Stressing in My Flesh Suit (with Mike Birbiglia)
Mike Birbiglia’s stories about his life are the epitome of “funny ‘cuz they’re true.” He joins me to talk about his new Broadway show “The Old Man and The Pool,” and how he makes a show about death and mortality funny. Mike gets into his creative process around joke writing, like how he got underneath the meaning behind a joke about his car accident and a drunk driver, and also tells me why he thinks performing comedy is like stripping.
Please note, Funny Cuz It’s True contains mature themes and may not be appropriate for all listeners.
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Elyse Myers, Mike Birbiglia
Elyse Myers 00:00
Why do I love telling stories? Great question, I would love to tell you. I’ve always been a storyteller by nature. It’s because I’m not very comfortable with the back and forth of conversation, especially if it’s one on one. I just never know when the right time is to insert my thoughts, like, what’s considered being an active participant in the Ping and Pong of conversation? And what’s just considered interrupting? How do you keep a healthy amount of eye contact? How much is too much? How much is not enough? Too much? It’s intimidating, too little. You look like you’re not paying attention. And if you have a beverage in your hand, how are you supposed to sip that? Usually, I just want to chug it right when I get it so that it’s like one less thing, I have to figure out how to like naturally incorporate into the conversation. But then, you know, someone asks if you want to refill, and usually that means they take your cup. And honestly, holding this cup is giving me something to do with my hands. So I’d rather just hold the empty cup, then get a refill. But with stories, stories are a monologue. I talk and you listen, I don’t have to feel the pressure of maintaining eye contact while I’m telling a story. Because it’s pretty common for people to look off into the distance while they try and remember things in a story. I can teleport and time travel into the memory I’m sharing. And then all of a sudden, I’m not sitting at a table in a cafe with a stranger that I’m trialing out as a friend. I’m in seventh grade, I’m flying through the air tripping over my shoes landing with my skirt over my head on the way to the cafeteria on pizza day. The person I’m sharing the story with is an audience member to the memory I’m recalling, they feel like they’re getting to know me. And by watching their reaction to my story. And oftentimes, like following up with a story of their own. I feel like I get to know them. And it’s a lot easier than pinging and pinging small talk at each other. But how does that translate to telling stories on the Internet? That’s another great question. You’re asking really good questions today; I began sharing true stories about my life on the internet when my son was like six months old-ish. At the time, there was this gigantic valley that lived between the person I was before having my son August and the person I am after August, I was experiencing postpartum depression. And literally up until the night we took August home from the hospital. I had no clue what postpartum depression even was. I truly thought that postpartum was like a timestamp, the time in which this kind of depression happens. Not the type. I had it all wrong. Unfortunately, I realized this a little too late. I was in it. And I was fighting my way out one morning, afternoon and night at a time. One of those mornings I woke up around 3:30am to feed my son and I just could not fall back asleep. The last thing I wanted to do was get back in bed and just like be awake. That’s even more frustrating than just not being able to sleep in the first place. So I went straight to my kitchen and I made myself a coffee. And then out of nowhere I just started trying to mentally connect the person I was in college with this person now who’s grabbing a cup out of my cupboard, who’s grabbing ice trays out of the freezer, who’s grabbing almond milk out of the fridge. These hands I’m looking at are the same hands. They took notes in school, they played Viola and orchestra zipped up a wedding dress. They held my husband’s hand typed on my keyboard for work. Why don’t these hands feel like my hands. As I was looking down I noticed my sweatshirt sleeves rolled up twice. The classic Elyse double roll. I remembered why I started rolling my sleeves this way in the first place and how cool it made me feel the first time I did it. It was like my current self and my past self-shook hands and met in that very moment. I got my phone out and I recorded my first ever story about my life online. So I will be wearing sweatshirts rolled up twice at the sleeve like this for the rest of my life. And I’m gonna tell you why. I was 18 I lived in Australia. And I saw this sweatshirt in the back hung up it said you’re weird. I like it, put it on in the sleeves rolled up twice like this. And I was like this is the pinnacle of fashion. I have been doing it wrong my entire life. I loved it so much. I took the tax off of it. I paid for it. I walked out of the store that haven’t changed anything about my fashion sense since I was 18 years old. Thank you very much. It was silly and it was short. But it meant so much to me that my brain was recognizing me in that memory. Telling stories went from being an escape from conversation to a bridge over that gigantic valley of who I was and who I now am. And as luck would have it those stories were also a bridge straight to you listening to the story right now. Thank you.
