Mike Birbiglia On Doing Comedy And Finding Beautiful Moments During A Pandemic

Like virtually every industry, stand-up comedy has been tested by the pandemic with both philosophical and logistical questions hanging over it. What place do comedians have in the midst of a tragedy? How does a business model reliant on cramming people into a tight space for a show adapt when social distancing measures seemingly make it impossible to operate? And what do comedians do if they can’t find work on a stage? It’s a crush that every working comic (and club owner and employee) has had to deal with, but I could think of no one better to speak to this transformative year in comedy (and life) than Mike Birbiglia.

Not only has Birbiglia taken to the challenge of adapting — launching a new podcast where he workshops jokes with other comics, putting on virtual shows, and writing… a LOT. But he was also an early and constant advocate for the waiters, bartenders, and other employees of the comedy clubs that have been left with few options. Together with Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood, the two launched, a portal for people to connect with the GoFundMe pages for their favorite local clubs. All told, the effort has led to about three-quarters of a million dollars going to comedy club staff, according to Birbiglia. That’s a real difference-maker, especially considering the often cold and/or sclerotic government response to everything COVID. And he hasn’t stopped, recently vowing to donate the proceeds of his New Years virtual shows to six different regional food banks.

Now, as some clubs have opened back up with COVID numbers still high, Birbiglia isn’t quite ready to go out in front of or draw a crowd. Instead, he’s choosing to double down on the evolution (technical and creative) of his Working It Out virtual show, which he’ll put on six times between the day after Christmas and New Years (with those two New Year’s Eve shows timed to help reach and ring in the new year with his international audience) over at the virtual Nowhere Comedy Club.

We spoke with Birbiglia about those virtual shows and what their technical polish (AV nerds and fans will be interested to peak behind the scenes to see an office transform into a set with four iPhones on a switcher and a whole lot of thought put into evolving virtual shows from their early COVID era “I’m in my living room, let’s do this” feel) might mean for his career in the future. We also discussed writing to fill a void, the difference between what we want and what we need, and trying to laugh about our own mortality. Because what else are we going to do about it?

You had mentioned, on the Working It Out podcast, something about how you’re not somebody who is keen on network notes and that kind of process. Doing something like these virtual Working It Out shows where you’re learning how to operate them nimbly with your team (Peter Salomone, Joe Birbiglia, Mable Lewis, cinematographer Matthew Wolf, and director Seth Barrish) and, as you said, “filming it like a TV show…” Where you’ve got a distribution model in place… does that all free you to want to do more things on your own outside of the system with specials and things like that?

Post pandemic, I’m open to seeing if we could do a monthly working it out. Just maybe not do four of them, but do like one or two and see does that still work for people. Because, we’re getting better and better at the picture, but also the sound, which is the interaction of the laughter coming through, and me responding to the laughter, and me seeing people on the screens. We have two big-screen TVs that have all of the Zoom participants on the screen. So, I can sort of look at people in their living room and be like, “Oh, you have a Christmas tree made of doilies and paper towels. Let’s talk about that.” And then, we pin that person, and then I’m having a conversation with that person. It’s like crowd work, but it’s like a… I don’t know. International in your living room crowd work. It’s really funny in a totally different way than other types of comedy.

It’s a little disconcerting, just thinking about where I’m going to sit and my background. I’ll set it up in my office. I have like a three-foot-tall Gonzo. I’ll try to make sure he’s in the shot.

Oh yeah. That’s a huge thing. People definitely try to get your attention.

So, you’re like a guard at Buckingham Palace with people trying to throw you?

Yeah, exactly. That’s what it is.

I know you’ve also mentioned on the podcast, but the show you’re working on [about facing one’s own mortality], YMCA Pool… in terms of your own relationship to death, how has that kind of changed? I guess the main question is was this the plan for the show before the pandemic, or did it kind of come out of this?

That’s a great question. No, it’s actually what I’ve been working on for about two years. I think since The New One, it’s been the show I’ve been working on at Minetta Lane and all the Working It Out shows I’ve been doing have been these sort of like ruminations on middle age, and death, and mortality, and going to the YMCA pool. And the tie-in is that as a kid I swore I would never return to the YMCA pool because I spent so much time there learning how to swim. And then literally in my 40s, I’m 42 now, it’s like I’m on doctor’s orders because of various ailments that I have. My doctor’s like, “You better be hitting the YMCA pool and swimming.” And so, I find myself just sort of ruminating on life and death. And then, of course, the pandemic has just really heightened that. It’s made it a top of mind topic for everyone because it feels so… It just feels eminent. I mean you see that many people die in a day, and you just feel… It just feels like anybody can get it at any time, which is really what the show is about. And anyone can die at any time, and the hope of the show is that it’s 90 minutes of jokes that are about death and making people laugh so as to affirm life, which is of course a very simple premise and has been done in 10,000 different ways. And, I’m hoping that mine’s different. Trying to make it different.

