7 Questions with Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia is a New York comedian, actor and filmmaker who was born in Shrewsbury, Mass. His feature-length directorial debut, Sleepwalk With Me, based on his one-man show, won awards at the Sundance and Nantucket film festivals. He also wrote, directed and starred in the critically acclaimed comedy-drama Don’t Think Twice. He will be performing his new show, appropriately titled The New One, at Trinity Repertory Theatre in Providence, May 31 – June 3.

TJ Curran (Motif): How is The New One different from Thank God for Jokes or My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend?  Is there an overarching theme to the show?

Mike Birbiglia: I try not to tell people what the show is about, because I realized recently that I don’t like knowing anything about what I’m about to see. My favorite movies last year were Lady Bird, The Big Sick, Get Out, and The Florida Project, and the greatest gift I can give to people is telling them to go see those movies, don’t watch a trailer, do not read a review, just go see them. I feel that way about theater, movies and this show. I will say that if you like Sleepwalk With Me, My Girlfriends Boyfriend, and Thank God for Jokes, then you’ll like the new one. If you don’t like those, then I don’t think it’s for you.

TJC: What made you decide to book Trinity Rep as a venue? How do you expect that will be different from a more traditional venue, or even a more “comic-centric” venue like the Cellar?

MB: I’ve done this show at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California and the La Jolla Playhouse outside of San Diego and I’m doing the show off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theater in mid-July for five weeks. Those are all similar venues to Trinity Rep, and that’s what I prefer. I prefer theatrical venues that are intimate. I’ve heard about Trinity Rep for years. I’m friendly with Oskar Eustis who use to be Trinity Rep’s artistic director. Our set designer, Beowulf Boritt, used to design for Trinity Rep. It has a spectacular reputation. Plus, my brother, Joe, who runs my production company and collaborates with me on writing, lives in Providence with his family, and my sister, Gina, lives in Providence with her family as well, so its a place I like to spend time.

TJC: Congratulations on Don’t Think Twice.  It was a great film.  Do you think within the current system of superhero movies and reboots of old ideas that there will be bigger and bigger audiences looking for films like yours or Ladybird or Get Out?

MB: It’s a good question. I think nobody knows the answer to that. I certainly hope so. I feel like in the ’70s there were film studios that were taking a shot on movies that were for grownups. That’s when Annie Hall, China Town and a lot of the Altman films got greenlit, and I don’t feel like studios are doing that currently, but then you have companies like A24, The Orchard and The Film Arcade who did Don’t Think Twice that are willing to take chances on small movies like those.

TJC: I was watching Chaplin again this weekend, and it struck me that he was the very definition of an auteur, even writing some of the music for his films. But he also owned the studio. How difficult is it to be an auteur? Are you able to exercise the creative control you’d like? Do you have any more movies in the works?

MB: I’m writing my third movie right now. I’ve been lucky enough to have creative control over Sleepwalk with Me and Don’t Think Twice. Part of that has to do with a willingness to do things for a lower budget. Based on what I’ve observed in Hollywood, the higher your budget goes the more cooks there are in the kitchen and the more the director needs to be on the hook for the movie to make more money. Which is why something like Lady Bird, Get Out, or Don’t Think Twice, I think, are smart business decisions as movies because they don’t have to make that much money to earn their money back. In some ways, it’s easier to be an auteur currently cause the cost of camera equipment and the cost of production and editing is exponentially less than when Chaplin was making films.

TJC: You’ve created quite an enviable career, being able to move from comedy tours to TV, to movies pretty adroitly. Who is the person you have not worked with, with whom you are dying to collaborate in some way?

MB: I feel like there are a few filmmakers that I’m fascinated by. Pete Doctor at Pixar, I think, is making some really groundbreaking movies like Up and Inside Out. I’m obviously a fan of filmmakers like the Coen Brothers, Nicole Holofcener and Noah Baumbach. Those are people whose movies I look forward to most. I always want to learn, so I always want to work with people I’ll learn from.

TJC: Michelle Wolf caught a lot of heat at the White House correspondence dinner, exclusively from people with no sense of humor. Would you ever want to do that gig? Do you find it difficult to navigate being an artist in a climate where folks try to politicize everything?

MB: I don’t think that interests me. They asked me a few years ago to do the congressional dinner and I passed because I feel like all of the talk shows do a really good job of writing political humor. Kimmel’s show, Seth Meyers, John Oliver and the others have staffs of, like, 10-plus writers and they’re great. I don’t think I can compete with that, and I don’t really want to. I also feel like what I’m doing, which is telling personal stories about my life, is rarer than you’d think in comedy. So I like sort of being in my own space.

TJC: You play a very unusual character on the Showtime show “Billions.” How much input did you have into that character’s story line? Of the viral hits you’ve been a part of (“Girls,” “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Broad City” or “Billions”), which was the most fun for you?  Which was the most rewarding as an actor?

MB: Those were all special, cool experiences. I think “Girls” was the first time someone put me on a TV show, so that was thrilling. Lena was directing the episode herself, and so she let me and her riff, since were friends, so that was pretty cool.

For “Broad City,” it was an example of being on a set of a show that I’m a huge fan of, so as a director it was fascinating to see how Abby and Ilana create that show, which is so fast and with so much energy and vigor.

Billions is probably the most highly functioning set I’ve ever been on because the show has two major plot lines that are shot concurrently, the Giamatti plot line and the Damian Lewis plot line, so it’s just this huge machine that I’ve never seen anything like. The directors that Brian and David hire are excellent. And then Asia Kate Dillon is an excellent performer, so it’s been pretty thrilling to share the screen with someone like that.

Mike Birbiglia performs at Trinity Rep from May 31 – June 3. For tickets, go to birbigs.com/tourdates

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