Elyse Myers 04:43
Okay, actually, can you just pretend that you’re listening to a fully complete theme song here? I got really in my head. And I tried to make it perfect and I couldn’t. So this is going to be the theme song right here
Elyse Myers 04:59
Hello and welcome to another episode of Funny Cuz It’s True. I’m Elyse Myers. Today I’m joined by Mike Birbiglia. He is an incredible comedian, director, actor and author. So everything basically, Mike has written and performed several award winning solo plays including Sleepwalk With Me, My girlfriend’s boyfriend. And thank God for jokes. Mike’s latest show is called the old man in the pool, which he’s performing on Broadway until January 15, 2023. If you can, please check it out. So two things that are funny because they’re true. Number one, I have always connected to Mike Birbiglia style of comedy. I love that he makes most of his jokes about like his real life, but he has this really funny way of giving like a narrative arc in his stories. And I just think that that’s great. Number two, we start using the term flesh suits, which is super gross, but also pretty fitting. We’re just some stressed out brains and some flesh suits. Okay, let’s get into it. Can I ask you what the colored cards are behind you? Because I’ve been watching you set up and I’m so curious.
Mike Birbiglia 06:01
Oh, yeah. So like, these are all jokes. Oh. So like, this is like pulmonary tests. And it says like iPhone funeral. And this is a sign that says peeing in pool. This one’s an arrow literally. And they’re just like joke titles. And usually what I do, and this is for my podcasts working it out is like, I’ll put, but it predated the podcast is that I put joke titles up on the wall, and then I configure set lists from the job titles.
Elyse Myers 06:32
Oh my gosh, that’s so smart. Are you visual with like learning?
Mike Birbiglia 06:37
I’m very visual.
Elyse Myers 06:39
Same. I have never thought to do that. It’s genius. What is and you might not be able to tell me but one of them says Rosemary Tabata.
Mike Birbiglia 06:47
Yeah, I think that joke is from one day, I was behind this little kid and his dad at a coffee shop and this little kid goes, Dad, I don’t want Rosemary Tabata. I want […]. And I wanted to say to this kid, you know, life is gonna serve you all kinds of Chivata. But if you want, if you really want to stick up for yourself, you should demand the regular Chivata.
Elyse Myers 07:18
And also, you should probably learn how to say you’re ours.
Mike Birbiglia 07:23
Well. That’s one of the jokes on my show right now. Which is all toddlers have a Boston accent. They’re like I’m tired. And Boston toddlers are like I’m wicked tired.
Elyse Myers 07:33
Is that idea of putting the cards and stuff? Is that something you learned from someone else? Or is that something you kind of did by yourself?
Mike Birbiglia 07:40
I think it was intuitive because that I started doing stand-up when I was like, I don’t know, like 19 years old. And I was and I think that I had a really hard time remembering my setlist
Elyse Myers 07:51
That’s like one of my biggest fears is just not remembering.
Mike Birbiglia 07:55
Totally, because it’s like, I talked about this on Colbert recently, but like, you know actor’s nightmare is the idea of like, you forget everything you ever forget all your lines, and you’re just there. And I had it. I’m in a Tom Hanks movie called a man named Otto that comes out around Christmas. And it was so such an amazing experience. But I had actors nightmare with Tom Hanks where they shot this whole I drove a car around a bend and I drive up and there’s a crane shot with cameras coming in on the crane. And then Tom Hanks walks up to the window and I open the window and he says a thing and I say thing and I drove up and I opened the window and he said the thing and I didn’t know anything and then I just got and then I’m just not I said nothing, said Tom Hanks my childhood idol. I was like I had an Apollo 13 poster on my wall growing up and I’m like, oh, no. And then he’s so nice and generous as a scene partner that he starts trying to feed me my line that he knew. Like, he was like, how do you feel about me? Do you think I should leave the neighborhood? You know what I mean like?
Elyse Myers 09:04
I think I would quit on the spot right there.
Mike Birbiglia 09:07
It’s kind of a I play sort of his nemesis in the film in the sense that like, I’m this character, who like who works in on the corporate side of like real estate and housing developments and so to and so it would be advantageous for my character for him to move. And so I’m kind of nudging his character to move. And I come into the film like I think maybe three times.
Elyse Myers 09:31
Did you start because you said you started stand up when you’re 19.
