Mike Birbiglia On His New Netflix Special And His Evolution As A Storyteller

There are the people that make it all look so easy. The say the right thing people who are hardwired with the right instincts. And then there’s the rest of us. Mike Birbiglia lines up in the second column. He’s in progress. He’s figuring it out, showing his work on stage and on-screen with an uncommon willingness to laugh at and discuss his missteps and insecurities. And in his new Netflix special, The New One (which is now available to stream), Birbiglia proves his relatability once more, detailing the complex emotions that bubbled up when he found out that his wife, poet Jen Stein, was pregnant and his bumpy transition into fatherhood and sharing the spotlight at home once their daughter, Oona, was born.

While Birbiglia lives this truth on stage in pursuit of a catharsis for himself and others who need a second to catch their breath when they become a parent, however, it’s more a snapshot of who he was at a specific time in his life and not necessarily who he is now. Uproxx spoke with Birbiglia about that, the thrill of debuting The New One on Broadway, comedy labels, and the drive that comes from almost dying in a wide-ranging conversation that gives insight into the heart of this latest special and one of comedy’s most impactful storytellers.

What did it mean to you when you heard that you were going to take this to Broadway?

It’s funny, we had talked about moving the other shows to Broadway. I’ve done four shows Off-Broadway now, including this one. And we had talked originally about maybe Sleepwalk With Me maybe being on Broadway. We talked about My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend being on Broadway. And then this one just seemed to have the sort of natural flow there. And I think part of it is that my audience, which is roughly my age, has grown up and had children, you know what I mean? [Laughs] And those are the people who go to Broadway. So it’s this funny thing where like… When I was in my twenties and thirties, it was less of a Broadway crowd that would come to my shows. And so, this is sort of a natural jumping-off point.

In terms of what it meant to me, it’s so hard to explain, because I feel like the thing that was most meaningful was just sort of being part of a community of artists who I really admire. And so, what was memorable for me is that Steve Martin came to the show. I’ve seen his shows on Broadway. And Rachel Chavkin came to the show, who won the Tony for directing Hadestown, which I also went to see. And Heidi Schreck came, who wrote What the Constitution Means to Me. Nathan Lane came, who’s obviously one of the Broadway greats. For me, it doesn’t have to do with the brick and mortar. This theater or that theater. I mean the Cort Theater is a great house, but a lot of it is just being part of this culture, and being part of the culture of people who just see everything on Broadway. A whole group of people who never would have encountered me sort of said, “Oh, this is one of the critic’s picks, I’ll go see that,” you know? And, that’s cool. You know, that’s the part that’s really fun for me.

As you kind of merge into that community and obviously take this next step, this evolution onto Broadway, is there a blurring of the line between comedian and whatever this would be called? Do you still feel like a standup comedian?

I mean, I do.

It’s an interesting conversation that came up with the success of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette.

Of course, yeah.

I wonder what you think about that.

Well, it’s funny, because Hannah’s show was one of my favorite shows in years. I saw that before it was a Netflix special. It was at the, I think the SoHo Theater in New York City. I liked it so much that I tweeted about it and then I bought 10 tickets for young comedians who I thought should be doing more storytelling and more solo show work. One of those people was Jacqueline Novak. I was producing a show called The Whole Story at Union Hall, where it was like Josh Rabinowitz and Kevin Barnett and Sam Jay and a few other people, Jacqueline Novak and Chris Laker. I don’t want to leave anyone out. It was just an evening of storytellers. I actually sent them all to Hannah Gadsby’s show because I feel that those are the kinds of shows that I really am drawn to and I feel like the reason I’m drawn to them is I like shows that are willing to be dark and to be funny and to be sad and to be joyous… all of the emotions wrapped up into one. Like when I go to the theater, I want the whole experience, the whole range of emotions.

When people ask me am I a comedian? It’s like, “Well yeah! I mean sure.” That’s how I started. I worked the door at a comedy club and I worked clubs and theaters for years and I love jokes and I love making comedy specials. But I also have this really extreme interest in telling stories that are complex.

Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

What’s the hardest part to teach when you’re working with young comedians? I would imagine it would be confidence based, right? I mean, isn’t that the hardest thing to kind of get over to do that kind of comedy? To lay out something that’s going to have those peaks and valleys and not necessarily be set up, punchline, set up, punchline?

Yeah. I think there’s something about… and I grapple with this still. I mean, I think that anyone who’s telling personal stories, autobiographical stories… they’re grappling with “how comfortable am I saying how I really feel and discussing the mistakes I’ve made and the things I’ve experienced that are often painful?” You know? I mean, with this show, The New One, my wife Jen [Stein] and I wrote it together and a lot of times we were rehashing events in our life that were painful. The struggles of having a newborn and pregnancy and all these things that were really delicate. And there are times where you just go, like, “Is this worth it?” [Laughs] Should we even be doing this? You know? Ultimately, the answer is yes.

This show is cathartic to me because I didn’t know other people had these sort of dark thoughts and felt the depth of the loneliness when in this thing that in the Hallmark card version of it is, to quote from the show, “the most joy you’ve ever experienced.” When you have a child, you’re surrounded by people who want you to say the cliche thing about having children. Like, “Oh, I’m just seeing the world through a baby’s eyes” or whatever the thing is, and “it’s incredible and it’s the most joy and there’s nothing like it,” and all this stuff. And I feel like the goal of the show is to basically tell people, “actually, this is how I felt when this happened to me.” And hopefully, that leads people to feel some kind of catharsis [as well].

I would assume you would say that it’s a responsibility to be honest with people, but obviously anyone who’s doing any kind of creative endeavor, when you’re revealing yourself, maybe you want to hold some things back. I’m curious what the evolution is from Sleepwalk With Me to this as far as pulling back and not having a mask. Like, are you 100% vulnerable? Is it all out there? Or are there still some things that you keep close to the vest?

