Mike Birbiglia has found a number of unique and interconnected lanes within the expansive comedy ecosystem to grow his career. It’s a reflection of his multi-hyphenated pursuits which include comedy, storytelling, writing, acting, directing, podcasting and producing for such disparate mediums as comedy clubs and theaters, NPR’s “The Moth” and “This American Life,” Netflix, Broadway and West End venues and even Taylor Swift songs (see her “Anti-Hero” video). Blame Stephen Wright, his first comedic inspiration, or “The Moth,” which allowed him to tell his hilarious sad-sack story of meeting his girlfriend’s boyfriend’s parents. Here we find out more about Birbiglia, his career and his upcoming fifth Netflix special, “The Old Man & The Pool.”
Pollstar: What was the first comedian that got you excited about comedy?
Mike Birbiglia: My brother Joe took me to see Stephen Wright at the Cape Cod Melody Tent when I was a junior in high school. It was one of those seminal life experiences where you have an epiphany of, “Oh, I think this is gonna change the trajectory of my entire life.” His jokes were so economical and brilliant, far-out and surreal, but also relatable in a way that made me feel like those are the kinds of thoughts I have. Which, of course, is the magic trick of stand-up comedy, that a comedian makes it feel like they have captured in words a thing that you have been thinking all along. That was the moment that made me think this is what I gotta do.
Who are your mentors?
Two years after seeing Stephen Wright, I entered a comedy contest at Georgetown University and won. One of the prizes was to perform at the D.C. Improv. After that, I asked if I could perform again and they said, “No. There aren’t really slots, but you can work the door, watch the shows for free, and occasionally open for the comedians.” Incredible comedians would come through the club like Jim Gaffigan, Mitch Hedberg, Margaret Cho, Kathleen Madigan, Dave Chappelle, George Lopez, Brian Regan, Jake Johannsen, just on and on. It was sort of comedy college for me for free.
When I got to New York I worked with my director, Seth Barrish, who taught me a lot about storytelling and solo plays. Ira Glass from “This American Life” was a mentor for “Story” and Nathan Lane was a mentor and presented my first solo show, “Sleepwalk With Me,” off-Broadway, which changed the trajectory of my whole career. I appreciate all these folks so much.
What was the first performance you did that made you want to do stand-up/storytelling?
I did stand up at the DC Improv for a while then moved to New York. At a certain point, “The Moth” storytelling series asked me to tell a story. I told the story that ended up being the title of my 2013 special, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.” It was this really embarrassing story about how my first girlfriend in high school told me not to tell anyone she was my girlfriend because she had another boyfriend and they were going to break up soon. I sort of went along with this and then she invited me to meet her parents. I thought that would be the turning point in our relationship. I went and met her parents, and then saw this other guy and realized it was her other boyfriend. Then he suggested we go to his house, and I met my girlfriend’s boyfriend’s parents for the first time. That was the story I told for “The Moth.” I was so nervous to tell a story so vulnerable and embarrassing, but it changed the course of my performance career because I went from telling jokes to telling long-form stories.
With “The Old Man & The Pool” out on Netflix on Nov. 21, can you talk about how the show went from routine to Broadway to Netflix special?
I start out with a whole bunch of stories and jokes I think are worthy of the stage. Some are worthy, and some are not, and the audience usually tells me which are. I’ll then workshop the jokes and stories in comedy clubs and small rooms and over time I start to see recurring themes.
I started “The Old Man & The Pool” in clubs and then theaters and then regional theaters like Steppenwolf and Berkeley Repertory Theatre where it did three- or four-week runs. Finally, we staged it properly with a set and lighting design at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Producers came on board to bring it to Broadway and the West End. Then we filmed it on Broadway at Lincoln Center and that’s the version that’s gonna be on Netflix.
As a comedian, actor, author, director, podcaster, radio contributor, how do these creative outlets and platforms reinforce each other? Is it ever the same twice?