This is a big and maybe unfair question, but aside from what you’re doing and putting out into the world in terms of your job… in terms of your life, how else has this year kind of impacted you?

I mean, it’s like…

Or, do you need a little distance to kind of figure that out?

I think that’s what it is. The way I look at all the things is like nothing is anything until later. You don’t really know what anything is until a few years from now. I will say, like, I’m writing more, and I think the reason that I’m writing more is that I don’t have an audience to bounce stuff off of. Or I don’t have as much of an audience. I’m unable to go to The Comedy Cellar five nights a week and sort of get feedback on something I wrote that morning. And as a result, I just have more in the can. I have more… hours and hours of untested material. And, honestly, I think it’s going to be another book. Like I think… It’s definitely another show. And, it possibly… and I teased this in the Rachel Bloom episode of the podcast that we recorded already that launches in January. And, there’s another one with Jack Antonoff where we teased this a little bit. But, I’m definitely going to write another show and maybe a musical. And, all of that is sort of happening in the pandemic, or it’s been sort of, I would say, amplified during the pandemic. Just because I had much more time to write and much less time to perform.

How does that kind of impact you where you don’t necessarily have that outlet to take it to a crowd really and say, “Is this good? Is this funny?” Like, I have a problem just free writing. I need to know what it’s for, when it’s going.

Well, it’s funny, because I have a piece coming out in the New Yorker for Shouts. And, that’s just me showing it to… That’s my second piece since the beginning of the quarantine. I wrote this other one called the “Ways That I’d Be OK Dying.” And, you should read it. It’s actually really fun. It’s a fun little piece. And, it’s basically like ruminating on my own death and like the ways I wouldn’t be okay dying, and the ways I would be okay dying. So I wrote that, and then the second New Yorker piece I wrote is about essentially sending my mom pre-made meals. I never heard back from her. And like a couple of weeks went by and I was like, “Hey mom did you get those Freshly meals I sent?” And there was like this long pause from the phone. There’s a long pause, and I’m like, “Mom, it’s okay if you didn’t like the Freshly meals.” And, there’s like a long pause again and she’s like, “We didn’t like the Freshly meals.” But, it’s like this classic sort of Catholic repressed… even gifting someone pre-made meals is like you can’t even admit that you don’t like them. And it’s called “How To Say I Love You, Freshly.” I had never written a piece for the New Yorker before, and this year I wrote two. I’m sort of entering this new realm of like, “Okay, if I can’t do this, what else could I do?” And, I think that that’s… In terms of artistically, I can get good.

This productivity: does it help your mental health to create like that or is it just more work-focused. “This is just what I do, so I’m just going to do that.”

One of the things that helps my mental health is going for walks, literally getting my 10,000 steps on my Fitbit. And then, writing. I mean, those are the two things that sort of create my situation of mental health. And then, the other one is performing. And since I can’t perform it created this sort of new calibration of “what is the thing that sort of fosters my mental health?” But, I mean the other thing is, I’ve gotten a lot closer to my daughter in the pandemic. I mean, what’s funny is in a lot of ways… Obviously, it’s hard on kids because they can’t have friends as much in the traditional way that they had friends. But, they also get to hang out with their parents a lot and five-year-olds love their parents.

Yeah, it’d be bad if she was like 15.

Yeah, 15 is like, “fuck my life. I’m 15 and have to hang out with my parents all the time. Like the biggest losers on the planet.” But, when you’re five you think they’re cool. And so, we have dance contests, the one-minute dance contest in the living room. We play soccer. You know we invent games like froccer, which is a cross between Frisbee and soccer. And, it’s just a lot of silliness and a lot of goofing around. Life is beautiful, which is essentially distracting from the horror that is what’s going on in the world right now, which is mass amounts of death and illness.

How do you find a balance between when you need to feel outraged and engaged with the news, and when you need to just kind of unplug? I feel like some people have trouble with it. I’ve seen people who seem to imply that they always need to keep focus on this and not let go. But, it’s like, how do you live without kind of doing exactly what you’re saying, like playing with your daughter, just getting that bit of energy and help?

Yeah, I think that’s a good question. I think that the answer is we don’t drive havoc. I don’t know what the balance is. I think I’m… What are we nine months in? And, I’m just starting to get a little better at finding that. And I’m still not there yet. I don’t know. I definitely think it’s forced us all to sort of face an internal question, like an internal essential question, which is like, “What do we need versus what do we want?” And, I think like, what do we want in some ways is so external. It’s like. “Well, I want to go to a Broadway show. I want to go to a comedy show. I want to go to France.” But, “what do we need” is a little bit more… like we need food. We need love. We need… You know what I mean? The pandemic is in some ways this really ominous metaphor for what we want versus what we need. Because, in the pandemic, we’re all just trying to get what we need.

Tickets are still available for some of Mike Birbiglia’s ‘Working It Out’ virtual shows and you can listen to the podcast here.