Mike Daisey spins a New Year’s Eve tale

sara krulwich/the new york times
“I think [New Year’s Eve] is the night we are all supposed to have the most fun, which is not a good environment for actually having fun. Those expectations are intense,’’ says Mike Daisey.

NEW YORK - Mike Daisey has committed to spending his New Year’s Eve in Boston, and he already regrets it.

“Which is in keeping,’’ the storyteller says, “with the traditions of New Year’s Eve: that one is always regretting what one actually decided to do, because the thing you could be doing is of course far more awesome than the thing you actually decided to do.’’

New Year’s Eve is the subject of Daisey’s show tomorrow night at the Boston University Theatre, where, to his chagrin, he has been informed that he will be performing not on a spare, stripped-down stage - design simplicity being his aesthetic preference - but on the domestic-interior set of the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “God of Carnage.’’


Titled “When the Clock Strikes,’’ Daisey’s piece will be made specifically for First Night, but it’s a little early for him to be talking about it. That’s partly because of the hour, just after 10 a.m. (the interview having been moved up so he could squeeze in a “This American Life’’ taping later in the day), and partly because he’s an extemporaneous, last-minute kind of performer and hasn’t given it much thought yet.

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“I think I agreed to it in part because I’ve had a number of sort of moderately unremarkable New Year’s Eves,’’ he says over breakfast a few blocks from his Brooklyn home, at a restaurant with elegantly worn plank floors and creamy pressed-tin ceilings. “I thought that it might be better to, like, actually do something than to not. Of course, the moment - the moment - I took this - the moment - I got invited to a bunch of really great parties.’’

Daisey, who is 38, is ending this year with a higher profile than he’s ever had. His monologue “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’’ has been a hit at New York’s Public Theater. Interweaving the tale of the Apple CEO with a narrative about how the company’s products are made in China, it opened shortly after Jobs’s death in October and ran until this month. The show, which local audiences saw in an earlier form last year at Cape Cod Theatre Project in Falmouth, will return to the Public at the end of January for another five weeks.

As Daisey warms to the subject of New Year’s, preferring to spin theories rather than eat the rustic farmer’s breakfast on the plate in front of him, a couple at a table behind him have figured out who Daisey is. Instead of talking to each other, they sit snuggled together in the corner of their wooden booth, listening to him.

“My relationship with New Year’s Eve is a lot like a lot of people’s. It’s fraught. I think it is the night we are all supposed to have the most fun, which is not a good environment for actually having fun,’’ Daisey says. “Those expectations are intense.’’


He speculates that, in this multicultural nation, the celebration of the new year serves the function the Christian Feast of the Epiphany used to serve, marking an end to weeks of celebration. “I think it also transitions from the season of the holidays to the season of deprivation, because January is usually the season when your resolutions come into effect. So millions of people begin to engage in behaviors they don’t like, to change themselves because then they’ll be better people. And they fail by, you know, mid-February,’’ he says. “So there’s something very beautiful about it, and very doomed.’’

“I think New Year’s Eve is in some ways a lot about death,’’ he continues. “At its best, I guess it’s about death and rebirth. But it’s definitely about death. Feeling like you wish you were dead is a big component in a New Year’s Eve. Because you’re suffering.’’

That, too, he suspects, is most people’s experience: either the disappointment of a lame night out in a stifling crowd or the Chekhovian despair of a night home alone with the cat.

“Maybe the people who have a really good New Year’s Eve,’’ Daisey says, “who truly enjoy New Year’s Eve, truthfully, are fundamentally unreflective people who probably would’ve had a really good time if it was just Thursday and it was, like, all-night $2 shots.’’

He has segued into talking about storytelling when the couple from the other table finally come into his view, lingering beside him on the way out of the restaurant. They wait for a pause in his speech, and finally the man asks, “Are you Mike Daisey?’’


It’s the kind of thing that’s happened more and more to Daisey lately, partly because of the Steve Jobs show - the day after Jobs died, in October, The New York Times ran an op-ed piece by Daisey headlined “Against Nostalgia’’ - and partly because he was a vocal and visible supporter of the Occupy movement this fall.

“I am,’’ Daisey tells the man pleasantly.

“Your op-ed was great,’’ the guy says. “I haven’t seen the show, but I saw the op-ed in the Times. And I’m a teacher; I gave it to my students.’’

“Oh, that’s great, man,’’ Daisey says, then tells him how he might get his students to the show, and how he can e-mail Daisey if he needs help with that.

The level of attention is new for him, but it does have its perks: the crop of New Year’s Eve invitations he had to decline, for example. The most tantalizing, it seems, is the one for the theater company Punchdrunk’s “Sleep No More’’ party.

Some of Daisey’s best New Year’s Eves have taken place with friends at Peter Luger, the famous Brooklyn steakhouse, where the sight of the dourly proper waiters in their party hats at midnight makes him laugh. One of his worst was in Portland, Ore., where he and his wife, Jean-Michele Gregory, who is also his director, couldn’t get anywhere near the evening’s main attraction, a band they hate - a sort of “terrible food, such small portions’’ complaint.

Whatever pleasures or sufferings befall Daisey after his First Night show, one difficulty is built into the 90-minute evening, which begins at 9:30.

“You know what I’m worried about? It’s a very simple problem. I’m not worried about the show being bad. I think we’ll have a good time. I’m out of the show at 11 o’clock,’’ Daisey says. “I don’t know what the [expletive] I’m gonna do. Like, it’s an hour before midnight.’’

The people in the audience, he guesses, will have made their post-show plans.

“I don’t have any [expletive] plans,’’ Daisey says. “I don’t know anyone in Boston.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at