I think there’s stuff that we ultimately keep. Jen and I would always talk about what we’re comfortable sharing with people, what we’re not comfortable sharing with people. But I will say between this, and the booklet… We also have a book coming out for Mother’s Day that Jen and I wrote and it’s a mix of poetry and comedy called The New One: Painfully True Stories From a Reluctant Dad and that is like an expansion on the show. And in certain ways, if you think that the special is raw, like the book is really raw. When you asked that question, “what are you holding back?” When I read the book, I’m like, we sort of didn’t hold anything back from the book. You might as well have a camera in our house because it pretty much goes there. There’s this thing where when you’re doing a solo show, it’s like you’re kind of presenting yourself to the audience as a cadaver for medical students and you’re just saying, “Learn what you will! This is the body, take your own notes and take your lesson from that.”

The construction of the show, the construction of the book: how does that help you to become a stronger father and a stronger husband?

Well, it’s funny because I’m doing the show right now, I’m finishing up a run of five weeks of the show in Los Angeles and I’m with my wife and daughter and our daughter is four and a half. And nothing makes me happier than being with Jen and Oona like this, and it’s so diametrically opposed to what I’m presenting in the show. Jen sometimes says, “What is it like to have a great day going to the beach with your daughter and then go to the show and tell this horror story about having a child?” And I have to admit it is weird. It’s a weird thing because I am out of the woods so to speak of that first, whatever, 13 months that was so challenging, but I don’t know how I arrived here.

It’s funny, I spoke with Jenny Slate ahead of Stage Fright a couple of weeks ago and she said a similar thing. That was a period of her life that was over. She’s engaged now and she’s in a different space in her life.

Totally. I feel like I am a much better father. I think sometimes people go, “What’s Oona going to think of the show when she sees it?” And Jen always interrupts and she says “Oona wouldn’t believe it.” Like she’d think it’s just a joke. The idea that there ever was a point where I wasn’t a good father… I’m so doting and so present and borderline over-bearing as a father now. But I did learn a lot from it. When you analyze yourself and put yourself under that much scrutiny, you seem to learn a lot and you try to keep a positive attitude and not be broken by it.

Is it hard to forgive yourself?

It is. I guess I’m just trying to… Like all of us, you’re just trying to change and evolve and be better and do better and that’s all you can do. All you can do is try.

Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

I have a somewhat heavy question.

In the special, you talk about some of the things that you’ve been through in your life. Surviving cancer and whatnot. I’m someone who had a period of illness a few years ago and I’ve got a second wind here and you’re obviously in the midst of your own second wind. I’m curious how that affects you as a father and your ambitions with your career.

I think that, you know, I had a bladder tumor when I was 19 and I talk about it briefly in the special. I talk about it more in Sleepwalk With Me. And it hasn’t come back. It was a malignant tumor and they caught it early and took it out. And I go every year for cystoscopy or every two years, sometimes. And I actually just went like a month ago or something. And so it’s in the clear, which is great. Those are reliefs, but I think… look, you have to look at things with as much of a silver lining as you can. One silver lining, that I feel like, is that it was having cancer young that gave me the drive to be like, “Well, this could all end tomorrow. So I gotta figure this out fast.” And so, yeah, I had a lot of early success I think partly because of it … I got on Letterman when I was 24 and I had things I don’t think would have happened otherwise. Weirdly, if I didn’t have cancer, I don’t think that I would have had that kind of drive to try to make my career happen so fast. Sort of an odd byproduct of having cancer is that it’s given me this real urgency of now and achieving things now. I have to temper that sometimes, I have to because that can be a slippery slope.

You can go too far. You just push yourself too far. But it’s definitely a part of what I went through.
The notion of “I’ve got to do it now, now, now” and the idea that you have to get it checked, you have to keep an eye on it, does that change at all when you’re a father in that it’s more on your mind?

Yeah. I mean, for example, I mention it in the show, but I went to the doctor a few years ago and they told me I have Type 2 diabetes. Since then, I’ve lost 30 pounds and I reversed the Type 2 diabetes and I don’t have it anymore.

Thanks! I panicked and it’s like I actually don’t know that I would have been able to do that had I not had Oona. There is something where when I was given that diagnosis, it sort of meant well I have to figure this out for the family. You know it’s not just me. It’s the family.
Have you started the process of developing the next story?

I have a few things. I’m in my notebook with another stage show that’s really kinda far out. That’s different from anything I’ve ever done. I’m in my notebook with a movie. Those are the two main things. And then I’m touring colleges in the spring. I’m continuing the tour that I made up called Stand Up And Vote where I go to colleges and I perform and register voters. I just did UPenn a few weeks ago with John Legend and Michelle Wolf and Aparna Nancherla. I’m working on that for the spring right now.

Is it fun to exercise that more topical, more standard stand-up muscle sometimes?

Yeah, and I workshop a lot. I pop into the Comedy Cellar a lot and I workshop a lot of stuff. Because a lot of stuff in the early stages of the building this show, I would do, I think I did 20 or 30 cities inside comedy clubs like Bloomington, Indiana and I did Albany, and I did Rochester, Buffalo. Like I said, my goal with these shows is to make people laugh as hard as they would at any stand-up comedy show and then ultimately land it with some sense of emotion or some kind of takeaway so that it’s an experience. As opposed to just a series of jokes. And so actually the jokes are really important to me. Comedy clubs and colleges and things like that are really crucial for the whole thing.

Ira Glass, who’s a producer on this show, would describe this to people as “the show is basically 150 jokes and then you cry at the end.” [Laughs] Which I think is a funny way to describe it and it really is like the simplest way of describing the goal of the show.

‘The New One’ is currently available to stream on Netflix.