Mike Birbiglia says a lot more than nothing

Comedy Central officially makes this weekend Mike Birbiglia Weekend, airing a special Comedy Central Presents My First Time (in which Birbiglia, Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black and Bonnie McFarlane talk about their earliest forays in stand-up) on Friday night (10:30 p.m. Eastern), followed by the debut at midnight Saturday of Birbiglia’s new hourlong special, What I Should Have Said Was Nothing (based on stories he has told in his 2007 CD, My Secret Public Journal Live). I’ve seen both TV specials already, caught Birbiglia working on new jokes and tags in various venues around New York City, and also talked to him at length. But first, let’s watch a Comedy Central clip.

The network has a few of these clips lined up for Friday night. You can watch them all after the jump. UPDATED: With two actual clips from the hourlong special!

Also, Ticketmaster (look directly to the right!) has ticket info for his 25-city spring tour.

But let’s get to the interview, shall we? I talked to Birbiglia last week during a busy day of scheduled chats for the comedian, because that’s how performers and publicists normally deal with the media — whether it’s a musician, an actor or a comedian — better to get all of the interviews done in one day so the performer can get back to performing (and also, it turns out more often than not, so performers can keep their answers straight, since a lot of interviewers ask the same questions). I’d seen Birbiglia the night before our talk performing at Seth Herzog’s Sweet show, and before he left for a later slot at the Comedy Cellar, Birbiglia leaned over and told me, "You must be getting bored of seeing me do the same jokes over and over." Not true. I may have seen him many times in 2008 already, but each time, each venue puts a different spin on the material. Anyhow. Birbiglia had a different thought in his head when we talked on the phone the following morning.

Apparently, Birbiglia had just talked to a reporter from the New York Times for a story about Steven Wright and his influence on stand-up. "He was the first guy I saw live," Birbiglia said. "Cape Cod Melody Tent." In prepping for the Times interview, though, he had an amusing encounter that he forgot to recount. "I was listening to I Have A Pony on the subway and this guy saw me and said, ‘Hey, you listen to Mitch Hedberg?’ I said, Yeah. ‘You listen to Jim Gaffigan?’ I said, yeah. And I wondered. I didn’t tell him I was a comedian. Is he going to say anything else? And he didn’t. It’s dawning on me that I’m the most unknown well-known comedian there is!"

Story of his life, right? After all, Birbiglia had a previous Comedy Central tour called "Medium Man on Campus," and talks about his lack of celebrity status on My Secret Public Journal Live. Clearly, though, as he prepares for a new national stand-up tour that begins in March for What I Should Have Said Was Nothing, he’s doing quite well for an unknown well-known comedian.

Between tours, Birbiglia has stayed in New York, popping up at A-clubs such as the Comedy Cellar and the bar rooms such as The Slipper Room and Rififi to develop new material on pre-existing bits on cell phones, cable news and the election. "I’ve been working on 20 new minutes and I’ve just been working on it night after night," he said. "I don’t change my delivery. If anything, I change the content, because you just know your audience. You know at The Slipper Room that people have heard of the movie Diving Bell and the Butterfly. You know at the Cellar they haven’t. You know after making a reference once or twice."

The 2008 election campaign already forced him to shed one of his jokes, about former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and how he felt 9/11 was his birthday. "That thing’s done, because he’s conceding today," Birbiglia said last week. "It’s really fascinating, because that’s a joke that I wrote in my Journal a few weeks ago or a month ago…I got a lot of positive response and kind of dittos of it around the Internet. Quotes of it. But then when I say it in New York it kind of dies. But enough comedians come up to me, and they say, you have to continue doing that joke. I went out to San Francisco for the Sketchfest and it was the biggest joke I got. You know how they say comedy equals tragedy plus time. But also distance. In New York, not enough time. In San Francisco, bring it on. Bring it on, 9/11 jokes."

Is this a sign that you’re becoming more political as a comedian? "It’s not intentional," he said. "It’s just what’s on my mind. At a certain point, you cannot ignore it. You cannot be onstage and talk about banana pancakes when there’s a serious war going on." So what does that mean for comedians such as fellow Georgetown alum Jim Gaffigan? He just went on Letterman and all of his jokes were about bacon? Birbiglia laughs, saying he’s not trying to make a point about anyone else. "Maybe I should change that (banana pancakes) to panda porn," he said. "It’s funny, because I was actually bouncing this off the crowd at the Comedy Cellar last night. Part of what really is disconcerting about Bush, it’s not that he’s cocky. I understand that approach to foreign policy. It’s that he ran as the Christian candidate. That’s just a misnomer. If Jesus were here, he wouldn’t say, ‘Where are the Stinger missiles?’ If he ran as part of the Satan Party, I’d believe that. They’re a little hawkish, they tend to get carried away, but they make some good points." Birbiglia then goes into a bit he tells onstage about a Bush fan at a Texas show.

