Interview: Stand-Up Mike Birbiglia

Filed Under Interview, Stand-Up Comedy

Mike BirbigliaThis is a big week for stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia. Tuesday Comedy Central releases his CD/DVD “Two Drink Mike”. And February 9, he begins his Comedy Central-backed College tour, Medium Man on Campus at NYU’s Skirball Center. I talked to Mike via phone about how delusion is required to be a stand-up and his status as the Jimmy Carter of New York Comedy.

Mike: I do have some trepidation talking about the art form of stand-up.

I can understand. It’s a typical comedian response. It’s kind of like magic or sausages…

By all means, comedy has its own slight of hand.

One of the things I love about you is that your stand-up style is it’s very childlike and optimistic, but you play in dark subjects. It’s not done cynically. It’s not, “oh, he just said rape, look at that.” Did you come to that style very naturally or did you discover that out-and-out cynicism doesn’t work for you?

This is why I never want to talk about comedy because I’m constantly running the risk of sounding like one of the lesser-known members of the Grateful Dead. “I’m just on a journey, man. I’m just trying to find it.” (Laughs)

My brother Joe, who I’m very close to, we’d always love comedy and watched it together as kids. He’s four years older than me, so when I was in high school, he brought me in on some satire pieces he was writing for his school newspaper. And I just fell in love with the idea of comedy, I was a shy kid and it was this kind of forum where you can just take aim at shit. Comedy gives a lot of people a voice who don’t necessarily have one. There’s often a perception that comedians were the class clown in school. And I find that a lot of the comedians who I really adore, by my estimation, were not the class clown.

They didn’t talk very much in school.

Who am I to speculate, but I don’t think Steven Wright was a hit at parties. Yet he’s my favorite comedian.

When I was 16, my brother Joe took me to see Steven Wright live at the Cape Cod Melody Tent for my birthday. It was the first live comedy show I’d ever seen. When you’re 16 you can have experiences that you’re not completely self-reflective about. You can have experiences where, literally, your world is changed. You can’t do that anymore. I think you reach a certain age where, “Alright I know what’s going on right now. I understand a chemical reaction in my brain is occurring.”

So I had this kind of transcendental experience, of “Oh my God, this is what I have to do. This is what I’m going to do.” As a child, you have anxiety about what you’re going to do with your life. I joke about it in my act, but I always had a lot of anxiety about what I was going to do. For a while I thought I was going to be a rapper. And for a while I thought I was going to be a teacher. Or a poet. Or this or that. But I wasn’t sure. And then I saw Steven Wright; this is exactly what I want to do. There couldn’t be a more precise thing that encapsulates what I spend my spare time doing.

So I went home and probably for two or three years, wrote Steven Wright jokes. I think everybody goes through a stage where you’re doing somebody else. I was writing jokes that he could pull off but I probably never could.

When I was at Georgetown, I wanted to start a sketch comedy group, but I ran into these guys who had an improv troupe. And I auditioned for them and got into that.

So it changed for you. You knew about Steven Wright, but you also knew you just wanted to do comedy. You could have been a sketch player.

Absolutely. So I got very heavy into improv and theater for a couple of years, which was actually very good for the process. (As aforementioned Grateful Dead member) “As part of the journey, man…” I needed to hit acting too. When I was a sophomore, they had a funniest person on campus contest. I went really well. Better than I could have expected. Turns out that I won. I was young enough that it was a seminal moment.

Do you think because you discover your love for comedy when you were young that it made what you do more optimistic than a comic who messed around for a long time, and is a lot more cynical when they discover it?

It’s very possible. (Jim) Gaffigan made that point to me the other day. I don’t think he’d mind me cribbing his thing, but he said that development is arrested at the point at which you start doing comedy. I think it’s absolutely true.

One of prizes of the contest was to perform at the DC Improv and to do a guest spot. So I got to open for, who in 1997-1998 who was a well-known touring comedian, Dave Chappelle. And he was very nice to me and he’s remembered me. I ran into him a couple of years ago. He said, “Hey, I remember you – Georgetown!” And I did six minutes on one of his shows nine years ago.