Mike Birbiglia 09:35
I started in high school. I was like I started doing performing sketches. And I was in I was in plays. And then when I was in college, I joined I didn’t join I auditioned for the improv troupe at Georgetown. And then I got in and it was like, I feel like there’s so few epiphanies in life like there’s so few moments where you’re like, This is the moment where everything changed, but actually getting cast in the improv troupe actually was that.
Elyse Myers 10:02
What did that feel like? Like did so you auditioned and then what was?
Mike Birbiglia 10:06
it was like a paradigm shift in my life. Like it happened over the course of maybe the first month. Being an improv troupe where I was like, you know, my whole life, I thought I was funny. And sometimes other people did, and sometimes other people didn’t. And I think that’s because we all have different senses of humor. And I always thought my sense of humor was much funnier than other people’s.
Elyse Myers 10:33
They just don’t get it.
Mike Birbiglia 10:34
They don’t get it. So, when I was casting the improv troupe, I was like, Oh, my gosh, all of these people are so funny. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have found these people.
Elyse Myers 10:46
Wow. Was it different from your other experiences in high school doing like scripted plays? Were you surprised? Like, you were like, I like this so much more.
Mike Birbiglia 10:54
Completely different. I mean, improv is so expressive, because when you were improvised, like you’re the director and the actor and the writer and that this and it was like, kind of like, it was expansive.
Elyse Myers 11:07
Yeah. Was it intimidating at all? Or did you feel pretty comfortable right away?
Mike Birbiglia 11:11
I felt pretty comfortable. I mean, I thought, though, I think they’ll the rest of my life was intimidating.
Elyse Myers 11:17
Really. I guess that’s like a good I guess that’s a good marker of like, this is what I’m supposed to be doing. Right? If you’re like, This is the one thing I feel like it is really natural. I did improv and it was so terrifying. So I have so much respect for people that do it and love it and feel comfortable with it.
Mike Birbiglia 11:33
No, it’s funny, because it’s different. You know, when I watch your stuff, I’m always like, oh, that takes like a different type of confidence. Because you don’t have an audience typically when the stuff I watch. And so I’m like, Oh, you had to have the confidence to say, no, this is a good story. And it’s a funny story. And it’s going to interest people all the way through. And then it works. And for me, I need an audience to tell me if it’s working.
Elyse Myers 12:01
Interesting. It doesn’t make you nervous performing in front of people. My gosh, I’m so jealous of that.
Mike Birbiglia 12:08
It’s like a reverse. But how are you confident enough to know that your story is going to work?
Elyse Myers 12:14
Me? Yeah. I think it’s funny. That’s really all I care about. I think that like, I think that there’s a difference between storytelling and comedy. And then like, on a stage, and then I’ll making content about it. Because you have to be reading a moment that is only happening one time. My moment happens whenever it resonates with somebody and an algorithm puts it on there for you page. And that’s what they’re watching. Right now, if I make a joke, or a video that like doesn’t land and someone doesn’t think it’s funny, I don’t have to like stare into the whites of their eyeballs at their face when they don’t think it’s funny. I just, I just carry on with my day. I could not actually imagine that. Oh, my God, that makes me just want to spiral. I love that you feel confident in it? Do you have anybody that you had as a hero or somebody that you kind of pulled from when you started doing it?
Mike Birbiglia 13:09
When I was in high school, I saw Steven Wright live who is the legendary comedian is still is my brother Joe took me to see him. And I had never seen live stand-up comedy. And it was it was kind of mind boggling. Because it was like, you know, it’s like 90 minutes of just obliterating punch lines, just these really perfectly worded kind of comedic haiku that he does. I was stunned. I mean, my face hurt from laughing, which is a cliche, but it actually was true. I mean, face to face hurt from laughing. And so that was a huge thing. Because that was like, you know, I think a lot of comedy is this is a little bit of a sleight of hand where you’re watching someone tell a story or a series of jokes, and you’re lured into a false sense of that’s the thing that I think, but actually, you couldn’t maybe articulated as well as the person on stage is yeah, you think you could, you know, and so you’re like, oh, that’s, just like me, and so that I had that with Stephen Wright.
Elyse Myers 14:13
That’s so interesting. Do you find that like, it’s on purpose that jokes are like written that way? Like, do you? Do you approach writing a joke where you’re like, I want somebody to feel like I’m reading their mind, or is it just like, I hope someone connects with this?