The new material actually will complement an old project of his. "It’s all thematically tied to my next show, which is called Sleepwalk With Me," he said. "Strangely enough, for extreme comedy nerds who would care at all about this, Sleepwalk With Me was the album I was going to release this fall. It was pretty much ready. And Comedy Central offered me my own tour, Secret Public Comedy Tour. It was something we had pitched six months ago, didn’t think it would come through. Then when it did, we thought it would be awkward to release Sleepwalk With Me on CD and then do Secret Public Journal Tour. There’d be brand confusion."

"My brother Joe and I, he still does a lot of writing with me," Birbiglia said. "We took the months of May, June and July and took my Secret Public Journal stories on the road. Taking notes after every show. Writing different lines every night." They recorded the CD in July at the Funny Bone in Columbus, Ohio, and released it in September. "I was scared to death that it was going to get panned," he said. "Because it’s much slower than Two Drink Mike. It requires way more patience. But I think it’s better. The first couple of reviews were blog reviews, and they did pan it. One of the reviews was so bad, he said I could talk about how this CD so bad all day, but I’ll leave that for the many many other reviewers to do…but then the reverse happened…and the blog stings hurt less."

"And now I’m returning to Sleepwalk With Me. What I’m workshopping in the clubs that are tied thematically to Sleepwalk With Me, but they’re more current. The bullet phone stuff, satellite navigation," he said. "I picked up this book about sleepwalking, The Promise of Sleep, by Dr. Dement. Which is unfortunate. You’d think he’d pick a pseudonym, like Dr. Happy Sleep or William H. Dreams. What I’m doing now onstage is talking about, ruminating on these overstimulating things in our lives. The overall structure is already there, but I’m filling it in with observations about what’s going on in our lives now, as opposed to two years ago."

Your current strength now seems to be as a storyteller. Do you find you’re enjoying that form more than the traditional premise-setup-punchline? "I think Two Drink Mike was straight up jokes," he said. "Secret Journal was kind of a story album. Sleepwalk With Me is going to be the best of all worlds, the kind of ultimate combination of jokes and stories. Hopefully with some theatrical weight as well. We’re planning to do it Off-Broadway in May, and then in London in June and touring it across the country in the fall and shooting it…if the writers strike ends. We had a show in development with the networks, that was supposed to shoot right before the writers strike. If that ends, we’ll still do that."

It’s a tight schedule. Birbiglia’s new tour runs from mid-March to the beginning of May. He has something special in mind for his four-night run at Carolines March 27-30 to help jumpstart the tour next month. A different show every night for each of his CDs, with Two Drink Mike on Thursday, Secret Public on Friday, Sleepwalk on Saturday and performing B-sides and requests on Sunday, "or some variation of that," he said. "One of my favorite musicians is a guy named Ben Kweller, and I saw him at the Echo in Los Angeles…(he performed different CDs at different shows) and I just thought it was a great idea. There are some artists where you just go, I really like that one album. I love OK Computer, but I went to the show and they did some strange flute arrangements! I’m not saying that’s how I feel about Radiohead, but just as an example. Sometimes it’s cool to tell people that’s exactly what I’m going to do."

That’s quite a contrast to many comedians I talk to these days, who say because of TV and online videos, they feel they have to retire their old material. Some comedians say they cannot get away with performing routines that everyone already knows, even though that material made audiences fans of theirs in the first place. Birbiglia said sometimes the old material is just what the doctor ordered, so to speak. "That’s the way I feel about certain comedians," he said. "If I were going to see (Mitch) Hedberg today, I’d love to hear him do Strategic Grill Locations. Or if I were to see (Richard) Pryor today, I’d love to hear Live on the Sunset Strip. It’s certainly something comedians wrestle with today, doing new stuff vs. old material. If you break the illusion that you’re in the moment and say, I’m doing the album, I think it breaks the illusion in a way that the audience is comfortable with it. Whereas if I came out and said I was just thinking the other day, I should call myself a cracker, they’d yell, ‘No you didn’t! You thought of that four years ago!’…I’m also going to try to reinvent some of the jokes from Two Drink Mike and Secret Public Journal." Just as a rock band sometimes finds a new arrangement to a classic hit, then.

Speaking of new arrangements, one of the funny things about watching the taping of your CCP for My First Time (aside from the fact that your set was by the funniest and truest to the premise of the special) was having the network force you to come back out and redo your Kenny G. impersonation so it wouldn’t sound too much like Kenny G. "I can’t even sound like Kenny G. without getting sued. That was the idea there. I wonder if he’s even familiar with my comedy," he said. "Yeah, that was a struggle. I’ll be curious to see how that turns out."

You can find out along with him on Friday night.

Related: Mike Birbiglia online.

Birbiglia’s hourlong special, What I Should Have Said Was Nothing, was taped last fall at NYU and is split up in seven acts. During the commercial breaks, title cards tell viewers which story is coming up next. You’ll get to hear and see Birbiglia talk about "Porno for Parents," "The Old Mill Pond Story," "Joe Bags," "Sleepy Karl," "Celebrity Golf," "Roger Clemens Hates Me" and "Put It On Paper," among other things.

And here are some more videos courtesy of Comedy Central to whet your appetite:

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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