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The comedian Mike Birbiglia has helped redefine the boundaries of confessional comedy with his funny and brutally honest style.
Whether on stage, in print, or on the megahit radio show 'This American Life.' You may recognize him from one of his many jobs onscreen in Orange Is The New Black, Showtime's Billions or the movie Trainwreck.
He's now debuting on Broadway with 'The New One,' which is a one man show and as our Alicia Menendez discovered, the exact topic?
Well it's hard to pin down.
Thank you so much for being here.
Thanks for having me.
One of your rare moments off.
Yeah it seems like that.
I'm Doing a lot shows right now.
I would call The New One a show about fatherhood.
Do you feel like that's a fair description?
I think yes and it is a show of fatherhood and change I think. I think you know one of the things that when I was developing this show is I want to make sure that it wasn't just about being a parent, but rather it was about how all all of us, regardless of our age, have things that were hostile to doing, were hostile to changing in their lives. And for me it's just so happened and I never wanted to have a kid and then and then I flipped.
Your wife was a big part of that flip.
Let's take a listen to this clip from the show.
'She said I was clear I didn't want to have a baby at the time but that I might change and I was clear I would never change.
She said if you don't want to have a baby maybe I'll have one on my own and we can stay married and I said oh that'll be a good look.
Just you and me and this kid that's a cross between you and some grad student jacking his way through SUNY Purchase.
I mean you can't have a kid on the side, like keep him in the shed.
People do it.
I've seen the documentaries, it's just not what I aspire to.
And then people will be like you guys have kids and I've gotta be like she does.'
In this show you tick through your various reasons for not wanting to have a child and using your various physical maladies.
Oh yeah yeah that's a big part of it. I have a sleepwalking disorder where I jump through a window.
If people haven't seen my movie Sleepwalk With Me Or read the book, I had I had cancer when I was 20.
I was very lucky, they took it out.
It didn't come back.
And there's just yeah, Lyme disease, Diabetes, I've just had a lot of stuff.
One of the things I felt as a relatively new mom watching the show was I wonder what will happen when one day your daughter Oona either reads or sees this show.
Is she gonna have access.
That's why it's sort of I always think of it as sort of a magic trick of sorts because the first half of the show is his argument for why one would never want, why one should never want to have a child and the second half is I had a child and I was right but here's how it turns on itself and if it doesn't turn on itself truly and authentically in an emotional way, the magic trick doesn't work because like you said Oona is going to see the show some day and it's going to have to be convincing that I did change and Jen always laughs. My wife always laughs because she's like people ask Jen about that a lot and she's like if you saw the two of them together, you'd realize it.
Oona would never believe that I wrote this show.
Because there's some really I would say dark, but certainly a provocative moment in the show.
I would dark and provocative, both of those I think are true.
You say I understand why dads leave.
Yeah that's a hard one out of context.
I mean I people really have to see the show to understand that because it's it's it's it's an expression of a very low point for my character in this journey of just and of course that I say I'm comfortable saying that because I'm not I'm not going to leave, I'm never going to leave but there are these low points I think in parenting and I get all these e-mails from moms and dads saying wow like thanks for writing this thing it made me understand my husband, it made me understand my wife more where I want to write a show where people where someone says all the things that people won't admit to saying when they're parents because I think you know the sort of the old idiom of the like we're only as sick as our secrets.
I think that that with parenting there's a lot of, there's a lot of secret there's a lot things you can't say.
What has been the most surprising response to the show?
There's this really brilliant set designer who came to the show, who, when it was off Broadway and she said she was she had read this one review that was so personal and like sort of hurt by the show in a certain way she said it's because you're I think it's because you're being so vulnerable that she feels like she can be vulnerable in her response to it and that makes a lot of sense.
But I, my feeling about the show is is that the goal of it is precisely that, it's opening up so that the audience can open up about their own lives.
And it's not just that you're sharing, it's that you're sharing personal failures. I mean Sleepwalk With Me looks at a failed relationship.
They're not failures, I thought there were successes.
No just kidding.
How do you get most of us are spending our lives trying to cover up our failures and here you are on stage reliving them.
Well my take on it is like we're we're all naked all the time whether we realize it or not.
What does that mean?
Like in other words if you think you're keeping a secret, you're not, and so owning your own is can be a really cathartic experience.
And then it's really cathartic, particularly cathartic, when people experience that in the audience.
It's by far of any of my shows it's the most that the audience has ever literally thanked me, like I get e-mails all the time, which is, as a performer, just like the greatest thing I've could ever experience ever.
One of the running jokes of the show is how people with kids try to convince other people to have kids and I walked away from the show wondering now you that have a daughter and you love her so much, have you become one of those monsters?
You're the first person who's asked me that question.
I've become one of those monsters.
My best friend from childhood, Michael Kavanaugh came the other night and I was like you have to yeah you have to do it now.
And not misery loves company way.
No it's not misery loves company, it's it's it's I mean I'm saying that I joke about in the show, but it's people say to you it's the most joy you'll ever experience and it just is and it's not, there's no way to describe it because it's like the equivalent of describing like you know when you're aperture just opens and you just go, oh I didn't know it could be like that.
And then it's my brother my brother Joe who contributed right into the show and in his own lines his character says the show, he says, you know, I go what's it like to be a parent?
He says it's relentless.
I said what do you mean?
And he says you know how you go to the gym and you push and you sweat and it sucks and I go yeah and he goes when you have a kid you can't even go to the gym and then he says but the thing you should know it's not going be better or worse is just going to be new.
You begin to play with a riff about your couch and why your couch is so important to you.
Let's take a look.