Mike Birbiglia 14:28
Well, like the show that I’m doing right now is called the old man in the pool. It’s all about life and death and mortality. And a lot of it is kind of my own obsessions with death. And I had bladder cancer when I was 20. I had type two diabetes a few years ago I reversed I’ve dealt I’ve sleepwalking disorder I’ve talked about a lot I made a movie about but like, I think about dying. I think about people close to me dying people I’ve lost in the past. And when I started to put it on stage, it was really a sense of like, okay, here’s what’s interesting to me or funny to me, here’s what I’m obsessed with. And then typically what an audience gives you is they tell you which of those things they find interesting or funny. And then there’s a Venn diagram that forms between those two things. And in the sweet spot of that Venn diagram, is usually somewhere approximately where the show ends up landing. So a hope hopefully, when people see the old man in the pool, they come they go, Oh, that’s me. That’s just like me.
Elyse Myers 15:37
When I tell a story online, I genuinely have to imagine that that Venn diagram that Mike is talking about is just a circle, one singular circle, like what I find funny, perfectly overlaps with what you find funny. That’s just the blind confidence you have to have when posting content online instead of like a live audience. I’m like a proud mom, like sending her kid off to school. Like, no matter what anyone says about you just know you’re great. I think you’re great. That’s how it feels.
Mike Birbiglia 16:05
And actually, it’s me. But that’s good. It’s good that people think that.
Elyse Myers 16:11
Do you do a lot of testing for your stuff? Like, how do you do that?
Mike Birbiglia 16:18
Just in front of audiences, like I’ll like, I’ll go on tour. And I’d like I just finished, essentially, like a year of touring, I went to probably 40 cities. And then I sat the show for a month in Berkeley at the repertory theater. I sat at Steppenwolf in Chicago for a month in May. And then I sat at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles for a month in August. And then in intermittently, I went to Cincinnati and I went to, you know, Detroit, and all these places, for what, like one night shows, and it’s helpful for me to know what’s connecting, and where you know what I mean? Like, like, even like, I went to like London, Iceland, and Paris. And that’s really instructive, because I’m like, oh, Paris, you know, either they speak English. Really well, or not that well, or not at all. And so let’s see how that goes.
Elyse Myers 17:13
Yeah. What’s the difference, though? Between like a test and a performance? Where’s that line?
Mike Birbiglia 17:18
For me, there’s no line. We know, it’s the same as my podcast title. But it’s like, when it’s not done. I call the shows working it out. When it’s done, I give it a title. You know, so the last bunch of shows were Sleepwalk With Me My girlfriend’s boyfriend, thank God for jokes, the new one, and this one’s called the old man in the pool. And so when I named them, they’re like, people know, like, that’s the show name.
Elyse Myers 17:40
It’s like a series that’s like an ongoing series working it out.
Mike Birbiglia 17:43
Turns out it is, I did not intend it that way. I think that’s really smart,
Elyse Myers 17:47
honestly. And it also sets expectation of the audience coming into it knowing like, this might not all connect with me or it might be. You know what I mean? Like, I just think that that’s really smart to for people to know, do you think people know that you’re doing that or not really?
Mike Birbiglia 18:02
No. I think they’re pretty hip to it. Like, it’s so funny. Like, early on in my comedy career, like I was working on the door at the Washington DC improv, like, that’s how I got my start in college. Oh, wow. For me, I’m like, oh, that means I get to see the comedians for free. So I watched like, Mitch Hedberg and Margaret Cho and Jim Gaffigan all these people. Wow, that that but it for free. You know, I couldn’t afford to see any comedy live. So that was like, massive for me.
Elyse Myers 18:28
And when was this?
Mike Birbiglia 18:30
I was in college. I was like a sophomore in college.
Elyse Myers 18:34
So you watch these people like, start? Oh, man, if I could go back and watch anyone at a comedy club before they got like, famous, I would watch Mitch Hedberg. Like final answer.
Mike Birbiglia 18:44
Yeah. And I was I would ask them all a lot of annoying questions like I would just ask them tons of advice, questions and stuff.
Elyse Myers 18:52
Where they are pretty generous with their advice or not.
Mike Birbiglia 18:54
Pretty much everyone was generous. And what you find is like, when you ask a lot of people for advice. Generally, you get something different from everyone like, like I had a joke. Early on, where I was opening for George Lopez, he had just seen my set. And he I had to had a joke at the expense of Oprah Winfrey, and my SAT who was massive at the time. Yeah, that shows. And my girlfriend at the time would watch it every day. And so I was I’d made a joke. And he said, he goes, you know, you open with a joke about Oprah. And the audience loves Oprah. And they do not know who you are.
