After you’ve had a bladder tumor at age 19, been hit by a drunken driver and fallen from a second-story window as the result of a severe, life-threatening sleepwalking disorder, you can either see your life as supremely tragic or seriously funny. Mike Birbiglia chooses the latter.
The comedian has enjoyed some high-profile roles in the past year — you may remember him as Amy Schumer’s boring brother-in-law in “Trainwreck,” and the lame boss in last season’s “Orange Is the New Black” — and now he’s headlining Off-Broadway in “Thank God for Jokes,” a stand-up-comedy-meets-one-man-show-ish kind of performance that’s hard to categorize. And very funny. Also not.
Birbiglia, 37, a Massachusetts native who now lives in Brooklyn with his wife and infant daughter, lampoons yoga, urology, Catholics, Muppets and more in his third Off-Broadway gig (his first two shows got raves). “Don’t Think Twice,” a new film about an improv troupe he wrote, directed and stars in, will premiere in March at the South by Southwest Film Festival.
It’s hard to know how to describe your show — it’s not just jokes, there’s a dramatic arc to it, and some serious bits. I was reminded of Robin Williams.
Thank you. He’s one of my heroes. We did a Wounded Warriors benefit and a few months later — maybe six months before he died — he showed up to see me at a show in Nashville. They tried to wave him through. He said, “No no, I’ll pay,” and he came back after the show, and we talked about a half-hour. He said, “I gotta get my fix, boss, my comedy fix.” He really had this addiction to comedy, to seeing it performed. He was one of the greats, but he was also such a great supporter of other comedians.
Were you the class clown growing up?
No. The class clown was always the mean guy — “you’re fat, you’re gay.” I was always a little fat and a little gay. [He laughs.] I was always the kid being picked on by the class clown. Now, I always thought I was funny but that no one got it. [He laughs again.] I was convinced I was misunderstood. Then in high school my brother took me to see Steven Wright perform. It changed my life 180 degrees. He made me laugh so hard and I was like, that’s exactly the stuff I wanna talk about. I went home and started writing in my notebook these Steven Wright rip-off jokes. I got onstage when I was 18 or 19 and won a comedy contest where I went to college, at Georgetown. I started out trying to be Steven Wright and . . . about seven years later figured out how to be Mike Birbiglia. Which is always the hard thing. Jerry Seinfeld said that in an interview once — it takes about seven years to figure out who you are onstage, and to be comfortable with that.
So you were on schedule.
They said that about [Richard] Pryor — he said it himself in his books, even — that he started out doing [Bill] Cosby for the first five years of his career. Then he figured out how to be Richard Pryor.
Um . . . I’m afraid I may insult you here.
But you played bland, boring losers in “Trainwreck,” and — though this is a huge generalization — in “Orange.” Does it do anything to your self-esteem when casting agents say, “Wait, we need a boring guy? Call Birbiglia.”
I have to admit, when I was shooting “Trainwreck,” I was pretty typecast — I’m playing this boring loser. And I’m not that far from that. Amy [Schumer], in character, quote unquote, would make fun of me all day. She’d say “You’re boring” in 97 different ways, because she’s such a great improviser. In the movie she says, “Is that sweater from ‘To Catch a Predator?’ ” There were so many lines that were so mean and she said even more that got cut. And I came home to my wife and was like, “Umm . . . am I a loser? Is this something people aren’t telling me? Because I’m pretty much playing a variation on myself.” Actually, one of the reasons I’m a comedian is because of my mom — she’s Irish, a storyteller and has a way of being self-deprecating about herself. My wife and I just had a daughter, Oona — she’s 9 months old — and if there’s one thing I can teach her, it’s to have a sense of humor about herself. Life is so full of mistakes and failings . . . if you’re not able to laugh at yourself it puts you in a really tough spot. So I’m most appreciative of my mom for teaching me that.