After that, I was young and hungry, so I went to the club and said, “What can I do to get on stage again?” And they basically threw me the mop. You can work the door. You can run food. And I did that. I did that for three years.

It’s funny because the amount of effort and sacrifice you put in is staggering. Was doubt ever a part of that time? How’d you work through it?

I think delusion is a very crucial ingredient in becoming a comedian. If I knew back then, when I was starting out, how bad I actually was. There was no ways I would have done it again. I wouldn’t have gotten on stage again the next night. But you go on stage, and you hear a little bit of laughter, and in your brain it sounds like a lot of laughter. And you go home, and I was telling my girlfriend at the time, “I killed!” I clearly didn’t kill. (Laughs)

I was particularly delusional. People would say, “That was pretty good.” And in my mind, I would construct it as, “That person was a little jealous, so they pulled back their compliment. What they really meant was, ‘You killed.’” (Laughs)

So you’re possibly a little psychotic.

I’m psychotic. The level of delusion was very high. Because I was so delusional, and then I was sort of smacked down. Because when you’re delusional and sort of a dreamer and shoot for things that are outside of your reach, you inevitably get knocked down your fair share of times.

Do you have a clear memory of one that was a wake-up call that I’m not killing all the time?

Moving to NY was very difficult. In 2000 after graduation, I went home to Cape Cod to settle in for that summer. And I performed at the Comedy Studio in Boston a bit, which has its own little alternative comedy scene, which is excellent.

I was in a Comedy Central Laugh Riots competition that summer. You submit a tape and they let you in the regional semi-finals or they don’t. I called Comedy Central about entering this contest. And I was living in Massachusetts and I was about to move to New York. And I called and said, “I don’t want to bend the rules. Should I submit in New York or should I submit in Boston?” And the woman on the phone said, “Between you and me, we’re getting a lot more submissions in New York. So why don’t you go for Boston.”

And I did, I was accepted into the semi-finals. That’s where I met Eugene Mirman and we got along. Eugene and I moved to New York around the same time. And he became the Andy Warhol of comedy in NY.

Do you feel like you and Eugene have taken different routes? You definitely play in the alternative scene but you are also in the clubs, where as Eugene has forsaken the clubs pretty much all together.

Eugene and I were joking the other day. I always call Eugene the Andy Warhol of New York Comedy because he’ll just show up at a show at the East Village and say, (As Eugene) “You know I was thinking that on the way over here I saw these leaves on the ground. And I collected them and I want to give them to four audience members.” And everyone’s totally into it:  “Thank you Eugene for the leaves you have brought us.” (Laughs) Eugene is just mesmerizing. He’s wonderful.

He was laughing about that. And he said, “What does that make you?” And I said “I’m Jimmy Carter.” I straddle the alternative and mainstream comedy world.

You’re a vacillator. A flip-flopper.

We’ve sworn to try and get the word out that we’re the Andy Warhol and Jimmy Carter of comedy respectively.

I’ll make sure that’s in there. For you, what you do at Invite Them Up and what you do at a comedy club, there’s no difference. But it’s equally well received in both places. Do you think there’s much of gap between, for lack of better terms here, alternative comedy and traditional comedy?

I don’t think so. Alternative comedy is a group of friends. It’s an artistic community that has its own voice as a group. So sometimes if you work too much in that area, your points of reference become very specific to those people.

I like the conceit of the title of your upcoming tour – Medium Man on Campus.

I’m writing a song for the tour called “The Medium Man on Campus.” In college, I always wanted to be the big man on campus, but I wasn’t. (Singing) “I was never the guy who hooked everybody in the dorm up with weed, but I was the guy who knew the guy who knew that guy.” (Laughs) A series of references like that. (Singing) “I didn’t hit all the parties, but I waited tables at a bar where a lot of people hung out. It was like St. Elmo’s fire and I was Emilio Estevez. By the way, I’m Emilio Estevez.” (Laughs)

You recorded your CD at the DC Improv, where you worked the door for three years. What was it like to complete that circle?

