Interview: Mike Birbiglia, “What I Should Have Said Was Nothing”

Filed Under Interview, Stand-Up Comedy

Mike Birbiglia has grown as a comedians since my first interview with the comic. He’s changing his style to rely more on sharing a great story that holds an audience, eliciting a diversity of reactions that inevitably lead back to laughter. His first one-hour special entitled “What I Should Have Said Was Nothing” shares many of the stories that he has told on his immensely popular Secret Public Journal.

Another new trait to his comedy is his unique way of framing political material, trying to make it as friendly to all audience as possible, but doing it in places where he’s not preaching to the converted. I talked to Mike about the special and storytelling, audience reactions and his one criticism of the special, if he was held to just one.

”What I Should Have Said Was Nothing” is presented a little bit more like a one man show than a stand-up special. Does that change how an audience responds to material?

Well, it’s funny. Because I’ve been changing my focus over the last few years from joketelling to storytelling. Kind of in the tradition of Cosby and Pryor, as models… I’m not comparing myself to them. (laughs)

My agent, Mike Berkowitz… I’ll totally be outing him by saying this but I really trust his opinion. He listened to the CD and said, “Your CD is only CD that I listen to and I don’t shut it off every five minutes. I’m actually engaged and I want to hear what’s going to happen next. And it keeps me there.”

That’s all I’m trying to do. I want to have comedy albums that you feel like are an experiences rather than, “that’s funny… that’s funny… that’s funny… I’m going to go get a sandwich.” (laughs) And you come back a couple of days later and go, “oh, that’s funny… that’s funny… that’s funny… I’m going to go for a jog.”

There’s definitely a lot of great, very funny CDs out there. And what I’m trying to do is have CDs that are full kind of concert experiences rather than just funny.

It is kind of a problem with some comedy CDs. They don’t repeat well. But something like what you’re doing, you can experience them over and over again. It’s more like reading a book or a short story – you get put into the same place and have the same feelings.

Absolutely. I’m playing Carolines March 27-30. I’m doing four nights and I’m doing four different shows. Thursday night, I’m doing “Two Drink Mike.” Friday night, I’m doing “Secret Public Journal Live.” Saturday night, I’m doing “Sleepwalk with Me.” And Sunday night, I’m doing a best of and requests and kind of a fun free-for-all show. B-sides if you will.

And somebody said to me, do you think the audience will be bored because they’re one step ahead of you on “Two Drink Mike.” I actually think that if you call it out before you do it. And there’s an understanding of what you’re doing, you’re in the clear.

If I walked out on stage and said, “You know I was just thinking the other day, I should call myself a cracker.” (laughs) People would be like, “No, you didn’t. You were thinking that four years ago.”

Because I have the T-shirt to prove it. (laughs)

Exactly. But if you come out and say, “A few years ago I was recording this album ‘Two Drink Mike.’ Here’s what I was thinking about at the time.” And then you go into the stuff. And people are, “Yea. Yea. I remember this one. This one’s great.”

You get that recognition laugh.

Yeah. And what’s fun about it for me is I’m going to listen to the albums, which I never do, and bring myself to where I was at that point. And also look at it with fresh eyes and be a newer spin to those jokes.

In the special, you’re not telling jokes into a standing mike. Is there a difference for you when you’re telling jokes into a standing mike rather than one that’s just clipped to you?

I prefer no microphone because I like the show to be as much like a conversation as it can be. That’s kind of thing that Seinfeld talks a lot about in interviews – that comedy is a conversation with the audience. If you don’t listen to them, you won’t connect with them.

Is the microphone like a wall then?

Yeah, but that’s just for me. It’s personal preference.

I also like how it takes people by surprise when you don’t have a microphone. It just changes people ways of looking at what’s coming at them, just a little bit. “What is this?” I like that.

Those Comedy Central wrangled audiences come in. And then the warm-up guy comes out and says, “Y’all wanna laugh!” People are like, “Yea!” And he’s, “I can’t hear you!” And you’re all, “No, we can all hear everybody.” (laughs) It gets a little bit tiresome.

The warm-up guy who tours with me is Geoff Tate. And he’s very soft-spoken, kind of mellow. And he says, “Here’s what they told me I have to say to you guys. You guys gotta clap a lot so it looks good for television.” But there’s no extreme instruction in how the audience is supposed to react.

It makes for a more authentic experience. When I talked to Louis CK about Lucky Louie, he told me how they would tell people to laugh if they found something funny but don’t feel obliged to laugh if they didn’t.

I didn’t watch a lot of Seinfeld the TV series. What is it 200 episodes? I’ve probably seen 9 or 10. I just don’t like sitcoms that much. It’s not that I don’t think they’re funny. If I watch Seinfeld, I will laugh a lot. And then it’s “I’m going to do something that’s productive now.” (laughs)

But with Seinfeld I noticed that they don’t overdo it with the laugh track. There’s not this absurd, unrealistic level of laughter. But what’s funny about it – it’s kind of a neat effect. I was watching Seinfeld and I was laughing harder than the laugh track. And I took notice of it and I thought, “Damn, they should have given themselves more credit on that one.”

That kind of brings to me to another thought about the special is that there’s a lot of diverse reactions here. People will go “oh” and “aww.” Was that kind of a weird part of this transition into storytelling – you’re used to the audience reactions being laughs.

I watched the rough cuts of the special and I saw the audience reactions, and maybe it’s because its my own special, but those are some of the most sincere audience responses I’ve seen. Those people who are laughing are actually laughing. It’s not like they’re being prodded.

