Published May 26, 2017If there is one standup special that should be considered required viewing in 2017, it is Mike Birbiglia's Thank God for Jokes. In our age of outrage, Birbiglia's special is a concise appreciation of humour and its cathartic benefits amidst almost constant global consternation.
The routine is a charmingly performed thesis, with Birbiglia examining himself as a case study. He believes humour is a necessary social tool, and that comedy has an unmatched ability to unite people — it's often the stupid jokes that we share with one another that bring us closer together. Shared jokes (like Birbiglia and his wife renaming Massachusetts to Catssachusetts) allow us to identify a similar weirdness in others. Yet, he admits, in this large and diverse world, not everyone will find Catssachussets funny. Unfortunately, the speed with which we transfer information can be problematic; at much higher stakes, jokes more taboo than an innocuous cat pun can be taken out of context across the world, in the worst way.
After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Birbiglia concludes — when asked by his mother if writing non-offensive jokes is possible — that all jokes will inevitably offend someone. It's all about context and civility. Everyone will at one point make a joke, and without fail, everyone will have a turn to be the punch line.
With this theme in mind, Birbiglia launches into a hilarious and distracted narrative about his performance at the Gotham Awards a few years prior. The story concerns a dilemma that Birbiglia faced regarding a joke he was torn about telling at the ceremony, when he knew the subject would be in the audience. During the telling, Birbiglia deviates from the dilemma's timeline to speak to his development as a comedian, nut allergies, swearing in front of the Muppets and a whole slew of cleverly organized asides, all with the same theme in mind: for these topics to be funny, someone will need to be the punch line. So he decides to tell the joke at the ceremony.
Birbiglia's "sticks and stones" message is expressed with such passion and innocent enthusiasm that it really highlights the absurdity of violence over humour. The routine is so well layered that the audience isn't hit over the head with sanctimonious rhetoric. At no point does it feel like a lecture on free speech, nor does it come from a place of spite or anger. Birbiglia simply makes the case that well-crafted comedy is a positive force, that words are just words, and anything can be offensive if you choose to take it out of context. It could be his soft demeanour but very few comedians could convey such a weighty message so sincerely.
Exclaim! is reviewing every standup comedy special currently available on Netflix Canada, including this one. You can find a complete list of reviews so far here.