You might not know Mike Birbiglia. That’s okay. You wouldn’t be the only one. Once, after he’d gained a smidge of fame as a stand-up comedian, he was asked to participate in a celebrity golf tournament. While he and the golfers were waiting to tee off, one of them asked, “I wonder who our celebrity is?” As Birbiglia recounts in his first stand-up special, What I Should Have Said Was Nothing, he excitedly asked “Yeah, who do you think our celebrity is?” It then struck him: He was their celebrity.
Birbiglia’s second stand-up special, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, which ran for four months off-Broadway, won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Solo Show. The New York Times called his third show, Thank God for Jokes, “the best night I’ve spent in a theater in a very long time.” On Friday, September 1, Birbiglia will close out the summer season at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (WHBPAC) with his newest show, The New One. He’s spent most of August at Berkeley Rep in Berkeley, California perfecting the show before taking it on a national tour, on which Westhampton Beach is the first stop.
Has “The New One” changed since you opened it in Berkeley? Do you expect it to change from where it is now to the final taping?
It changes every night. There are new lines, new ideas and new ways of performing things that are different every night. It will be that way until I film it. I never think of these shows as being “done” until they’re filmed and then they’re sort of done based on someone else’s discretion.
Your other shows have a kind of theme to them. What, if any, is the theme of “The New One?”
I’ve tried really hard not to tell anyone what this show is about; going out of my way to not tell people so that they experience the maximum enjoyment and pleasure. With my other shows I feel like I had to tell people “this is a show about my sleepwalking disorder,” or “this is a show about getting married,” or what ever it is. I feel like with this show, I just want people to show up with a clean slate. For example, my favorite movies this year were The Big Sick and Get Out. The greatest gift that I can give my friends is to tell people to go to those and don’t see the trailer and don’t read anything about it.
For someone who might not be familiar with your stand-up, what can one expect from “The New One?”
If people don’t know my stand-up they should steal someone’s Netflix password and watch 10 minutes of Thank God For Jokes or My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and if you don’t like those, don’t come to the show. But if you do like them do come to the show. If I were to characterize it I would say I do storytelling stand-up comedy that circles into one single story. At least that’s the goal.
Is there a specific bit of yours people recite to you when they see you on the street?
Occasionally people will quote, “I know. I’m in the future also.” That’s become sort of a thematic callback to my shows. I even sometimes say it in this new show at this one particular moment. It’s a good catchall phrase when someone tries to be a smarty-pants about a mistake you’ve made.
Do you have a favorite bit?
I think the sleepwalking story is my favorite one to tell. That’s the one I always tell people when they don’t know me at all. It was the first thing of mine that Ira Glass ever put on This American Life and it was because it’s simultaneously really funny, really sad, really dramatic, and it’s also true. It really checks a lot of the boxes.
What other comedians do you follow? What, in your opinion, is the best new(ish) stand-up special on Netflix?
I don’t even know if this counts as newish or a new person, because he is a very big comedian, but I just watched the new Rory Scovel Netflix special and laughed so hard. It’s called Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up For the First Time. There’s this one bit about the O.J. documentary. I was doing a podcast with my good friend John Mulaney recently, who’s one of the great comedians in my opinion as well, and we were retelling the O.J. bit to each other. Like doing different pieces of it. And we were laughing so hard.
And the other two really great comedians that people should watch are the two openers for Westhampton Beach: Jacqueline Novak and Chris Laker, who are both phenomenal. Jacqueline has been on James Corden [Late, Late] and has a Comedy Central half-hour special, and written a hilarious book, How to Weep in Public. Chris Laker is going to be on one of the late night shows soon, but I don’t think it’s been announced yet. He was just at the Montreal Comedy Festival with me and filmed a spot on a Canadian television show and is phenomenally funny. Both of them are great.
So those are my three: Rory, Jacqueline, Chris Laker. Also Josh Rabinowitz is brilliant. And his writing partner Kevin Barnett is also hilarious. I also really like Beth Stelling who is doing a bunch of the dates on the tour too.
Given today’s cultural climate why, in your opinion, is comedy important?
I think it’s good for people to take some time out of their day not to be infuriated by the things that people have every right to be infuriated about in order to regain some energy and perspective to be infuriated again.
Will you be spending any time out here on East End of Long Island before or after the show in Westhampton?
I’m trying to, but it seems like its prohibitively expensive for comedians like me to spend time in locations they perform.
Mike Birbiglia performs The New One at the WHBPAC, 76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach on Friday, September 1 at 8 p.m. For tickets and other information visit whbpac.org or call 631-288-1500.