Mike Birbiglia has mastered the art of telling a story. Whether it's recapping the time he told religious jokes at a Christian college or explaining about that one time he accidentally swore in front of The Muppets, Birbiglia's stand-up comedy showcases his ability to crush an anecdote.
One particularly popular story — about sleep-diving out a closed second floor window — led to a one-man show, a comedic memoir, and eventually Birbiglia's directorial debut, "Sleepwalk With Me." His second film, last summer's "Don't Think Twice," also featured an intimate look at a topic Birbiglia is familiar with: improv comedy.
Birbiglia will perform in Rochester at Comedy @ the Carlson on Friday, July 14, and Saturday, July 15, as part of his Working It Out tour, and he'll be back this fall at the University of Rochester on October 14.
CITY sent a few questions to Birbiglia about his connection to Rochester, his current tour, and why a partnership with Fozzie Bear is unlikely.
CITY: You recently tweeted "In 2 weeks I'm performing in Rochester, NY where everyone in America has at least one cousin." So I have to ask, you have a bunch of relatives here, right?
Mike Birbiglia: Growing up, my family would drive from Massachusetts to Rochester with some regularity because my cousin Carolyn and my Aunt Lucy lived there. So I spent a lot of time in Rochester in places that I don't remember that well. That said, I'm not alone. We all have relatives in Rochester, even if we don't have relatives in Rochester.
The shows at The Carlson are among your last shows in The Working It Out tour. You described the tour as "raw, semi-improvised, unfinished." So how has the tour evolved over the months?
These shows are definitely some of the coolest shows I'll have on the whole tour because the rooms themselves are very intimate, 200 to 250 people. And a lot of nights I'm experimenting with a new order, or a new story that I might never tell again, or a new joke I might never tell again. So there's an energy to the shows that is completely unique to the whole process. This specific show in Rochester will definitely be the most polished of the Working It Out shows by virtue of it being the final week of the tour.
Can you give us a quick preview of what to expect during your Rochester shows?
I try to tell people nothing about my shows, the same way that when I like a filmmaker or comedian, I don't want to know anything about their movie or their special. I just want to know from a reliable source that it's good and that it's worth my time. And so I apologize that your only source is me and that I'm possibly an unreliable source. That being said, if you like "Sleepwalk With Me," and you like "Don't Think Twice," and you like "Thank God For Jokes," I guarantee you'll like the show.
With your stand-up, your book, films — along with your work on The Moth and This American Life, in mind — you're clearly a skilled storyteller. Do you feel telling humorous, non-fiction stories is an underrated part of comedy (as opposed to strictly telling jokes)?
I think that a lot of my favorite comedians tell stories, Tig Notaro, Doug Stanhope. There's something about stories that keep me focused and engaged for a full hour. Sometimes I'll watch a comedian on TV and I'll love five minutes of their show, but then I see their whole show and it's a little bit repetitive, whereas there are certain comedians who don't really translate on TV and have an amazing hour-long show.
Along those lines, have you noticed more platforms for people to tell their stories? For example, here in Rochester, we have a monthly series called First Person Singular where people simply go up and tell a true story to a room of strangers for 5 to 10 minutes. Have you seen similar ways or platforms for people to be able to tell their story?
Last summer, I went on tour with "Don't Think Twice" and I visited 20 to 30 different improv theaters across the country. There's definitely an explosion of improv theaters, storytelling shows, open mics, and stand-up platforms where all types of people are telling their stories. That can be a good thing and a bad thing. If you go on a good night, it's a great thing.
How great is it to be able to work and collaborate with your brother? [Joe Birbiglia has collaborated with Mike on multiple projects, including "Sleepwalk With Me" and "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend"]
It's good. Joe introduced me to comedy when I was in 8th grade and he was a senior in high school. He was writing satire issues of his school newspaper, and I was sort of a fly on the wall when he was writing these comedy pieces. That really gave me the bug for comedy when I was really young. He took me to see Steven Wright when I was about 16 at the Cape Cod Melody Tent, and at that point I was convinced that I had to be a comedian. To be able to work with him after all these years of being comedy fans together has been a really lucky turn in my life.
Is there a future tour with you and Fozzie Bear in the works?
I don't think so. I will say there was a funny thing that happened during "Thank God for Jokes" Off-Broadway where I was doing Fozzie Bear and Animal in the show as part of a story. One night in the front row was Frank Oz, who is Fozzie Bear and Animal. It was a very surreal experience because I instantly felt self-conscious and I wanted to honor these brilliant characters and do them justice, but he was a very supportive audience member and he seemed to like it. After the show he came back and I talked to him and I asked him how to do the voice of Animal and he goes, "The key things to know about Animal are that he loves drums and sex and he eats glass." So if anyone is trying to do an Animal impression, just know that he eats glass.