Timing may remain the key to comedy, but knowing your audience and connecting with it continues to rank right up there with it.
To see Mike Birbiglia in his Broadway debut of The New One, I brought a comedian who not only has performed with Birbiglia, but also is a father. That comic told me afterward that Birbiglia captured the essence of new fatherhood perfectly; both the wonder of it all, as well as the helplessness of feeling part of yet outside the bond between mother and child.
Birbigs is friends and frequent collaborators with This American Life‘s Ira Glass (Glass is an executive producer of The New One), and it shows in the comedian’s evolution from Two Drink Mike to storyteller. The New One may be Birbiglia’s Broadway debut, but he tested this show on the road for almost two years, and he previously worked his like and jokes into tours and off-Broadway runs for Sleepwalk With Me, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and Thank God For Jokes. He also adapted Sleepwalk With Me into a movie, and recorded Thank God For Jokes as a Netflix special.
At first, I viewed his repackaging of jokes as an inherent weakness. As if doing so might be considered lazy. But now, with time and perspective, I can appreciate the ability to recognize how a punchline or a premise can have even more punch when reworked or fit into a larger narrative.
In The New One, he even manages to neatly summarize and recap Sleepwalk With Me in about five minutes for his Broadway audiences who may not already have heard any of it before.
Where he’s at now (or more precisely, what happened in the past few years) is the realization that everything he and his wife thought they’d decided about not having kids would be upended. Whether that’s due to societal pressure, actual peer pressure, biological clocks, or whatnot may become beside the point once your own life partner has a change of heart.
Birbiglia lets down any guard he might have with us, the audience, speaking in brutally honest terms about his feelings on parenthood, why he might not be suited to the task, and his frankly embarrassing sexual history.
There are moments where, in the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp, Birbiglia also comes to terms with the failings of men in general, and perhaps himself specifically. Why dads become deadbeats. Whether the best a man can do is behave decently. These ain’t exactly laugh out loud moments, here. And arguing that decent is the best any man can do sounds like a cop out. Moreover, I wonder if an audience that’s not quite as privileged as Birbiglia would consider these life decisions in quite the same way he does.
But it’s his story, told truly (we suspect), as he grapples with his own humanity, his own imperfections and the ultimate test of his love and marriage. The idea that nothing will change once they become parents, and yet everything changes when a baby enters the picture.
And it’s done with lots and lots of jokes. That’s another thing he shares with his fellow Georgetown comedy alums and friends Nick Kroll and John Mulaney, having seen them take their own Oh, Hello! act, from clubs to tours to Broadway.
No need to worry about Birbiglia just yet. His wife, the poet Jennifer Hope Stein, gets into the act, with Birbiglia reading several of her poems out of a notebook. She gets it, even if it takes him longer to figure out his place in their new world order.
An infant reaches for something — I don’t know what — pushes it further away and cries in frustration
each time she reaches, not realizing she is crawling for the first time.
She is just like her father.