The first thing Mike Birbiglia does before mounting one of his one-man shows in a new location is to sit in each seat. “I try to understand what the lines of sight are, how they can hear. I’m obsessed with it because it’s all we have,” he said on Zoom in October, hiding in his daughter Oona’s bedroom from the noise of Brooklyn construction outside. “Privacy is everything.”
Birbiglia is known as a comedian, a filmmaker (2016’s Don’t think twice), a podcaster and a committed actor — recurring on Billions and, most recently, making a memorable appearance in Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero” music video. But it’s his plays, narrative interpretations of stand-up, that have always set him apart from his peers. He’s now 44 and has pledged to flee Hollywood for his life in Brooklyn with his wife Jen Stein (the poet who publishes under the pen name J. Hope Stein) and prefers his current Manhattan commute to a year on the road. This latest show, a contemplative and comedic look at mortality titled The old man and the swimming pool, kicked off the first of what was expected to be 70 Broadway shows at the 1,000-seat Vivian Beaumont Theater on October 28 – although it has since been extended for two weeks. “It’s three Madison Square Gardens,” says Birbiglia. “I’m driving my agent crazy.”
You do tours and workshops for years before they get to that point. What do you cut first?
For the last show, New, the beginning is a two and a half minute monologue about how much I love my sofa and how it is a metaphor for home, domestic life, comfort and love. The status quo of my life is the couch. But, on the road, I’ll talk about the couch non-stop, like the way Jim Gaffigan approaches fast food or Hot Pockets. You narrow things down, you figure out what’s essential for the interrelated parts and the couch echoes later in the show – which makes it different from stand-up. People often ask me, “What’s the difference between a stand-up and a play?” [A play is] one piece. If you remove an element, it would collapse.
When did you identify this as the way you work best?
Necessity is the mother of invention. I wanted to be a playwright and screenwriter. Towards the end of college, I realized that this was not a Monster.com job. But you’re so naive there’s no logic in it. So, I was simultaneously in the improv group, and then entered the “Funniest Person on Campus” contest in Georgetown.
Did you win?
I won. Nick Kroll was in it too. That’s how we met. It gave me the chance to be an opening act one night at the Washington, DC, Improv. I asked if I could do it again, and they said, “No, but you can work the door and sell tickets. Then I got to watch the great comedians of the 90s. Margaret Cho, Jake Johannsen, Mitch Hedberg, Jim Gaffigan, all those people I couldn’t afford to go see any other way — watch them over and over, the rehearsal of their actions and their development.
But what they were doing was different from where you ended up.
When I got out of college, I took gigs on the road wherever anyone took me. I was above all a first part. Once I was able to start headlining, doing 45 minutes to an hour, that’s when I started performing pieces from my first solo piece, sleepwalk with me. I wanted to work on a play, but I don’t have a place to do it, so a comedy club is as good as any. It just became my process. I will find material anywhere. I’ll settle this at an NRDC fundraiser.
You booked the David Letterman show at 24, which eased your transition to headlining. Did you realize that this was a “big break” then?
I think so. Throughout my 20s, every article about me said, “This guy is the next big thing!” Same with my 30s. Now, in my 40s, I’m “the comedy veteran.” People don’t know how to position me because it’s never happened to me the Seinfeldian or Ray Romano way. It was oddly by choice. When I was 30, I got the green light for a CBS sitcom pilot. Nick Kroll and Bob Odenkirk were in with me, but it didn’t get picked up. At that point, it hit me like a ton of bricks: I don’t want to be a sitcom star. And it’s not like they still don’t call. I’m everything the networks think they want.
Because I smile a lot. (Laughs.) They say, “Oh, we can shape that person. It’s perfect for us. I had to accept the idea that the endgame for me is not to be rich. The endgame is to do something that makes me proud.
The Seinfeld/Romano sitcom path is gone, but is there a Birbiglia version of barry Where Rummy is it attractive?
I like barry, Rummy and Mo Amer’s show, but no. I don’t like serialized stories. I’m obsessed with the 90 minute story. Obsessed. Everyone says, “It’s the golden age of TV!” Who has time? In 90 minutes or two hours, I want to meet characters, understand a world, go on a journey and land somewhere a little different from the beginning. I want to feel something and laugh, then go and talk about it with my wife. That’s it.
If you took money out of the equation, would you rather release your work as film specials or comedy albums?
When it comes to stand-up, what interests me the most is the audio. The imagination can do a lot of work. And if you listen to a Steve Martin record from the 70s, there are sight gags, but you get the idea. Ira Glass taught me that on the radio over the years. The audio is so intimate. You feel like you are with the person. To be clear, theater is different. It is designed so that we are all there together.
Have you noticed a change in career or audience since your week for Jimmy Kimmel this year?
It was a very instructive experience. You realize, when you do something so mainstream and high-profile, the legitimacy that a network platform still gives you. People came out of the woodwork. Some people treated me like I did. They were like, “You know, you could do this.” I’m like, “No, no, no, I’m doing this other thing!”
Late night calls for topical humor, which has never been your bag. Have you ever wanted to be more topical?
Certainly not now. When I was doing Kimmel in May, the leak came out Roe vs. Wade. I was like, ‘I can’t write a joke that meets this moment. I workshop jokes for years, not to mention two hours. The times we live in are so radical that I don’t want to touch most of these things. As I got older, I really thought about what I was contributing. How does this help? I think what I can do is do something human and fun, but not risky.
But you have to run into some of these things on the road.
I did Texas, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee with this show. I end up talking to a lot of Trump supporters just because they like to talk. There seems to be a big talking point in this universe about how comedians “can’t say anything anymore.” I know what they mean, but I think that statement is incorrect. The biggest faux pas, in terms of public relations with art right now, is that you have to agree with the artist. Comedians talk wild shit. They always have.
During your recent podcast episode with Chris Gethard, you talked about your desire to woo a global audience. What sacrifices or modifications does this require?
Eddie Izzard was so ahead of his time. She played against Ukraine, Russia, Germany and China 10 years ago. She said to me: “You have to go and see the world. People everywhere love English comedy. In June I went with this show to London, Iceland and France. Part of the reason I’m going there is that I want the show to be so human that it can play anywhere. I try to pull out all the American cultural references.
If you play in Iceland, for example, do you need to contextualize the YMCA?
Iceland is a fun example, because I have all these YMCA water horror jokes. Meanwhile, Iceland has the best water and public swimming pools in the world. So at the top of the show, I would say, “I talk a lot about going to the YMCA pool, which is kind of the recreation center in America. I know your pools are really nice, but mine aren’t.
Who do you find funny right now?
Atsuko Okatsuka is awesome. Zarna Garg is fascinating. Sarah Sherman is like a bat out of hell. The fact that there is this cultural encouragement for diversity of voices in comedy makes comedy funnier. The things people talk about are so different. And the dividends are going to be huge for where the comedy goes.
You recently appeared in Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero” music video. Does this offer come from your team or directly from them?
I met Taylor a few times through Jack Antonoff, who is a close friend of mine. Anyway, one day I get this text message from an unknown number and it says “Hey, it’s Taylor. I wrote this scenario for a short film in the middle of my video. And then I read the script, and it’s so hilarious and absurd and I’m laughing, but I’m also thinking “Is Taylor Swift texting me or is someone else fishing me at the cat?” Anyway, I’m going. I say “I’m in”. But what am I up for? Either I’m in a Taylor Swift video or I’m getting screwed over by someone who’s a great writer.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.