He was never a one-liner comic but nor was he a storyteller in the classic sense.
Now in one album’s time, Birbiglia has matched, if not surpassed, the greatness of other contemporary comedic storytellers (see Ron White, Christopher Titus, David Cross).
I’ll take it a step further.
During my repeated listens of Journal, I couldn’t help feeling the same way
I do when I go back and listen to Bill Cosby’s bits about the childhood revenge he had on Junior Barnes or his experience at the dentist or every minute of Bill Cosby Himself, for that matter.
If you’re asking yourself, “Did he just compare a guy named Mike Birbiglia to Bill Cosby, one of the greatest stand-up comedians — storyteller or otherwise — of all time?”, then here’s your answer: Yes.
Most comics, no doubt, tell us a little something about themselves through their jokes. Mike’s no different.
For years, he’s been telling crowds that he’s an Olive Garden Italian (an Italian-American who really doesn’t look, act or maintain any ethnic traditions) and that he’s not so much a man’s man and that he’s got a hard time waking up thanks to Sleepy Karl, the part of his subconscious that tempts him to stay in bed.
And all those things are present on Journal. But this time, we learn so much more about Birbiglia because he’s relaying stories not just about himself but about the characters he’s created and about the people around Mike– his parents, his childhood friends and, especially, Joe Bags.
In short, and to paraphrase your high school English teacher, Mike’s “showing more” in lieu of “telling” this time around.
Now, we see Sleepy Karl in action: He’s the reason Mike showed up once to his Introduction to Computers and Networks course in college and failed to show up again– until what he thought was the class before the final.
Now, we see Mike’s dad actually sitting at an Olive Garden in a strip mall expertly pronouncing the restaurant’s embarrassing interpretations of traditional Italian fare; we see his technologically challenged mother dealing with a computer porn virus and a cell speakerphone.
Now we know why Mike’s not a tough guy. After all, he shows us with a childhood story about jumping out of a 30-foot-tall tree at Old Mill Pond that ends with Mike getting what seemed like “a back alley colonoscopy from Dr. Old Mill, whose instruments had been sterilized in frog piss and pond scum.”
And instead of a passing mention of brother Joe, Mike gives him starring or supporting roles in no less than five stories, maybe most endearingly and most hilariously as the punch of “Celebrity Golf,” the album’s 13-minute opening story about Birbiglia performing comedy at a fund-raiser for cancer.
Like a classic book or movie, My Secret Public Journal Live ebbs and flows seamlessly, has relatable characters and is well crafted.
Journal, also like most classic pieces of art, maintains deeper, layered, almost time-released qualities, which enrich its audience’s experience by offering much more than the piece’s main, intended purpose– which, in this case, is creating plenty of laughs.
Make no mistake; Journal is amazingly funny throughout. But even if you took the humor out, it would still be an album with a dozen examples of finely crafted stories. It would still be great.
I’m not saying Birbig’s latest is a classic. It’s not… yet. Only time and the opinions of comedy fans can determine if it will endure to become as important as a Billy Cosby Himself or even a Brian Regan Live.
But I will say this, if Brian Regan respect is what Birbiglia was after, he’s already got it.