Elyse Myers 19:34
You’re like shitting on their like, best friend.
Mike Birbiglia 19:38
Yeah. So I was like, wow, that is a powerful. He’s like you got to put yourself down before you put down someone else because then they know that you’re not a jerk.
Elyse Myers 19:51
That’s really good advice. What advice would you give to someone who’s the door person now?
Mike Birbiglia 19:57
What I would say is that as much as possible if you want to be a comedian, get on stage. However much anyone will let you in any context. So if someone wants to let you host their walkathon for cancer, host their walkathon for cancer, if someone wants you to perform in a cafeteria, do it because all the failure is the building blocks for making something that is worth watching.
Elyse Myers 20:31
If you could see my face right now, you would know how much I dislike this piece of advice in wish it was literally any other piece of advice. We have to take a quick break. But when we get back, Mike talks about how he gets his audiences to laugh at even the most heavy stories. I wanted to go back just a little bit because you were talking about that show that has like a lot of like heavy topics. And with stories that I tell like, some of them are a little bit heavier as well. But I try and like lift it and I just was really curious to know how you do that. Like how do you have that skill of doing both at the same time and not depressing people while talking about heavy things.
Mike Birbiglia 21:24
It’s certainly a delicate balance and something I work out on stage over time. And it’s trial and error, and there’s a lot of error, there’s a lot more error than success. I think you know, when you’re performing stuff that’s dramatic and comedic. One of the things I try to remember is that people want you to be honest with them. Like, I feel like with your stories, like I feel like one of the sort of deepest strengths of your stories is that there’s an authenticity to the story. I think people when you’re telling a story doesn’t really matter if it’s funny or dramatic, or whatever, because they lock into to the authenticity of you. And so I think like the key thing, I think would be you know what’s in the story, like what’s true to you? Like, over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to work with Ira Glass on This American Life.
Elyse Myers 22:24
I know we’re about to hear this together. So this might seem totally unnecessary. But I am going to pull the best friend card and let you know the story that Mike is about to tell right now is my favorite part of the entire interview. And I have gone back to this interview to listen to just this story like five times.
Mike Birbiglia 22:39
He’s taught me a lot about stories. And a lot of times what he’ll do is he’ll take a story that I’ll tell him, and he’ll go like, Well, what was underneath that? You know, like, why did you want to do that? Why did you get obsessed with that? You know, like, for example, like many years ago, I had a story on his show, where I talked about getting hit by a drunk driver and being made to pay for the drivers car. And it was awful. And I was pitching him the story. And he goes, yeah, I mean, that’s a good story. But like, it’s not good enough for, you know, the stage. I don’t think because it’s like a lot of people have been hit by a car. A lot of people have been wronged by this or that, you know. And so we were talking about he goes, what else was going on in your life at that moment in time? Oh, I was like Jenny and I, my wife now we’re talking about getting married or not getting married and deciding what are what are we going to do with our lives? You know, we were about 30. And we were in kind of I didn’t it’s like I didn’t believe in the idea of marriage. And I was really kind of like bullheaded about it and stubborn. And he drew this connection magnetically between how I couldn’t let go of this thing of getting wronged by this drunk driver. And I couldn’t get over the fact that marriage feels so antiquated as an institution, it’s patriarchal. And it’s madness and doesn’t make any sense and is based on exchanging land and all these things. And so we sort of talked through the idea of like, well, what if those two things came together in this story, and so that’s how that merge. And so the end of that story, in the end of my girlfriend’s boyfriend, the show if people want to see it on Netflix, is like, spoiler. It came out 10 years ago, but it’s basically like, I paid for this drunk drivers car and I let go of it. And Jenny and I got married. And I still don’t believe in the idea of marriage, but I believe in her and I’ve given up on the idea of being right. So thematically the show and that story for This American Life became about the theme of like being right, which is like a meaningful thing to me and to go back to the authenticity thing like, like, I think the audience can sense when I’m like ranting on this stuff, like, that’s who I am. And that’s a flaw or however you describe it. And so if it’s if the audience believes it’s true to me, I think that they’re along, potentially along for the ride.
Elyse Myers 25:16
And so then it makes it universal, if that’s what I kind of got from that, which is like, very, very interesting, because I feel like that would make it easier when you’re talking about heavy topics, because you could relate it to something that’s very light as well, at the same time, you know?