It was really nice. When I was working the door, this guy Red and these women Allison and Michelle they were all waiting tables and working the door with me. And now they’re all the managers of the club. And they’ve been really good to me. Because sometimes you can’t go back to where you start, because people just see you in the certain way.

When you started to perform, were you doing Steven Wright jokes?

For about six months, in terms of my voice. If you look back at my old tapes I was very soft-spoken. But it’s funny, because I’ve read Steven Wright’s style developed out of shyness and I had the same thing. I was so shy that I couldn’t get myself to expend a lot of energy on stage.

Now it’s a lot easy to turn that on?

At a certain point it stops becoming about I need to go on stage and squeeze laughter out of these people. And it become about, tonight I’m going to go on stage and talk about some stuff that makes me laugh when I’m alone. And if they laugh that’s awesome and if they don’t, that’s OK too. I’ve got some other gigs lined up. (Laughs)

We’re Sound and a Fury-ing all over the place. But to go back to when I moved to NY, I was performing with people like Patrick Borelli and Eugene Mirman who were doing stuff in the East Village, but at the same time I was also trying to get into comedy clubs. But it’s so hard to get into comedy clubs. You get treated like a homeless person asking for money during the depression. (Laughs)

Do you have a sense of revenge with some of these clubs now?

I’m beyond revenge now. I swallowed my pride long, long ago. I remember I was invited down to Caroline’s by Eddie Brill. I met him at a club. He was really nice, he told me to swing by my new talent night at Caroline’s and you can just watch. So I showed up the following Tuesday. Caroline’s has some big bouncers. They run a very streamlined operation. So I walked up, and said, “I’m here to see Eddie Brill. He told me to come down. I’m a comic.” And this big guy says, “Eddie’s not working tonight.” And I had come a long way from Queens to watch the show. And I had nothing else lined up. So I said, “He told me to come down to watch the show. I met him at the thing.” And the big guy says, “Like I said, he’s not working tonight.” “Well, do you think I can watch?” “Nah, nah, we don’t do that.” And I walked out, and I thought, “I’m going to be huge. And I’m never going to set foot in Caroline’s again.” (Laughs)

Then three months later, Lou Ferranda, who runs the club saw me and said, “ I want you to work here. For now on, you’re going to be one of our comedians.” And I was, “this is the greatest day of my life!” (Laughs)

Bitterness gone. Fly away, bitterness.

You get so desperate at certain points that you lose track of whether you’re supposed to hold onto your pride at certain situations or not. I don’t begrudge any of the places that rejected me early on, because the city is so overrun with aspiring comics the clubs can’t handle the volume. It’s impossible. There’s so many people coming at them. It’s like any other business. It’s supply and demand. The supply far outweighs the demand in New York City.

It’s hard to get heard about that din.

It’s very hard. I was so aggressively rejected when I moved to New York. I had that same tenacity I had in DC, but there’s less a concentration of comedians in DC, so people at least take your calls.

It’s a mistake for aspiring comics to move too soon to New York.

When I was in college, I was investigating how to become a stand-up comedian. So I went to the alumni house at Georgetown and found that Jim Gaffigan went to Georgetown. So I called him, and it was very hard to get him on the phone. He had at that point done Letterman and a few other things. I said to him, “I’m coming to NY. Can I take you out to lunch and pick your brain about comedy?” He blew me off for a while, but I called so many times that he was like, “OK, just show up.” (Laughs)

So we had lunch at Patsy’s Pizzeria, right around the corner from his girlfriend’s place at the time. So he had to roll out of bed to come and he was an hour and a half late. And I had nowhere to go. I had come to NY for this fictional meeting. I was just, “I’ll stay all day until maybe he shows up.” And then he showed up and gave me some of the best advice I’ve maybe gotten in comedy. Jim’s a fountain of wisdom. He’s seen a lot. He said, “Make sure you’re ready to be seen when you come to NY because people will make snap judgments that will stick forever.” So when I went back to DC, I was focused on getting strong before I came. And it still wasn’t enough. I was still getting rejected. But I had enough preparation that people didn’t write me off entirely. There’s something there.

