About a month ago, I made my way down to the Lynn Redgrave Theater on Bleecker Street to see Mike Birbiglia’s one man show, Thank God For Jokes. It was awesome. Birbiglia was fantastic as always and I got a glimpse of some other comedians like John Mulaney and a chunk of the cast of The League hanging out in the lobby of the small theater before and after the show.
In this Splitsider piece, the writer describes Birbiglia’s show as “a deceptively loose meditation on humor.” Actually, it’s a little hard for me to tell what the author is saying in this article. But, I think his main point is that Birbiglia seems really loose in performing his jokes when actually it’s a carefully written or “scripted” piece.
That’s a fine point to make and all, but I think you could say that about any stand up performance. Comedians are supposed to make it look effortless, so I think it’s a bit of an understatement. What I think makes Birbiglia’s performance unique (and more of a theater piece) is his ability to morph a stand up special into a story. He’s not just getting up there and telling jokes, he is crafting them into an incredibly thought-out art piece.
This is the third time in the span of two years that I’ve seen Birbiglia perform pretty much the same hour of jokes. Once in Napa, once in San Francisco, and once here in NYC. Although the jokes were essentially the same, I was blown away by his ability to craft them into more of a narrative. The first time I saw him, he explained that his tour was just about jokes, just going back to doing regular old stand up and talking about how much he loves jokes. There were a lot of different stories there and they were kind of all about the same thing, but there was no structure. The second time, I did see structure there. He was trying to tie all of his jokes back to humor and what makes things funny. The third time, he began the show with a new video that gave the entire show an arc I never saw coming. He brought out laminated emails and jokes that he didn’t have before. It was a polished piece where one joke flowed from the next to the next, while still linking back to the main idea of faith and jokes over and over.
That’s what makes Birbiglia’s specials…special. He doesn’t say “I came up with an hour of material: here it is.” He works and works and works the material into an hour-long performance over the span of years. He had pretty much the same material two years ago…and it was great. But now it’s amazing. It blows me away how I could see his hour three times and get something new out of every single one. And yes, I’ve seen other comedians multiple times over the course of a year, but I’ve never seen them mold jokes into a show quite like that before. I just see them adding jokes to a queue that they will tell in their next special, changing the order here and there. Birbiglia writes his jokes into a narrative. That’s why I look at him performing his special as an off-broadway show and think “yeah he deserves that” rather than “oh that’s pretentious.” He applies a mind-blowing Seinfeld-like scrutiny to not just the jokes themselves, but the structure of his special as a whole.
Maybe that’s what “deceptively loose” is supposed to mean. Maybe it all looks effortless to other people, but I can’t help but see this special without thinking about how hard it must have been to craft all those jokes together perfectly.
Birbiglia is at the Lynn Redgrave Theater through May 29. You should see the show! It’s especially great if you’re a fan of comedy and “funny things.” I love that his whole special is about jokes. I think it’s brilliant!
If you couldn’t tell, I’m a huge Birbiglia fan. If you can’t catch him live, definitely watch his special My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend on Netflix. I’m telling you, man.
8 thoughts on “What I Learned From Seeing Mike Birbiglia’s ‘Thank God For Jokes’ Three Times”
I absolutely love Mike Birbiglia since I first heard him on This American Life in 2008. He’s just gotten better since.
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He is one of my all time favorite comedians! I hope he eventually turns this into a special for Netflix or HBO as I was unable to catch the tour or the play.
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Me too! Yeah, I’m sure he’ll film it somehow…but its still going through May if you’re around!
Mike’s special “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” is an absolute masterpiece. Is it possible to cry tears of sympathy and recognition while simultaneously laughing at perfectly crafted humor? Mike proved you can. I’ve rewatched it several times and discovered something new to love each time. I’m really hoping his current show gets similarly captured for those of us unable to get to NYC.
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Such a great way to put it! I couldn’t agree more. I’ve watched it at least 10 times. And I hope so too!