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Review: Mike Birbiglia at The Civic

Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia

Comedian Mike Birbiglia has accomplished an impressive amount in his thirteen years as a comedian. He has three Comedy Central stand-up specials, has written and starred in two solo off-Broadway productions (including one that was recognized by Time Out New York in 2009 as the “Show of the Year,”),  has written a national bestseller, has been featured numerous times on “This American Life,” and wrote, directed, and starred in the film “Sleepwalk with Me,” which was embraced by critics and audiences.

Despite such a successful career, there is one thing MIke Birbiglia had not done until this weekend.  “Birbigs,” as his fans call him, had never been to New Orleans, something that changed with his Friday show at the Civic Theater.

“New Orleans is not on the way to anything,” he told the crowd at the Civic. “You have to want to go to New Orleans,” he added before describing it as a perfect stop on a trip from Oklahoma to Cuba.

If this is true, Birbiglia must really want to be in New Orleans. In the middle of his 100 show tour called “Thank God for Jokes,” Birbiglia's four day stay in New Orleans is his longest stop. Even with this interest, he still has quite a bit to learn about New Orleans and its habits.

“This is the latest show I’ve done on my tour,” he said at the top of his show. And, as Birbiglia prides himself as a very punctual person, he watched in amazement and playfully joked as the beginning of the show was delayed and people continued to file in during his set.

“Thank God for Jokes” is a fitting name of Birbiglia’s current act, as each of his stories and bits explore the power of jokes and the trouble into which they’ve gotten him. In other words, Birbiglia is making jokes about jokes.

But don’t let the pretentious sounds of “jokes about jokes” fool you. As Birbiglia masterfully unfurls his stories before his audience, it becomes clear that what is at the center of his work is heart. And as the comedian deftly takes his audience everywhere from a jail in New Jersey to a cold reception at a Christian college to a bombed set with Foozie Bear as opener to an awards show that ends with angering the great David O. Russell, it becomes equally as clear that the audience loves Birbiglia. They are rooting for him. His stories resonate with them like those of a friend, because, like a friend’s stories, Birbiglia’s bits are underscored by an earnestness and vulnerability that are exceedingly rare in stand-up comedy.

How "Birbigs" ended Friday night's show:

While jokes might have landed him in a lot of trouble throughout his life, make no mistake about it: Birbiglia is a masterful joke teller.

“I care a lot about jokes.  I spend a lot of time on them,” he told the audience in the middle of a story about a poorly thought out email that elicited hundreds of fan responses.

This care shows in everything Birbiglia does.  Most of his work is driven by personal accounts of embarrassing, silly, or, in some cases, just plain sad moments in life that are plainly human, but Birbiglia’s ability to make them funny is anything but plain. This was never more evident than in his 2013 special, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” which was ranked as the year’s top special by Vulture, Paste, and Laughspin, and was ranked as one of the top 20 funniest stand-up specials of all-time by Flavorwire.

The thoughtfulness, vulnerability, and continuity of “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” was Mike Birbiglia at his very best.  While the content of “Thank God for Jokes” doesn’t currently rise to those heights, the best of Birbiglia remains- it is incredibly funny and brilliantly crafted. Birbigs gets his audience invested in his experiences and, subsequently, their experience in a way that only the best of writers can do.

New Orleans is one of only 100 stops on Birbiglia’s tour but, with his four-day stay, his fans can only hope that it stands out as one of his favorites.  With New Orleans’ growing demand for top-notch comedy and Birbiglia’s continued rise in the comedy world, his fans can also only hope that Birbigs finds his way back to New Orleans sooner rather than later.  Judging from the warm response to Friday’s show, which included an encore with requests for some of his classic jokes, New Orleans won’t be late the next time Mike Birbiglia comes to town.

James Hamilton is a writer, comedian, performer, and producer based in New Orleans.  Email him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter @oldjoytree.