The constant with all of these is that you have to be learning. When I’m an actor, I always try to work with directors who I learn from. That’s why I’ve worked with Marc Forster, Taylor Swift, Judd Apatow and all these brilliant people I’ve learned so much just watching them work. In the pandemic, when we couldn’t perform to groups, I developed a podcast “Working It Out” and learned so much about sound, audio recording and production, which ultimately will serve me when I direct my next movie because I’ll understand sound in a different way.
You’ve had five Netflix comedy specials – what’s it like in that transition from producing a comedy special and it streaming to setting up your next project?
In this case, the show ended on Broadway and I had nine months between Broadway and the West End. In those nine months, I went to comedy clubs where I feel oddly comfortable performing. I know them backward and forwards. I know the kitchen, the entryways, what the audiences are like on Tuesdays and what they’re like on Saturdays.
Now that the special’s coming out, I’m returning to theaters with a new hour of comedy I’ve created, which is currently called “Please Stop the Ride.” Which is about a carnival ride that I threw up on when I was in seventh grade called The Scrambler. I knew I was going to throw up and kept saying, “Please stop the ride” to the ride operator, but he never heard me. So that’s what I’m going on tour with from December until it’s done. Maybe we’ll take it to Broadway. Maybe we’ll take it somewhere else.
You have tour dates from late November through June, which includes eight nights at The Wilbur in Boston. How do you approach doing that?
Believe it or not, we just added two more. There are going to be 10 shows in Boston, which is my hometown. My approach is to attempt to focus on my voice, my body, and my writing in the day. I try not to get in the weeds with stuff having to do with show business, logistics, travel, or anything like that. My favorite version of performing is when I’m performing in one place for a period of time, so I’m really excited about those Boston shows.
How do you use social media?
I always think of social media as a performing arts dating app in the sense that people who go on social media are going on to find out more about the kinds of things they like. As a performer, you are putting your stuff on social media so you can find people who like what you do. At its best, social media accomplishes that, and at its worst, it’s kind of a dizzying mishmash of people shouting at each other. What our company is trying to do is have social media be the better angel of itself for us and the shows we’re trying to let people know about.
Who are the key people on your team and how do they help you?
The person who I started with in touring 20 years ago was Mike Berkowitz (see page 24) who is now at WME and has been a major influence and inspiration for my touring career. He’s always had a very creative approach to art and touring because he’s from a music background. He’s a musician and always has an artist’s mind towards business. He’s a great businessperson. He’s very ambitious about making things happen that are seemingly unlikely or impossible. That’s been a huge part of my business.
As well, John Buzzetti is my agent at WME who works on the theatrical side and has enabled me to make the transition from off-Broadway to Broadway. He’s extraordinarily creative and beloved and gotten behind the two shows I brought to Broadway in a way that’s been a dream come true.
The other huge part of my business is my brother Joe, who runs my production company. He’s been collaborating on writing and business with me for 20 years. He comes from an advertising background and the creative side of business. He’s been an excellent art director and writing collaborator, but also he’s good at figuring out budgets and out how to make these fantastical visions come to life.
The team for my podcasts and tours is Mabel Lewis, Gary Simons and Peter Salomone. Everyone on our team is super smart and funny and creates a culture of “What’s the funniest idea?” “What’s the most creative idea?” I was an improviser in college, and it was very formative in how I look at everything. We look at our company as a five-person improv troupe where we’re trying to support each other and, “yes, and” each other’s ideas.
What can we look forward to from you in 2024?
There are a lot of surprises and things that I don’t like to say partly because they’re experiments. I don’t want to have to answer questions about some experiment that didn’t work. Even with “The Old Man & The Pool,” I never told people about all the various iterations of the set design we experimented with to arrive at what Beowulf Boritt Design did, which was brilliant. If you know the special, he created this set design that is one part a wave in the ocean, one part graph paper, one part a swimming pool. It’s almost like a sculpture. That was something that Seth and Beowulf and I talked about for months. He ended up delivering something beyond any of our wildest dreams. With the next show we’ll try go even further in that direction. This is to say that I’m always trying to get better, try more things, and think about the audience because ultimately, it’s not about me, it’s about the audience.