Mike Birbiglia 25:30
Absolutely. And I think the audience is willing to go between light and dark. I mean, certainly in the old man in the pool. It’s really light and really dark. I mean, I have like jokes that are as goofy as like, all toddlers have a Boston accent. And then I tell a story about having bladder cancer when I was 20. You know, it’s like, so it’s a pin drop silence, like, it’s, and I think the audience knows that, like, I mean, look like we’re all in this completely absurd life existence. We all live in these absurd bodies; it doesn’t make sense half the time..
Elyse Myers 26:05
Let’s all it a flesh suit, when I’m feeling overwhelmed. If I really feel overwhelmed by life, I’m like, look at me, stressing in this flesh suit, it just really puts everything into perspective.
Mike Birbiglia 26:16
It’s madness. It’s madness. It’s also silly. And I think sometimes comedians serve the purpose of just being like, here’s how I think it’s silly. And the audience is like, oh, my gosh, that’s how I think it’s silly too.
Elyse Myers 26:29
is that kind of what you want your audience to feel like, is there anything that you’re like, I want my audience to walk away with this thing when they leave my show, what is that?
Mike Birbiglia 26:35
Oh, man, I got served as TikTok video of an old Jerry Seinfeld interview, who I think is, in addition to being great comedian just has a ton of wisdom on comedy. And he says this thing, he goes, I’m paraphrasing, but it’s like, after performing for a big audience, like and there’s been a lot of laughs I’m not thinking, how did that go? For me? I’m thinking, How did it go for them? He goes, because it’s not about me, it’s about them. And about me giving something to them. And he goes, the people I’ve seen kind of fall apart in show business are people who think it’s about them. I thought it was really profound. And like, what I’m trying to do is be vulnerable to the audience and admit things about myself that I’m, I’m nervous about, or I’m sad about or I’m angry about, and do that in a way that makes them laugh. And if I can do that, like I feel like if you can go to the darkest topic, you go to the saddest thing, you can find a laugh within that, gives the audience sort of a treasure map of their own to figure out how to do that for their own stuff.
Elyse Myers 27:50
That’s an interesting visual. I like that. I was a web developer before I got into all this. And when I was talking to somebody kind of telling me how to start this, like business of freelancing and stuff. They said, the best freelancers are generous freelancers. And I always found that to be true. And then when I started comedy, I was like, I want to bring that into comedy. I want to believe that the best comedians are like generous comedians. Yeah, I think that that’s a really interesting like visual, the treasure map thing of like, you’re giving these people tools to understand their life, understand their feelings, and also, maybe just laugh for a second so that they can escape the flesh suit stress.
Mike Birbiglia 28:28
Totally. If this episode isn’t called the flesh suit stress, and I don’t know what it’s going to be called.
Elyse Myers 28:35
We’re going to take one more break, stick around to hear why Mike doesn’t like performing in front of people he knows, same.
Elyse Myers 28:57
So in a lot of your performances, you’re in like a theater. You’re not just in a comedy club. How did you make that choice?
Mike Birbiglia 29:02
Well, a lot of it is like, show in the early 2000s. I was lucky enough to open for Mitch Hedberg, and Louis black and David tell on what was the first Comedy Central Live Tour. Gosh, I know it was. I was so lucky. Here’s a funny, it’s kind of a funny story. I was going to Washington DC and that show was happening. And I was such a big fan of those three comedians. And I knew the person who was booking the show because he was a club Booker in San Francisco. This guy Jeff and I called Jeff and I go, could I get tickets for that show? And he goes, I’ll do you one better, you could open up and I go, okay, so I flew myself in I put myself up and all this stuff and like, essentially made no money to do it. And then I said, can I do more of them? And so then I did. like Philadelphia, New York, and a bunch of other ones. But what I found in these theaters and this is what sort of one of the things that really changed the way I look at everything is that in a theater versus a comedy club, I just find that the level of listening is higher. Because there’s nothing else going on. There’s not like a server coming over bringing chicken wings, there’s not, you know what I mean? There’s not people repeatedly getting up, go to the bathroom, people shout less. And so I was like, Oh, my jokes are actually doing better in a theater than they were in a club. Because people are listening.
