Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia
Over the past decade, Mike Birbiglia has emerged as one of the most talented comedians in the United States and is one of the youngest stand-ups to ever appear on the Late Show with David Letterman. The New York-via-Boston talent essentially got into stand-up when his blog became super popular and he’s now a fixture on late-night TV who’s toured across the world, releasing four albums along the way. His latest record is My Secret Public Journal Live, which was spawned the new, corresponding live DVD entitled, What I Should Have Said was Nothing! Tales From My Secret Public Journal. After catching up with Birbiglia to discover more about his origins as a comedian and these new releases, he sent an email announcing that a pilot for a television show based on his Journal was green-lit by CBS. So, look out for that next fall but, for now, here’s an interview with a slightly less famous version of Mike Birbiglia than the one that exists now.

Mike, the concept of your blog My Secret Public Journal is intriguing and many Canadians may not know about it. Can you discuss what this Journal is all about and how it relates to your live act?
My Secret Public Journal is a blog that I write and I’m always a little embarrassed to tell people I have a blog because everyone has one these days about anything. People will be like, "Today I went to JC Penney,” and there’s one comment, "JC Penney, eh?” That’s not really a blog, that’s a text message. I’m not giving you kudos. What’s actually sad about having a blog is sometimes you get no comments, which really hurts your self-esteem. It’s kind of like being in an awkward conversation for 15 minutes, where you’re like the only person talking, and then at the end just being like, "So, I’m just putting that out there…” But people subscribe to mine and I eventually culled the best stories together into one live comedy album, which is My Secret Public Journal.

Were you a comedian before you had a blog?
I don’t think so but I was a writer. As a kid I wanted to be a poet or a rapper. I had all kinds of absurd ambitions when I was a child, so I was always writing something. Poetry is always very different when you’re a child. When you’re an adult, it’s all about love and pain but when you’re a kid, it’s like "Does anybody know a word that rhymes with shark?” It’s a lot more superficial.

Like many comedians, you draw from a lot of personal experiences for your material but as a celebrity of sorts — and I mean that with all due respect — your personal experiences these days are really a lot cooler and stranger than most people’s. Are you finding it easier to write material as your profile gets higher?
Stranger; stranger is more accurate. My favourite track on the album is a story where I’m actually asked to perform at the MVP awards for Major League Baseball. The problem with this is that, when you have my kind of low-to-moderate level of exposure, you end up being invited, occasionally, to these events where you’re theoretically a celebrity but no one knows who you are. For example, I’ll be asked to be in a celebrity golf tournament and they’ll pair me up in a foursome, and those people are saying to me, "Who do you think our celebrity’s gonna be?” and I’m just like, "Oh no. I think it might be me.” And then I’m apologising for it, like, "I’m really sorry I’m your celebrity. If you think this is disappointing for you, you can’t imagine how disappointing it is for me.” So yeah, a lot of it is just fish-out-of-water scenarios I find myself in. Traveling in general creates more stories I think and I do a lot of that; I perform probably in 100 or more cities a year.

Reading people your secret public journal entries kind of puts you out there and open for people to know a lot about you. Is there a limit to how much of your own life makes it into your act or have you ever stopped yourself from discussing something that’s happened to you?
Yeah, I think there are limits but I don’t really wanna tell people what they are, so they can’t spot my weakness. But yeah, I think there are certain things that end up not being addressed, which is natural. You have to close the door at a certain point on certain aspects of your life.

One of the interesting aspects of your style is that it just seems like you’re telling stories about things that have happened to you. It seems almost effortless, whereas, with some comedians, you can really tell they’ve been honing an act.
Yeah, I hate, um, effort. I hate exuding effort or doing things, so my style really plays to my strength, which is not doing anything. Yeah, no, I agree with you. The comedy that I really enjoy is where you don’t really feel tense for the performer. That’s always the worst; when you see a comedian and you feel bad for them or feel the struggle of what they’re doing. To make an analogy, if you see a gymnast and they do something you could never possibly do and they do it without a hint of effort, it’s really impressive and enjoyable. When you see too much effort, it can be painful for everyone in the room.

You tend to talk a lot about hip-hop in your act and you sound like a real fan. Is that right; do you love rap music Mike?
I like some of it. My girlfriend’s been playing the new Kanye West record like crazy lately, which I really like. I think it’s great. I listen to a lot of indie rock and toured with the band the Format last summer. I’m performing at Bonnaroo this summer and I’ve performed at the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle. So yeah, I like hip-hop a lot and indie rock and I listen to a lot of stuff.

Okay, I was just curious because rap seems to come up a lot and you mine some humour from it.
Well, I wanted to be a rapper when I was a kid but it was different when I was growing up. In the 80s, it was very innocent and just like, "Ribbita rap rap rappa rap-tastic,” y’know? But you see a lot of rap now where people will get angry about nothing. Like, "It’s 2008 motherfucker!” And I’m like, "You’re mad about the date? You gotta pick your battles.” If you get mad about that, no one’s gonna believe you when you’re mad about real stuff. Like, "You crashed into my car motherfucker!” "Yeah, but you were mad that it was 2008. You’re like the boy who cried motherfucker.”

[Laughs] Yeah, I know where you’re coming from. It’s a pretty different world in hip-hop these days. Finally Mike, I’m wondering about this new DVD of yours, What I Should Have Said Was Nothing. It seems to have some connection to the latest record, My Secret Public Journal Live. What makes the DVD particularly unique?
It actually has a lot of the material from My Secret Public Journal Live plus a lot of material from Two Drink Mike, so it’s about a 90-minute piece, plus it has this 30-minute documentary from my touring. So, it’s a pretty action-packed piece and it’s the coolest item I’ve ever put out in stores. It kind of puts it all together — it kinda takes the best of the two albums and puts them together in one action-packed DVD.

Cool, sounds awesome. Oh, Mike, I notice that you have a big tour coming up but there are no Canadian dates.
I think that if I came to Canada, it might be one of these situations where they’re like, "Who do you think the comedian’s gonna be?” and I’ll be like, "I think it might be me.” Hopefully it’ll end up that my TV special that was on Comedy Central here will be on the Comedy Network there and more people would know me and I can come visit.

Well, there are clips of you on TheComedyNetwork.ca.
Oh, is that right?

Yeah, they’ve actually made it so that people in Canada can no longer visit ComedyCentral.com, which is a real travesty and tragedy. Basically, they were upset that entire episodes of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were streaming in their entirety at comedycentral.com, so they’ve superseded that domain name, but taken some content from comedycentral.com, including clips of you. It’s a little draconian and evil in a way…
[Laughs] That is evil!

But yeah, I think your profile is rising here.
That’s good to know. I’ll try and make the trip. Actually, I’ve done the Montreal comedy festival a bunch of times and I may be there this summer with my new show, Sleepwalk with Me.

That’s gonna be your next record too, right?
That’s my next record, yeah. So, look out for that. I do a lot of college shows; I perform at like 25 colleges a year, so hopefully I’ll make it to your neck of the woods soon.