Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Mike Birbiglia: Laugh Because You Have No Choice

Cancer jokes don't usually get a lot of laughs, but they do when Mike Birbiglia tells them. No, really, listen. I'll wait.

See what I mean? The man behind this laughter, thirty-five year old stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia (another personal hero), has performed stand-up for over fifteen years now, but his comedy didn't always come from such personal or painful experiences. In a 2012 interview with Time Out London, he revealed his comic jumping-off point, saying "When I was in high school I saw Stephen Wright (...) I thought: That's what I should do, I should write one-liners. And I did. My first album is mostly one-liners." In 2003, however, he was asked to perform at a live, candid story-telling show, where he ended up telling an embarrassing story about his first high-school girlfriend. Feeling both vulnerable and invigorated, the young comic set about changing the style of his performances--opening up and sharing more personal, emotional stories with his audience. Incidentally, the story he told about his first girlfriend has since undergone many rewrites, and was eventually performed on NPR's This American Life.

So why is Mike (Mr. Birbiglia feels too formal for someone who has described an ill-fated diving experience in a pond as "a back-alley colonoscopy") so creative? The idea of self-effacing comedy, or even finding humor in life's painful moments, is nothing altogether new: the old saying goes "comedy equals tragedy plus time." The difference between Mike and other comics who similarly draw material from tragic events in their own life seems to be that Mike uses his stand-up as a form of healing and self-analysis. It's no wonder that one of his first works to achieve national fame, My Secret Public Journal, started when a therapist asked Mike to record some of the most humiliating and awful experiences in his day to day life as part of his therapy.

As time continued, he pushed this idea further, devoting portions of his act to failed relationships (often ones that were failing even as he joked about them), public humiliation, his ongoing fear of marriage, and, most dramatically, a sleep-walking incident that almost killed him.

In a recent interview with the Michigan based MLive, Birbiglia shared his perspective on comedy, saying "It’s this thing that can alienate us and also bond us closer together. What I’m trying to create in the room is that the whole thing is one big inside joke that we are all in on. The goal is how unlikely can you make the comedy? How unlikely of an event can you make into something comedic?" This constant pushing to see how tragic an event can be made into a comic story, along with his tendency to use comedy as a healing force, reflects a study of highly creative women discussed in the Collins and Amabile article, that described three underlying psychological needs that drove all of the subjects: "self-understanding, personal order and control, and emotional regulation." Add laughter to that list and you've got a stand-up comic for the ages. 

If you're in need of a good laugh, Birbiglia's stand-up can be found on youtube or on his site, or you could catch him live at Damen student center this Saturday night at 8 (how's that for a plug?). In any case, it's best to remember Mike's own words, "At some point, all you can do is laugh about this stuff because you have no choice." 

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