Mike Birbiglia hits the stage at the 2014 Newport Comedy Series with his show “Thank God for Jokes” on July 17. Mike took a few minutes to speak with me about the show and his career.
TJ Curran: Do you consider yourself a comedian or a monologuist?
Mike Birbiglia: In the general sense, comedian, because I am always trying to be funny. I am not someone who is going be asked to write a dramatic play or a cop drama. But I do want there to be an overriding arc to the stories, with points of funny, funny, funny. “Thank God for Jokes,” I feel, is the funniest show I’ve done so far and from that standpoint it’s rewarding the way it has connected with audiences.
TJC: How did you get started in stand-up, and how did that morph from working comedy clubs to Off Broadway?
MB: Joe [Mike’s brother and manager] got me interested in comedy. He encouraged me to do it and took me to my first show. We went to see Stephen Wright at the Cape Cod Melody Tent and I just had an epiphany. I thought, “This is it. This is what I want to do with my life.” So I just started trying to do comedy. I won “Funniest Person on Campus” at my college and got to do a paid gig at the Improv, and then I got a job working the door there. I encourage people who are interested in doing comedy to get a job at a comedy club because you can see a lot of free comedy and what works and what doesn’t, but you can also figure out the life of a comedian, like how much money you can expect to make from different gigs, and just the logistical side of it. And then I took every gig that was offered to me. Every single one. And when you take every gig you get better, but you also work some terrible shows.
TJC: What is one of the more awkward shows you’ve done?
MB: One was at a college and they set me up in the cafeteria in the middle of the day, at lunch. I think the students thought I was part of the staff. No one knew it was a show or that I was even booked. I just stood there in the middle of the afternoon at the end of the deli line while all these kids were trying to get sandwiches and I’m telling jokes about pandas.
TJC: The word monologuist is sort of misleading.
MB: Yeah, it just sounds clinical, like a technical term. And no one really knows how to pronounce it.
TJC: Do you have a term for the genre of comedy you do?
MB: I love that my shows feel like an inside joke among friends. Most of the people at the show kinda know what they are getting into ahead of time because they have seen one of my previous shows or movies and they like it, so that is always a great feeling. It’s not what I aspired to when I started out, but it’s become the best thing I could have imagined.
TJC: Do you like performing close to your hometown? What, if anything, did growing up in Shrewsbury contribute to your work?
MB: I love coming home. My brother and sister both live in Providence, and the whole family will be at the show, which I love. And Newport is just gorgeous. Growing up in a small town where no one cared about show business allowed me to just be myself. It came about organically, the comedy, because I had a wealth of experience from just being in a small town. Massachusetts is vastly diverse. Not necessarily ethnically, though it can be, but for characters. On one side there are blue blood snobs from old money intermingling with these tough working class dudes with really pronounced Boston accents, so I was very lucky to grow up where I did, from a comedy standpoint.
TJC: What other performers do you admire? Is there anyone you’d like to emulate in the business?
MB: Bill Cosby, certainly. I think he is also more of a long-form storyteller. Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Louis CK, more recently. I am currently working on two movie scripts and a television script. I want to get to eventually do 10 scripts and call it a day. When I was younger, I had a CBS sitcom pilot not get picked up, and that was an incredibly crushing defeat, but in a way it may have been the best thing to happen to me, because it inspired me take creative control and autonomy over my work and I ended up doing an Off Broadway show.
TJC: What can the audience expect from “Thank God for Jokes”?
MB: “Thank God for Jokes” is ten longer stories filled with jokes. I went on the Ticketmaster site to check the reviews, and I know I shouldn’t do that, but I did, and so far it’s the best feedback from any of the shows I’ve done. It seems like the audience is having a great time, and that is just really rewarding for me to be able to perform it for them.
Tickets for the July 17 show are available through Ticketmaster and at the Newport Yachting Center box office.