The comedian performs "Thank God for Jokes" Friday at the Civic Theatre.

Mike Birbiglia photo
By Brian Friedman

“Comedy is the thing that makes me feel closest to the people I feel closest to,” comedian Mike Birbiblia says, and it’s the glue that connects people who otherwise have little in common. “The other day I was at a bed & breakfast in Charleston and I struck up a conversation with this middle-aged guy who’s a banker in Dallas, someone I have little in common with,” he says. “When he found out I was a comedian, he told me a Ron White joke which is really funny. To paraphrase, If I won the lottery, the first thing I’d do is be spending a lot of time with my new friends. It’s a hilarious joke, and he did it better than I did. Ron does it better than that, but it made me feel like I could be friends with this guy, who couldn’t be farther off from me politically or life experience-wise.”

Birbiglia will perform his new show, “Thank God for Jokes,” Friday night at the Civic Theatre, and the deep power of jokes the show’s central thought. There’s something so personal and intimate about laughter that when he joked with a waitress that their conversation was funnier than the show she wasn’t going to be able to attend, she said, I have a boyfriend. Because of that, he means the show’s title literally. “When we have 600, 700 people in a room laughing together, it’s a borderline religious experience.”

Birbiglia started as a stand-up comedian whose work began to cohere into long-form performances that blurred the line between theatrical monologue and stand-up comedy. His off-Broadway show “Sleepwalk with Me” became the basis for a film that he directed and starred in, and he followed that with “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” a very funny combing through his romantic history. All of this sounds heavier than it is. Part of Birbiglia’s gift is his awkward balance, so premises threaten to become squirmworthy but are lightened by details and asides that adjust the stakes of the story without removing them. 

Because the new show’s theme is jokes, “This might be the funniest show I’ve ever done,” Birbiglia says. He envisions it become an off-Broadway show at some point, so he’s fine tuning it nightly, adding some new bits in each performance while refining others. “I’m always trying to hone it until it’s the best version of itself,” he says. He has already replaced some jokes that kill but don’t make sense inside the theme of the show. “The goal long term is to have a show that is full of jokes that adds up to a single story and a single narrative arc,” he says.

Because so much of his humor comes from real life, he tries to have one. He tours for a week on then takes a week off. “It’s important to do laundry and walk around my neighborhood,” Birbiglia says. His New Orleans show is a case where real life and his personal life come together because a friend of his wife is getting married in New Orleans this weekend. That gave him a reason schedule a show and see friends, including Benh Zeitlin, who was showing Beasts of the Southern Wild at Sundance Film Festival the same year that Birbiglia was there with Sleepwalk with Me. It’s also one of the rare occasions when he can do a family event on a Saturday. “That’s when my job is,” he says.

Although he thinks of himself as a writer first, Birbiglia also loves the simple fun of riffing and improv comedy. “It’s what I started with in college,” he says. “The principles of improv I love - yes, and … - agreeing with whoever it is you’re talking to and building on that. It’s a good principle to live by.”