Elyse Myers 30:36
Okay. So wait, literally, up until this point of the interview. I genuinely thought every time I said like theater on any of the prep I’ve been given or like, anytime he said that he likes performing in theaters. I thought he was talking about like musical theater. Okay. The space of a theater. Not the genre of musical theater. Okay, I’m dragging, I’m wanting to. I was just so confused. Because I’ve seen like, everything that Mike Birbiglia has, like ever put out, and I have never once seen him like singing and dancing in a show. And I’m just like, okay, he’s branching out. He’s trying something new. I’m so glad I didn’t ask him about musical theater. So glad it did not come to that. Because if I didn’t get that answer, I would have probably pushed later on. Oh, my God, oh, my god, okay. It’s like you go to the club, and then the person doing comedy is doing that as well. At the same time, you’re both living two separate timelines in the same room. Yeah. But a theater genuinely is like, I am here to listen to you. And so I feel like it would be received better.
Mike Birbiglia 31:51
Yeah, it’s funny, like, the, when I did call Barry, the other night, his producer was telling me that this thing that he says to people, sometimes on his staff, he goes, we have to remember that when we’re putting on the show. We’re performing with the audience, not for the audience. And I think that in the theater, the potential for performing with the audience is higher than in a comedy club, because you know, they’re eating, they’re drinking, they’re doing all this stuff. And it’s like, well, actually, you’re not doing that. So you’re actually you’re not all doing the same thing.
Elyse Myers 32:27
Right. And how long did you do that to work with them?
Mike Birbiglia 32:31
I did, like five or six cities. And then in the New York one, there was some executives at Comedy Central who saw me and they said, Hey, would you want to do like your own tour of colleges? Because I was like a kid. I was like, 2526 years old. Yeah. So I was like, yeah, that’d be great. So it was I did the first ever comedies control live college tour. It was called the media man on campus tour, and John Mulaney was my opener, actually, oh, my gosh, I don’t know what he’s up to. But he’s, no, I’m just I’m just kidding. He’s the biggest comedy star in the world. He came on that tour. And we went on like a tour bus. And it was a very kind of formative life experience. I think for both of us when we’re still very close. He came to the old man in the pool the other night, which was really sweet.
Elyse Myers 33:19
Does that make you nervous when your friends come and watch like, performances?
Mike Birbiglia 33:24
I don’t like performing for friends that much. I mean, really, like performing for strangers. I think of like, performing comedy is like, stripping or something. Yeah, I could strip I mean, true. Truly, you know, if you sent me to Peoria, Illinois, and said, you’re gonna strip and there’s gonna be no cameras, and it’s gonna be all strangers, I would go yeah, I’ll do that.
Elyse Myers 33:52
For the record, the way that Mike feels about stripping in front of his family is the way I would feel about performing live comedy for literally anyone, family, strangers. My producers listening to me talk right now. It’s terrifying. Coincidently, that’s also how I would feel if I had to strip. So that’s interesting. But then your grandma shows up to support you.
Mike Birbiglia 34:18
This is where it gets really tricky. That’s why I’m not a stripper.
Elyse Myers 34:24
That is the perfect way to describe what it’s like, especially to write content about your own life because you do so much content about you. I’ve had to start like sending my dad texts. Hey, Dad. I’m gonna post a story this morning. And I just need you to not watch it. And he’ll be like, great. And it’s like, it gets exhausting because you’re like, I don’t even want to write the stuff that I have to then tell people I love to not listen to it. It’s not that it’s like, it’s not that it’s so inappropriate that I’m embarrassed for anyone to hear. It’s like I just don’t want people that have known me as a child to hear it. It’s like that but yeah, no, usually I’ll change the names, especially if I don’t have any relationship with that person. Now I’m like, I don’t care to reach out and be like, how do you feel about me talking. Well, do you find it’s hard that, like, where do you draw the line between what information is yours to share and not?
Mike Birbiglia 35:18
It’s definitely a fine line. I mean, I use a ton of fake names like I pretty much have other than my wife, my daughter, my parents, my brother, like the people, you know, those folks who whose names you can’t fake. I’d say everyone’s name is changed. And, yeah, and then like with those people, you know, my wife, Jenny is a poet. And so she’s contributed a lot of like lines and things over the years to help, color and paint and you know, her character. And that’s been a really special part of my process. And also my brother Joe has been, he writes with me, and so he’s written a lot of lines for himself. I actually think it’s much better if the people in your life who are these characters can remind you of their version of the story. Yes, I say that in my special thank God for jokes about, you know, I tell a story, and I go, but that’s just my side of the story. Maybe this person’s version was bla, a lot of times I’ll say to my wife, like, Hey, Jen, like, here’s how I remember this thing. And she goes, like, that’s not really what happened at all. Like, actually.
