In his most recent one-man show, Mike Birbiglia joked that his family wasn’t terribly religious about observing Christmas: They were mostly focused on food. That’s a jumping-off point for the Shrewsbury native’s string of 10 shows at the Wilbur Theatre Dec. 15-23. Though his tour will be called “Please Stop the Ride” once he leaves Boston, his Wilbur shows are officially titled “Christmas Parmesan” and will include some bonus holiday material.
“I wanted to do my new hour over Christmas because I wanted to go visit my family,” he says. “And then I was like, ‘What if I just called it “Christmas Parmesan”?’ Cut to four months later and I’m like, ‘Oh, I think the tour is going to be called “Please Stop the Ride.”’ Those [Boston] shows are still called that. I’ll probably do 10 minutes of Christmas jokes, but … I’m not doing ‘A Christmas Carol.’ ”
The growing Birbiglia family gets together for the holidays, notes Mike’s brother and writing partner, Joe Birbiglia, and usually they attend Mike’s shows together. Which sometimes means preparing their parents for what they might hear.
“My brother’s the over-sharer, and they’re under-sharers,” says Joe. “So there’s a real fun dynamic where I’m approached by my father [who asks], ‘Why would you let him say that? Why would he say that?’ And I’m just like, ‘You know, he’s a 45-year-old man. You can ask him.’ ”
Birbiglia’s fifth one-person show, and his second on Broadway, “The Old Man and the Pool,” was officially retired as a stage production in October. It will premiere on Netflix on Nov. 21. In his shows, Birbiglia has covered intensely personal topics, including marriage and fatherhood. “Pool” continues to find Birbiglia looking inward, this time examining mortality, including his own.
Birbiglia says his biggest fear in writing “a comedy show about death and about losing people who we love and how painful that is,” was that it would be hard to watch. But touring with the show, he’s learned his audience often found it a relief. “The people who come up to me are the people who are grieving, saying, ‘This is the first time I’ve laughed since my husband died or my best friend died.’ ”
There hasn’t been much time for Birbiglia to rest in 2023. He’s been working on his podcast, “Working It Out,” and writing his next movie. Since January, he’s been putting together the material that makes up the bulk of what he’ll do at the Wilbur. “I’m always looking for what is the funniest hour I can put out,” he says. “I think that even if you’re a comedian who tells stories or creates shows that have an arc, I think your goal has to be [to] make people laugh really hard, be happier when they leave than when they walked in.”
Like any other comedian, he has a notebook, and he is constantly filling it with ideas. But it might take as long as a year for him to figure out why something is funny, and then start stitching the connections into something resembling a dramatic or comedic arc. It’s best, he says, to stumble on a theme than to try to impose one on a group of stories.
Luckily for Birbiglia, he seems to have found the thread. “I’ve been looking at the world through my daughter’s 8-year-old eyes, and it’s flashed me back to my 8-year-old self,” he says. That has led to some discoveries onstage. “When I was 8, I assumed that grown-ups knew everything, or at least knew some things. And now that I’m a 45-year-old dad, I’m like, I don’t know a lot of things. I might know nothing. And how kind of unnerving that is. So I sort of comedically deconstruct that.”
As with the notes in his journal, sometimes Birbiglia can only see the shape of events from a certain distance. “It takes a few years to understand what is funny about your present life,” he says. “I feel like in a certain way, I’m starting to take apart the last five years of my life. And to do that I need to take apart all 45 years of my life, you know what I mean? And I feel like that’s my process.”
And though his shows have been hits for years, Birbiglia knows that the idea of success is relative. When he debuted his first one-man show, “Sleepwalk With Me,” in 2008, he was thrilled. He had a hit off-Broadway show and heavyweights like Nathan Lane in his corner. “I remember one time I was walking out of the Bleecker Street Theater and my face is on the side of the building, like huge signage, rave reviews from the Times, the Wall Street Journal, all this stuff,” he says. “And this woman comes up to me and she goes, ‘I love the show.’ She goes, ‘I hope you make it.’ ”
Birbiglia feels like he has made it. He knows tastes can change, but he feels like he has forged a bond with his audience, and they know he won’t hold back. “You’re always lucky when people show up, and in exchange for that I always do my best,” he says. “I feel like [my fans] know when I show up that I’m going to bring the funniest show I can possibly bring. Because anyone who’s seen me at the Wilbur or the [Comedy] Connection or the [Comedy] Studio knows that I just leave it on the floor.”
MIKE BIRBIGLIA: CHRISTMAS PARMESAN
At the Wilbur, 246 Tremont St. Dec. 15-23. $39-$79. thewilbur.com/artist/mike-birbiglia
Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.