Watching Mike Birbiglia‘s new off-Broadway show in the afternoon of the Academy Awards proved even more fitting than I could have anticipated.
Thematically, the narrative thru-line connects most of his jokes in Thank God For Jokes to the night he hosted the Gotham Awards for independent film in New York City in 2012. Birbiglia peels back the curtain to let us in on his thought process — as any comedian who takes a gig in which they’ll be expected to make gags about the people in the audience — for a very meta hour and a half.
Why take a gig like that in the first place?
What should or shouldn’t you say at a gig when your joke targets sit mere feet away from your feet? What types of jokes should a comedian make in any setting?
If Birbiglia felt horrible about the prospects of making fun of actors and directors in independent cinema at his awards show, just imagine how daunting the task before Chris Rock at this year’s #OscarsSoWhite Academy Awards. Or any Oscars host, live in primetime, telecast around the world?
And coming off the heels of my review for Theo Von’s Netflix hour, which he titled “No Offense” after a recurring line (catchphrase, even?) of Von’s which he’d say after an offensive routine, I couldn’t help but feel that Birbiglia’s show is a very loud and proud counterpoint to that. Even if not directly addressing him, Birbiglia does invoke other comedians and their catchphrases to spotlight their shallowness. More importantly, he wants his audience to think about the very nature of joke writing and telling. At one point, Birbiglia rightly reveals: “A joke should never end with I’m joking.”
That’s only something bullies or bigots say as cover in the workplace, playground or other setting. A retroactive defense for offensive thoughts said aloud.
It’s a theme Birbiglia has explored for at least a decade, going back to his earlier bit on class clowns. “I actually wasn’t really the class clown growing up. The class clown was always the mean guy who walked up and was like, ‘You’re fat. You’re gay. I’m outta here!’ I was always more kind of awkward and introspective.”
That was then. Now Birbiglia realizes: “All jokes are offensive to someone.”
That lesson can be learned the hardest way, as illustrated by the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris last year, or in a way that’s more harmful to the audience than to the comedian. Punchlines may inflict emotional damage, trigger hurt feelings, or may revolve around topics that actually kill or have killed others. When all a comedian wants to do is “kill” or “slay” an audience into submission with convulsive laughter.
Which Birbiglia did in spectacular fashion at the show I attended, with none less than Britain’s king of offensive one-liners, Jimmy Carr, chortling early and often. Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords, and Chappelle’s Show co-creator Neal Brennan (who has the late show at the same Lynn Redgrave Theater opening this week) also sat in on Sunday’s matinee.
Thank God For Jokes explores how comedians not only use humor to tell their side of a story, but also to externalize their thoughts, or to blunt the awkwardness of a situation.
In his case, Birbigs walks us through his own follies and foibles joking about Jesus for students at a Christian college (which elicits a Woody Allen as Jesus Christ impersonation, plus a topical politics bit), and having to follow Fozzie Bear on The Muppets gala for Just For Laughs after Statler and Waldorf introduced him with their trademark backhanded heckling.
Another situation finds Birbiglia face to face with an airline passenger allergic to his sandwich. As he retells it now, chock full o’ jokes, he notes that three audience members out of the 200 in the theater may have nut allergies themselves and hate him for making such light of it.
“But jokes have to be about something,” he said.
Which is true whether you’re hosting and roasting a famous film director, or slinging zingers in a basement comedy club on a Wednesday night.
The good news for Birbiglia: His show is a hit. A revelation, even.
And not just among comedians.
Now that Birbiglia has successfully examined his younger battles with relationships and sleep disorders (Sleepwalk With Me) and learning how to love (My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend), he’s more than ready — once more directed by Seth Barrish — to dissect his own love of laughs for even the most casual fan of comedy to enjoy.
Did I put that in the right context?
Here Birbiglia attempts to tell a story from the show last night on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Just please promise not to try to interrupt Birbigs like Colbert did.