I was getting rejected in NY. I had picked the brains of a lot of comedians who were major national headliners. I had opened for Margaret Cho, Dave Chappelle, Brian Regan, Jake Johannsen, Kathleen Madigan. Lots of these people who I really looked up to. I got the lay of the land on how you can be a comedian as your job. Like I said, supply and demand, almost anybody can work in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. If you want to be a comedian, spend some time in some places that require stopover flights, because it becomes a lot easier to get stage time.

So I sent my tape out to a lot of bookers and took anything. I took one-nighters in Long Island and hosting in Albany and Syracuse and New Jersey. New Jersey. Talk about people who really didn’t get me. I’m just stigmatized by New Jersey gigs for my entire life. I’ve always been interested in telling personal stories, and the comedy of the day when I started in New Jersey was a kind of machismo make-fun-of-people thing. I would open for people like (Rich) Vos, who’s a great comic.

But very different from you.

Right. And if I had been confident enough at the time, I would have known that you can mix all types of comedy. You can come out and be self-deprecating and the next guy can come out and be insulting. And that’s fine. I didn’t know at the time. I would just see the headliner and go, “I’m doomed.” (Laughs) And it would be reflected in my performance. I wouldn’t have any confidence.

Did you ever try and adjust? If this is a gig where there’s a bit more angrier guys were at, I need to be a bit angry.

Yeah. By all means. There were times that I experimented with styles that were far outside my realm.

I’d love to hear a joke from that time.

I have some stuff from early on in my career that’s very mean-spirited that’s aggressive just for the sake of being aggressive.

I was out on the road. There were guys who saw me on the road, New York comics like Tom Papa. Tom Papa’s a guy who could work in New Jersey but has a similar sensibility to me. I think he sympathized with my struggle and inferred that I’d had a lot of hard gigs. I opened for him in Princeton, NJ and he was doing a similar type of conversational, personal comedy and was crushing. And I saw that you can crush and you don’t have to change who you are to do it.

He was very good to me. He made calls around to New York City clubs. And I ended up being seen… I still had a plethora of doors shut in my face.

When you hear someone’s story, you hear the highlights but you don’t go through all the doors slammed. So it always sounds like, “this happened, this happened and this happened. And there I was.”

The amount of unreturned phone calls in my career so outweighs the amount of accolades I’ve had, that I never feel any bad when something goes well. I had so many unreturned phone calls, I reached a point where I no longer left messages. It was all about calling six times a day. Having a call list of people, getting them on the phone and making a 30 second pitch.

And that’s how I’d get work. I would have my 30-second pitch, “I’ll do any gig you have. I’ll do it for any money. I’m just trying to get on stage.”

The delusion you talked about earlier, it didn’t color you to thinking anything was below you.

Absolutely not. And I was fortunate enough to open for all these people in DC who could make anybody laugh. Jake Johannsen could make anybody laugh. And yet, he’s the smartest guy in the room. You look at Jake Johannsen, he’s so smart but you never feel like he’s talking down to you. I admire that kind of comedy. Tom Papa’s the same way. Brian Regan’s the same way.

In NY, I was recommended to a bunch of clubs. And the club that took a look at me was the Comic Strip - Lucien Hold, the guy who was credited with discovering a lot of guys like Seinfeld and Chris Rock. He really cared about the art of stand-up. He saw me for the first time in the fall of 2000 and said, “I didn’t have it.” (Laughs) “I don’t see it. Some of this stuff sounds like Todd Barry, some of it sounds like Jim Gaffigan, some of it sounds like Mitch Hedberg. You don’t have a voice.”