In my next show “Sleepwalk With Me”, it’s even more like that. With this special, they’re embarrassing stories. Particularly the Old Mill Pond story is really painful. That’s a sotry I wouldn’t tell people for years. It’s this compilation of stories that at the time I wouldn’t utter to anybody.

Then over the years, you’re telling your girlfriend, and instead of wincing, she’s laughing. And you’re like, “Maybe there’s something to that.” So maybe you’ll tell it to three people at a party and they’re laughing. And you get surer there’s something to do this.

And that’s what those stories are: things that I wouldn’t utter for a long time and eventually when I utter them, they’ll be well received. On the flip side, there’s stories I tell and they won’t get laughs. I’ll go to Rififi and I’ll tell stories and people will be, “Ooh. Tough one.” (laughs)

If there was one criticism I would give myself of “What I Should Have Said Was Nothing” – if I were held to just one (laughs) – is that there’s nothing necessarily incriminating on my end about them other than my being awkward. As opposed to what I’m doing now with “Sleepwalk with Me”, where the audience is going, “This guy might be a dick. I don’t know if I’m on board for this.”

That’s kind of a risk with “Sleepwalk.” There’s a level of likeability that comedians work with, except people like Jim Norton. But it’s a different audience – a different expectation.

It’s almost like melodrama where you’re either the hero or the villain. There’s no in-between. And “Sleepwalk”, I’m trying to have it walk that line. We’ll see how that goes.

But I think it’s going to work, because the story that it’s based around is so outlandish and funny and crazy. It’s so well received that I think whatever you surround it with will be, at least, ingested by the audience, not necessarily applauded. It’s like the George Bernard Shaw quote – when people are laughing, you can put the medicine in.

“Sleepwalk” has some of that, where some of those stories are incredibly funny but then there’s some of it that makes you pause and think, “This guy is not showing his most flattering self.”

When you talk about the sincerity of the laughs – it’s a product of the storytelling. They’re riding that story with you. They’re very involved. So all those reactions, not just the laughs, but the “oh!” are all real.

That’s why I think the most significant line of this special is ”I’m in the future also.” That to me is the concept line.

That’s one of my favorites. It’s one of those lines that you use to turn one reaction into a laugh. Another one is “I know.” It’s very simple how it’s turned.

I find your approach to political material interesting. It’s obvious you feel strongly, but you use metaphor to get your points across. Bush as your dad building a deck or as “Whiffle Ball Tony.” But even with that, do you still get angry reactions from conservative audience members?

Yeah, absolutely. In the south. (laugh) If all the pollsters and focus group people really want to have a sense of where people’s heads are at, they should come to comedy clubs across the country. You can really tell where people are at.

When I wrote “Whiffle Ball Tony” it was during the 04 Presidential Election and it was received mostly by mostly boos. Particularly in Pittsburgh.

Patton Oswalt had the same type of trouble there. [Patton was booed off the stage in Pittsburgh after doing some Bush material.]

I know! Isn’t that funny. But that joke I really believed in. And people I spoke to like my brother Joe really believed in it. So I kept doing it. And I’ve watched the gradation of applause and laughter still go up over the last few years that it’s clear wherever I’m on stage in the country that Bush’s approval rating is so low. I’ve seen it. I’ve witnessed it.

The exception that I’ve found to that Bush stuff is in Texas. In the fall, I was talking about Bush. People still get behind him there. I said his name and people go, “Yeah!” (laughs) I was like, “Wow!” I was astounded. I thought, “There you are. I thought you were just percentage points. I didn’t realize you were people.”

Did you go into the joke then?

No. I stopped. Whenever, there’s a strong reaction in the audience, I always stop the show because I’m always curious why the reaction is so strong. A lot of times that’s how new jokes come about. Because in the conversation, I’ll ask why they feel so strongly and they’ll say it and I’ll realize I never thought of it that way. And then I will take that evidence of why they are wrong (laughs) and thus make my argument stronger.

So a guy goes “Yeah!” And I say, “What your favorite thing about the President?”

And he says, “He’s a Christian.”

And I’ve been telling this story on stage lately and I’ll say, “And there was silence in the room and I’m pretty sure there was silence across the Earth. (laughs) I even checked the Weather Channel.”

I’m baffled by the concept that the President is Christian. That he ran as the Christian candidate. I would have more respect for him if he ran as the Satan candidate because at least I could go, “Well, the Satan party they’re a little hawkish. But they have some decent ideas.” But the fact that he ran as the Christian candidate is absolutely baffling to me. And to Jesus. (laughs)

Florida tends to stay behind him because of Jeb (Bush). And sometimes in the South, you get veterans particularly. I think in Atlanta, I had a veteran walk out in the middle of my show. That’s why I wrote the troops bit, where I say, “Of course I support the troops. Everybody supports the troops. And I particularly support the troops because if they weren’t the troops, I would be the troops.”

The reason I wrote that, I wanted to – as though you’d have to clarify that – but I feel like you do have to clarify that for people who have been fooled by the administration.

For people who think it’s very binary. That if you’re against the administration, you’re against the troops.

I just clarify that. That’s a really harsh misunderstanding. If I was a soldier and I thought comedians were kind of flippantly writing off the entire war and I wasn’t supporting the troops, I’d be pretty irritated as well.

Is there ever a desire to be more direct? As the news junkie you are, you’ll see something that same day and you want to comment on it.

This week I got a little direct with the Satan party stuff. That’s pretty straightforward. (laughs)

Some people close to me, like my dad, say don’t get to political and satirize both sides. And I agree with that. I definitely don’t align myself with a party. I try to essentially do the job the comedians which is analyze critically the people who have the most power. And when that is another party, I’ll work that as well.

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Posted by Ben on 02/08  at  10:00 PM

Great interview! I love Birbigs.

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