Elyse Myers 36:35
How do I know these do?
Mike Birbiglia 36:36
Yeah. And so usually, honestly, it does end up being an amalgam of some kind. And the same with my brother, my parents, I don’t really run stuff by them. They don’t even really want me to be a comedian. You know what I mean? Like, they don’t watch my comedy.
Elyse Myers 36:50
I don’t trust your side of the story.
Mike Birbiglia 36:51
It’s whole lot of this thing.
Elyse Myers 36:55
But also, there are certain things that just because it’s not the way it happened, doesn’t mean it’s not the way you experienced it or internalized it. So there are like different sides. And you can just try and like be like, you know what, no, this is how I remembered it. And this is what my brain is experiencing as it happened.
Mike Birbiglia 37:13
So David Sedaris is like one of my favorite humorists of all time. And one time someone I saw someone asked him, like, are these stories true? And he goes, true enough for you. That’s interesting. It’s kind of like a have a snappy take on the whole thing. Because it’s true. It’s like, it actually doesn’t matter for you whether my story that I’m telling you is true. Unless there’s something at stake, like a major multinational corporation.
Elyse Myers 37:45
Right, like you’re not you don’t go and like outwardly lie and hurt somebody. That’s like not, that’s not the goal. I think that I am just very literal. And so I really struggle. I just don’t think I’ll ever be the person that is like, I’m just gonna make something up because I don’t have anything and I really had to become okay with the idea of like, there are just going to be things I miss, and I have to be okay with that, you know?
Mike Birbiglia 38:08
Well, it goes back to our flesh suits, which is that we are also a bunch of mushy brains.
Elyse Myers 38:18
Yes. Did you know, sidenote, very, not important. But did you know that if you were to hold your brain in your hands, it would be so fragile that it would collapse in itself? It can’t support itself. I also could be wrong right now.
Mike Birbiglia 38:34
Right? No, I’m not, I don’t think you’re a scientist.
Elyse Myers 38:38
So I had my team fact check this for me, because I just immediately questioned the words coming out of my mouth as soon as they left my mouth. And I can confirm this is correct. If you tried to hold your brain in your hands, it would collapse under its own weight. So it’s protected by all of the like fluid around it. So wear a helmet. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.
Mike Birbiglia 38:57
So I’m not going to run with this.
Elyse Myers 38:59
I heard this as I somebody was explaining this as to why you need to wear helmets, so that has nothing to do with anything. And with that. Yay. We did it. Well, thank you so much, Mike. I really appreciate it talking to you. And thanks for just sharing so much.
Mike Birbiglia 39:13
Thanks for having me. This is great.
Elyse Myers 39:19
We are going to skip right over the fact that the last thing I said to Mike Birbiglia was that our brains would smash themselves if we held them in our hands. That’s not how I want to remember that conversation ending. So I’m just gonna block it up. Perfect. But with that being said, the ability to connect with Mike about storytelling, and like how he crafts a story and what he adds in and what he leaves out, and how he highlights humor and truth all at the same time. And it’s funny and meaningful. Like, the way he tells stories is so inspiring. And I want to tell stories like Mike does. I just can’t get over the hurdle that he loves performing live. I could not relate to that any less. I want to though, I really do want to be able to perform I’m live one day, it’s just a mental hurdle that like, I don’t understand how to move past. But maybe with practice, you know, he talks about failing and how it’s all a part of success. And I do want to take that to heart. But for now, I don’t think I have the emotional capacity to fail in public. So shout out to live performers everywhere, because you guys are brave. All right. That’s all for today. Thank you so much for listening to my conversation with Mike Birbiglia. If you like our show, please rate and review us. It just helps other people find the show. Okay, see you next time. Bye.
Hey, if you want more Funny Because It’s True, just subscribe to Lemonada Premium on Apple podcasts. Funny Cuz It’s True is a Lemonada Media and Powderkeg production. The show is produced by Claire Jones, Zoe Dennis and […], our associate producer is Tiffany Buoy. Rachel Neil is our senior director of new content and our VP of weekly production is Steve Nelson. Executive Producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova Kramer, Paul Feig, Laura Fisher, […] and me Elyse Myers. The show is mixed by Brian Castillo and Johnny Evans. Our theme song music was written by me and scored by Xander Singh.