I took his notes and came back to him about three months later, because even though I wasn’t a great comic, I was 22 years old. Lucien had seen a lot of the guys who start young, despite their lack of talent early on, end up enduring. So he put me on a showcase for Adam Sandler’s production company. It was a broadband thing, and in the Internet frenzy of 2000, they were looking for young writers. Even though he hadn’t passed me at the club, I was one of the very few people who was under 24. He called me for that and put me on for a Saturday night. When I auditioned it was a Tuesday there was eight people in the crowd. But this was a packed Comic Strip house. I was very not me. I was very high energy and explosive. And it went great. And he passed me at the club. When I was walking out, he gives me the number to call in your availability. That was my first club in New York City.

The more I started working at the club, the more he watched me and over time, he and I decided to work together. He was my manager for two years before he passed away in December 2004. Lucien was such a seminal influence in New York comedy. Lucien took me under his wing and was really critical. When Lucien was dying, the Comic Strip had a roast of him, Colin Quinn got up and said, “Lucien Hold, love him or hate him, will tell you the truth. He’s one of the only guys who will tell you truth always. He doesn’t care how that’s going to affect your relationship.”

That’s pretty valuable.

Unbelievably valuable. So crucial in finding my voice. Lucien was very harsh. He had this very drawn out way of speaking. Lot’s of NY Comics do impressions of him. (As Lucien) “No, that’s not funny. Because people don’t know what Teletubbies are. Teletubbies is not a universal reference. Watching Saved by the Bell is specific to you. That is not something people can relate to. I have not heard of Zach Morris.” (Laughs) He really pushed me to make everything perfect.

From the 90s until today, so much of comedy is references, with shows like Best Week Ever. I can’t imagine you on something like that.

I tried to a few times. I just failed miserably. I know the guys who make those shows, and it was a mutual “yeah, this probably isn’t going to work out.”

The cynicism in those shows is on top, whereas in your act, it’s more underneath.

Yeah. And I think at a certain point, irony gets boring. And I didn’t used to think that. Lucien really ingrained that in me. Lucien and I discussed comedy for a number of years and had this open dialogue about what’s interesting in comedy. And when I started out I was all observational and references. And Lucien pointed out: are you giving the audience anything. Couldn’t they have thought of that? Couldn’t they have said that to their friend?

What’s the point of doing comedy for people who could do it themselves? Just pointing something out is not enough.

You’d hate to think that people go to a club to hear the jokes they thought of too. Lucien ingrained that in me. Lucien submitted me to the Montreal Comedy Festival in Winter 2001 and they accepted me in the New Faces category. I didn’t have big management or big buzz behind me, but Lucien kept calling them and saying, “You know, he’s 23.” (Laughs) That was my only cache.

At Montreal, Eddie Brill echoed what Lucien said: I think you could do the Letterman show. The writing is there, but you have to make the performance more real. Because that’s the only thing that’s interesting. And he was echoing what Lucien saying, but it really hit home, because he was saying, “You could do the Letterman show…”

I think the hardest thing in stand-up is to be yourself. Seinfeld has an incredible interview. Whenever anyone asks how to be a stand-up, I say, “Listen to Seinfeld on Comedy.” It’s an hour-long bible to becoming a stand-up comedian. One thing he says, I’m paraphrasing, when you’re on stage and looking at the faces of the audience members, you’re seeing every judgment people have made of you in your entire life. It’s facing you down. And you need to defeat that. Stand up to it. Be OK with yourself. It’s a really spiritual thing. Stand-up is an exploration of self. And you need to be constantly pondering yourself.

A lot of times you’ll see comedians and they’ll just make you uncomfortable. Because they’re experiencing that and you’re making them experience that. You’re watching them fall apart on stage.

But I don’t think people have that sensation of discomfort when they are watching you, am I mistaken?

Yeah, it’s always a struggle to get the point where nobody feels that in the audience. It’s an active struggle. A lot of people think stand-up is about getting up at night and getting on stage. I think it’s more about what you do in the day. A lot of times comedians will say I’m having a hard time saying the same joke over again. I’ve been doing the same joke for six years. My CD has an hour of material I’ve developed over seven or eight years. The day of recording the album, I’m thinking about those same topics. I’ll go to the zoo. I’ll spend my day at the National Zoo and I’ll go back to my college. I’ll try and re-experience those observations.

