Mike Birbiglia’s got a new tale to tell
In 2014, the comedian Aziz Ansari earned a seat dedicated in his name at the Wilbur Theatre when he performed 10 sold-out shows there. In 2015, Canton’s Bill Burr eclipsed that “record” by headlining 19 shows at the theater.
This week Mike Birbiglia, who grew up less than an hour’s drive from Burr’s hometown, in Shrewsbury, has his own homecoming of sorts as he returns to Boston for six shows at the Wilbur beginning Wednesday. Known for his mild-mannered, self-effacing, slightly befuddled brand of humor, he doesn’t seem like the kind of needy, Type A performer who would be competitive about the relative size of his booking calendar.
“Wow,” Birbiglia says with a laugh, on the phone from New York City, where he lives with his wife and young daughter. “You have to see ‘Don’t Think Twice’ if you think I’m not competitive.”
Fair enough. That movie, his second as a director (after his breakthrough, 2012’s “Sleepwalk With Me”), tells the story of an improv comedy troupe, run by Birbiglia’s character, Miles. The group gets torn apart by envy when one member, played by Keegan-Michael Key, scores a plum gig with a “Saturday Night Live”-style series.
“Actually, I feel really lucky to do that many shows,” Birbiglia says, acknowledging that Miles was, however thinly veiled, a fictional creation. “I’d be thrilled to do two or three.”
His real career in comedy has been on a steady upward climb since the success of “Sleepwalk With Me,” a true-to-life shaggy dog story about his own anxiety and sleep disorder. The concept evolved from a one-man, off-Broadway show into a best-selling book, and then the feature film.
A regular contributor on “This American Life,” Birbiglia has also landed roles on “Girls” and “Orange Is the New Black” and in movies including “The Fault in Our Stars.” But he’s best known for his particular mode of live performance — a thematic approach, often centered on an embarrassing autobiographical anecdote, that blurs the line between standup and theatrical monologue.
The other-ness of what it is exactly that he does suddenly reminds Birbiglia of the time, while still an unknown, he hounded Jim Gaffigan into agreeing to go to lunch with him. Bear with him a minute.
It was the late 1990s. Birbiglia, recently graduated from Georgetown University, had just moved to New York to try his hand at comedy. He was hoping Gaffigan, a fellow Georgetown alum, could offer him some advice.
All right, Gaffigan said. Number one, don’t move to New York until you’re good. (Too late!) And number two, change your last name.
It was a tough call, Birbiglia recalls: “Do I change my name to something people can actually pronounce, or do I double down?” Could he count on one day becoming “so good that it forced people to say this name? And once they say it, they’ll never forget it, because it’s such a mouthful?”
“I feel like my shows are like that,” he continues. (Try to keep up, people.) “They don’t fit into a genre that is easy to describe, but once you see the show, you’ll come back to the next one.”
Which brings us to his latest, which is called, literally, “The New One.” Birbiglia says that’s kind of a joke in itself.
“I’m going out of my way to not tell people what it’s about,” he explains. “I had this revelation this year about how the pieces of art and performance I love most are the ones that have the best design, have the most heart, and I know nothing about them in advance.” As examples, he cites “The Big Sick” and “Get Out,” two movies he implored friends to go into cold, without reading any advance notice.
“That’s what I’m trying to do for my audience right now, is give them the most heightened experience of this story I’m going to tell.”
Touring a new show offers him an ongoing opportunity to fine-tune it, he says, often endlessly.
“I find that I’m completely obsessed with never letting go of a show,” Birbiglia says. For the set that became his most recent Netflix special, “Thank God for Jokes,” he played 112 cities across the country, he says, “which is more cities than there are. Some of them are just an Applebee’s with a dream.”
Reaching the point where he’ll record a show for posterity, he says, is like the moment when the teacher says “pencils down.”
“I always need extra time on my SAT,” he says, laughing.
As big-name comedians, from Dave Chappelle to Jerry Seinfeld, return to standup after extended hiatus, Birbiglia says it’s hard for him to imagine a scenario in which he might take a break from the stage at all.
“Anything is possible,” he says, “but I didn’t start doing standup to get to something else. So there’s not much people can offer me that could get me away from doing it.
“Y’know, I’m not dying to be in ‘The Ridiculous 6.’ Nor does that play to my skill set.”
He is, however, working on two new film scripts. One is well underway; the other is based on an idea that just recently occurred to him.
“I’m outlining it right now,” he says. “They’re going to have to duke it out with each other.”
Whether movies or live shows, he’ll keep doing his shaggy thing “as long as people let me do it,” he says. “I feel lucky that people do.
“It’s like I have an unspoken contract with my fans. I’ll do my best if you show up. I’m doing my best, and they’re showing up. It’s a good situation.”
Performing “The New One,” Oct 4-8, at the Wilbur Theatre. Tickets $35, www.thewilbur.com