I think the reason a couch are so expensive is that it's a deceptively sophisticated piece of technology.
It's a bed that hugs you.
Like, you want to watch TV?
You want to eat pizza?
You sure do like eating, but I like that about you.
And beds are comfy but they know it.
Like I'd like to be called the King. I'm gonna need a box spring. I'm like for what? They're like I don't touch the floor. Get your hands off that tag. I'd like this room named after me. Couches are humble, they're like this is about you.
You want to take a nap Be my guest.
You want to have sex with my arm?
I'll think about it.
So last night the crowd was in stitches over this, but the couch actually ends up being a really critical part of the show.
What is the takeaway?
Well I don't want to tell people what what their takeaway should be, but I'll tell you the reason the couch entered into the show was you know the show is a lot about becoming a parent and I was doing some college shows a year ago in the development of this show and I and I found that college students weren't connecting to that version of the show, that didn't have a couch in it.
And was like oh.
It occurred to me they don't they don't they don't even know anyone with kids.
They're closer to being a child.
They're closer to being a child.
They don't even now.
Not only do they not have kids, most of them, they don't plan to have kids, most of them and they don't know anyone with kids, most of them and I was like wow that's a quandary with this show and so I started to think about like what, when I was their age, what was my relationship with being an adult?
And I thought about my couch and how like when I was in college you just get a couch on the street, you know, and it built from there and then I swear to god once I put the couch metaphor, and the couch of course becomes a metaphor in the show, once I put the couch metaphor in the show, it kills the college.
It's like they totally get it.
They're like if you start with the metaphor that's in their universe they'll go anywhere it's just getting them in.
It would have been very easy, arguably, to do The New One as a stand up routine.
Why did it need to be a play?
Sleepwalk With Me was a play I did ten years.
Then transposed, right, into a film?
Well yeah I made it into a film and a book actually after that but that was my first solo off-Broadway play that Nathan Lane presented in 2008.
Then I did My Girlfriend's Boyfriend at the Barrow Street Theatre, 2011 and then Thank God for Jokes in 2016 and so this is my fourth one.
You know women can be cops, it's sort of part of the whole thing.
What's interesting to me when I work with my director Seth Barish is what we like to think of it is as as an experience and it's like I love standup, certainly.
I started out as a door person at a comedy club in Washington D.C.
and I really admire standups.
What I'm interested in is that you can tell stories and ultimately have an arc and have staging and have lighting that creates a full experience.
I don't know, it's just what I love.
It's just what I love.
You know what I mean like a certain point I decided in my life that I was going to try to do things I love instead of doing things I like.
When did you make that decision?
Three months ago.
No, like about ten years ago.
About ten years ago I was, I did like a sitcom pilot for CBS and it was one of those like a dream come true for a comedian and they get their own sitcom and it was, it felt actually sort of bad because it felt like there were so many chefs and there's so many people that by the end of the process, and it didn't go to air, by the end of the process it didn't feel like me and it didn't feel like what I do best.
You must have been relieved that I didn't go to air.
Yeah, I was so relieved. I think it's like the greatest bullet I've dodged in my career and so after that Jen and I moved back to New York and we just said let's just take this show, Sleepwalk With Me, and let's just put all the bells and whistles on it and produce it with the same vigor that they produce network television.
One of the most memorable parts of Sleepwalk With Me you, given your sleep challenges, actually walk through a window.
Jump through a window yeah.
When did you realize that could be funny?
That's a good question.
I feel like I, as a comedian, I sort of knew right away this is nuts.
Hello, I'm staying at the hotel.
I had an incident wherein I jumped out my window and I'm bleeding and I need to go to the hospital.
It did take me about eight or ten months to come to grips with talking about it on stage because there was some degree to which I thought well if I tell people this I might just lock me up against my will, like I might end up in a hospital and this might really.. what's so crazy looking back on it is I thought this might slow down my career.
That's yeah that's the headspace I was in at that moment in time because you know a lot of ways Sleepwalk With Me is about this young guy at the time who is trying to achieve his dreams and he was, you know, in denial about this serious sleepwalking disorder I had, REM behavior disorder, and I would think, I think the line in the show is I would think maybe I should see a doctor and then I thought maybe I'll eat dinner and I went with dinner for years and I never dealt with it until I jumped through a window and then I finally went to a doctor and I was diagnosed and yeah, it's I mean what's wild about the sleepwalking disorder is that there's no cure for it.
And so it's it's just something, you know, I sleep in a sleeping bag and I you know I don't do this anymore but I used to wear mittens so I couldn't open the sleeping bag and then lately because I have a daughter and I bring it up in the show, I created a fitted sleep sheet, it's totally real, a fitted sleep sheet that has a hole for my head.
And the joke is and one for my wife, though she never uses it and then and then I secure the sheet under the mattress with a rope and a camping clasp so I'm like a relatable Hannibal Lecter.
But it's all real man, I mean, but what's funny is is that's an extreme right.
Like that's a really extreme thing to have a sleep sheet and your holes in your head in the hole, but what's interesting is this harkens back to what we were saying earlier people relate to it.
There's a recognition laughter.
And the reason is not because they sleep in a sheet that has holes in it but because everybody has their thing and everybody has their thing they're embarrassed about and they don't want to talk about it and then they see you talk about they go oh I guess I guess I could talk about that.
Mike, thanks so much.
About This Episode EXPAND
Christiane Amanpour speaks with Syrian-American doctor Rim Al-Bezem to discuss her highly unusual, personal foreign policy intervention and actor/musician Jeff Goldblum about his debut jazz album. Alicia Menendez speaks with comedian Mike Birbiglia about his new one-man Broadway show.WATCH FULL EPISODE