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Birbiglia mines humor from life’s awkward moments

Brian Friedman

Mike Birbiglia owes a lot to jokes. They have given the 35-year-old Shrewsbury native two off-Broadway shows, a critically acclaimed movie, a book with a major publisher, and a place on the Carnegie Hall stage. Even more than that, he says, they help bring people together — and sometimes push them apart. That’s the gist of his new show, “Thank God for Jokes,” now on a 100-city tour that stops at the Wilbur for four shows Friday and Saturday.

“It’s a series of stories about how jokes make us feel closer to people and how jokes get us in trouble with people sometimes,” he says, speaking by phone from his apartment in New York City. “That can be problematic, but I think ultimately jokes are worth it. If a joke is calling out a truism, it must be said.”

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In his two earlier one-man shows, “Sleepwalk With Me” and “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” Birbiglia found humor in a lot of uncomfortable subjects. He detailed how he once jumped through a second-story hotel window while sleepwalking, and how he learned to let go of some deep-seated beliefs that were an obstacle to his relationship with his wife. The new show doesn’t have the same kind of obvious dramatic arc, but it takes just as much from Birbiglia’s experiences. “In some ways this show is a real return to form in that it’s just the funniest, most awkward stories that I have in my arsenal that happened to me.”

Birbiglia has evolved into a keen comic storyteller, nimbly threading his jokes together to make a more profound point, and occasionally interjecting a physical bit or two to create a scene the way an actor would. Despite his success, he frequently runs into people who don’t believe he’s a comedian. Birbiglia finds that funny, too.

“Someone said to me at a party once, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re a comedian? Then how come you’re not funny now?’ ” he says. “And I just wanted to say, ‘Well, I’m just going to take this conversation we’re having and then repeat that to strangers, and then that’s the joke. You’re the joke later.’ That’s just part of life. And in some ways it’s a really beautiful part of life. We’re the joke in someone else’s story, and we don’t even realize it.”

At one point in the interview, Birbiglia mulls over what to say about his new show, trying not to give away any of his stories. “I’m staring up at a bulletin board full of 3-by-5 notecards about jokes, of different jokes,” he says, trying to decide what he can say.

Part of what makes Birbiglia’s shows work is that he is constantly changing them. He estimates the version of “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” taped for a special last year was about 20 percent different from the show he performed off-Broadway. “That’s the best version of that show I have,” he says. “I really worked myself to the bone to the very end on that one.”

‘[My show is] a series of stories about how jokes make us feel closer to people and how jokes get us in trouble with people sometimes.’

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The board he is looking up at has 30 cards representing 30 different stories he could use in “Thank God for Jokes”; only 10 are currently in the show. He won’t perform a bit in a theater until it has a beginning, middle, and end. One of those unfinished bits is about how his own urologist didn’t recognize him as a comedian, and even put “comedian” in air quotes when describing Birbiglia to the receptionist. It’s funny, but the joke’s not done. It’s the kind of thing he’ll work out in a club between theater shows. “The way I view comedy clubs is, people are drinking, they’re ordering food, they’re out for the night, and there’s also a person onstage talking,” he says. “And with the theater, they came to the theater and they’re waiting to hear what you say. So you’d better have something to say.”

He has a loyal following now, and Birbiglia says it’s thrilling to be able to go out with all-new material that the true fans wouldn’t have heard yet. “When I started out, I really struggled as a comic because no one knew who I was, and sometimes I was telling stories, so it would take a while for people to get on board for things,” he says.

Now he has fans who know his style, and they stick with him through the peaks and valleys of a longer story. “There’s a trust of, ‘He’ll get there, this will arrive somewhere, because we know it has before,’ ” he says. “And I actually take this really seriously. One of the pressures that I put on myself is, well, if they’re trusting me to make sure it arrives somewhere, it sure as hell better arrive somewhere.”

The stories come from Birbiglia’s everyday life, which he doesn’t see as much different from anyone else’s life, and it’s why he doesn’t think he’ll ever run out of stories to tell. “How many people do you know who have thrown up on the Scrambler or a carnival ride? A lot of people, is the answer. You’re trying to [take] something that’s kind of mundane and universal, something everyone experiences and just say it in a way that’s funnier than people can think of.”

Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at nick@nickzaino.com.
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