Austin — The trend these days is to call Mike Birbiglia a storyteller because his last two shows were long narratives on a single topic: 2011’s My Girlfriend's Boyfriend on his youthful misadventures in romance, and 2012’s Sleepwalk With Me on life with a sleeping disorder.
As his Friday Thank God for Jokes show at Moontower Comedy Festival proved, Birbiglia is above all a superb stand-up comedian. He may be telling tales, but they are super dense with funny lines. He’s a top-tier humorist—no wonder he was a Thurber Prize finalist—who possesses excellent delivery. Great waves of laughter rocked the Paramount. Not titters or chuckles or even reactionary guffaws, but deep satisfying belly laughs. At times people were gasping for breath and laugh-until-you-cry tears were streaming. My face hurt.
In this love song to comedy, Birbiglia asserted himself strongly as a comedian. A sub-theme of Thank God for Jokes was the trouble jokes could get you in, especially at work. He referred repeatedly to times when he knew he’d lost the audience, and vowed never use catch phrases like “Git ‘er done” as a crutch to end jokes. He tweaked his reputation as a “clean comic” and proceeded to be anything but. This tour, he asserted, was not much different that his early years roaming the Midwest in his mom’s borrowed station wagon, trying to get his foot in the comedy door, just with more practice and better confidence.
Birbiglia has a lovely way of starting his shows with congenial crowd work and sliding imperceptibly into the main show. It established an intimacy with the audience, as if he’s just telling jokes in a living room. Yet here Birbiglia was pulling it off in a 1300-seat theater. In this quick-to-offense age, among friends is about the only place you can wisecrack. It’s a delicious balance few comedians can pull off.
In the Thank God for Jokes collection of stories, Birbiglia recounted the embarrassment of:
• Being arrested in Weehawken, New Jersey, getting handcuffed and practically rutting with the police car in an effort to scratch itches he can’t reach;
• Getting chastised for bringing an unauthorized sandwich on walnut bread onto an airplane with a no-nuts policy, and being sent to the stinky bathroom to eat it;
• Alienating an audience by spontaneously cursing even before beginning his act as the inexplicable headliner at a live Muppets show;
• Finding himself compared to swoon actor James Van Der Beek and being found lacking by the audience at Late Night with Seth Meyers.
The Muppets section cascaded from humiliation to recrimination to giving into his inner badness and imagining some the puppet characters as heroin addicts “with Janice using Kermit the frog to tie her arm off,” concluding “I’m pretty sure that for this joke I am going to hell.”
Befitting the title Thank God for Jokes, a sub-theme was church, recounting his choirboy years and noting his desire to be a comedian was rooted in the way brother JoeBigs, as he’s known, would sing pop-culture parodies of hymns while everyone else was praising God. Birbiglia offered a very funny definition of the Holy Trinity and totally aced a description of Jesus as “a Jewish socialist. He’s the least popular demographic, especially with Christians.”
In between such anchor segments were a myriad of shorter vignettes. A piece on his cat Ivan’s protracted encounter with a brain-damaged mouse emphasized his superb skills as a physical comedian. His section bemoaning how he, as an on-time person, attracts “laties” who’ve vexed him all his life, was deeply relatable. As a “latie,” he totally made me laugh at myself even as he drew blood. A finely constructed show with impeccable rhythm, Thank God for Jokes deftly wove recurring elements and themes, and smoothly linked segments while allowing for applause breaks. The show’s extensive pre-tour workshopping at Union Hall in Brooklyn was evident in its polish.
Thank God for Jokes takes Birbiglia beyond being an ace at the embarrassing tale and honest chronicler of neuroses. Now we were treated to glimpses of the interior journey these incidents set off, a sense of how deeply frustrating it must be as the nice, naïve guy. Nearly 36 years old, he’s starting to see patterns and make connections. He’s facing head on his deep tendency toward self -delusion. There’s freedom in that. It’s more than 90 minutes of his best material yet.