You’re working on adapting your Secret Public Journal for TV. What the hardest part of changing that from a radio piece?

My Secret Public Journal stated as a newsletter for people signed up for my mailing list. My philosophy has always been that you can’t rely on the TV industry to employ you, but you can rely on people coming to your show if you’re funny. So I started writing it, and I expounded on ideas in it. And it became a little funny. Then it gave it name. I called it “Stuff I Wrote in my CVS Notebook.” And the readership got bigger. I had been on The Bob and Tom Show, a syndicated radio show all over the country. And Tom Griswold asked me if I’d be interested in reading some of the CVS Notebook on the show as a segment. But he said, you’re going to run into some copyright issues with CVS Notebook. I did a lot of brainstorming with my brother Joe. One of Joe’s ideas was, “When Mike Birbiglia’s Roamed the Earth.” But I came up with the name, “My Secret Public Journal” which is really what blogs are. That’s what it is and artistically what I aspire to, to be open with the audience and express things that are private.

I started doing on the air in December 2004 and now we have a theme song and an album (My Secret Public Album, Volume 1a). It’s a great writing exercise. It’s something I’d recommend to anyone. I pull a lot of it into my act.

It’s an opportunity to discover something. Is it a natural part of your writing process, like a free-writing exercise?

That’s how it started out. But not that more people listen to it and read it, I have to have second and third drafts. So Comedy Central had some interest in making a TV Show with me. And my manager Rick and I bounced around some ideas and said, “what if we did the secret journal as a TV series.” Seemed like a no-brainer. So we went in and played track two on Volume 1A, “Bed & Breakfast/Unitarian Church.” And they bought it on the spot.

In terms of how it goes from being a journal to a series, it’ll be interesting to see. At this point, you certainly have to invent and define characters who heighten the stories you’re telling.

Part of the premise of the show, is your brother’s jealousy of your success. Do you find yourself in tense moments with him, thinking this is good material here?

Does it make me more self-conscious in my interactions? Not really. Joe and I are so close, that you couldn’t possibly manipulate what our interactions are. I tell a story of how he returned a pretzel at the US Open. We went to the US Open and we got hard pretzels and they tasted like garbage. So Joe went back and got another one. And that one tasted like garbage. So Joe asked for a refund. And it was quintessential Joe Bags. Asking for a pretzel refund. It was not done out of financial restraint, it was done on the principle. You cannot sell me garbage to eat. That is not right. I don’t think you can even fictionalize that.

He’s great to collaborate with. He shares certain aspects of my artistic voice. But he has this completely other nerdy side of him that’s hilarious. It’s just Joe Bags being Joe Bags.

Joe has just been so important to my career. If there’d been no Joe, there’d be no Mike. It’s a personality thing that led me to becoming the comedian. I’m more delusional than he is. He’s more practical. It’s not a difference in the level of funniness; it’s more of a level of disconnection with reality. I’m willing to make these leaps that are irrational. And Joe’s quite stable. He’s going to be collaborating with me on the series.

This feels like another boom time for stand-up. Are you optimistic for stand-up’s future?

Whenever it feels so big, it actually scares me. I don’t want it to be too big. I don’t want to see it decline. Comedy reached a point where the only reason to do it was because you loved it, because there was no money in it. Which is the polar opposite of the 80s, where people were getting in it for the money. And now you have a whole breed of comedians who love it. And it shows.

I have this TV series in development, and I have this college tour and all these things. But really I’m just trying to write in my journal every two weeks. I’m going to keep doing that and that’s it.

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Posted by keith h. on 02/07  at  01:06 PM

this is a great interview. nice work.

Posted by Joseph Birbiglia on 02/08  at  12:16 PM

I am not a nerd. Nice job, Todd.


Posted by Lyle Chartrand on 01/10  at  02:56 AM

A tad late for a comment but none the less it was nice to get a little genuine and sincere insight. Bookmarking this page!

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