'Mike Birbiglia: Thank God for Jokes': Theater Review

Mike Birbiglia: Thank God for Jokes - H 2016
Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Although he's more of a storyteller than a joker, Birbiglia makes it all hilarious.

Delivering an extended riff on the perils of joke-telling, the deadpan comic recounts offending David O. Russell and getting parenting tips from President Obama.

Despite the title of his new show, Thank God for Jokes, comedian Mike Birbiglia doesn't traffic so much in jokes, per se. Rather, he tells stories, mostly about himself, which usually end with him being embarrassed or humiliated. And the more embarrassed and humiliated he gets, the funnier he is.

Birbiglia enjoyed theatrical success with his previous efforts, Sleepwalk With Me (adapted into both a book and an independent film) and My Girlfriend's Boyfriend; his new feature, Don't Think Twice, premieres at SXSW next month. In this show, he points out that a successful joke should never have to be followed by the explanation, "I'm joking." He begins the evening in relatively sober fashion, using the Charlie Hebdo massacre as an extreme example of the idea that jokes are inherently "volatile."

But fortunately, things get much more lighthearted from then on. Clad in a plaid shirt, jeans and sneakers, the rumpled, appealing Birbligia goes on to tell stories about personal and professional mishaps. And nearly all of them are hilarious, beginning with his account of being arrested at age 22 for driving without a license. This segment provides the opportunity for amusing interactions with audience members with similar tales; at the performance attended, a young man recounted his experience of being arrested for drunkenly sleeping on someone's front lawn.

But the comedian's youthful misdemeanors pale in comparison to his accounts of professional calamities, such as his performing a long satirical routine about Jesus being a "Jewish socialist" at a Christian college. "He's the original Bernie Sanders," Birbiglia comments, before doing an imitation of Jesus that sounds just like Woody Allen. Needless to say, the bit didn't go over well.

Priding himself on being a relatively clean comic, he delivers a story of how he had to follow no less a comic legend than Fozzie Bear when fulfilling a lifelong dream of performing with the Muppets. Unfortunately, an onstage screw-up resulted in him using the "F" word and then running off the stage, much to the consternation of the audience filled with children and parents.

Birbiglia also reads a double-entendre laden email he sent out to his fans one late night ("I admit that it wasn't my finest comedic moment") and the hilarious email exchange that ensued with a female recipient who ramped up the risqué aspect considerably.

But his funniest routine involves his hosting of the Gotham Awards — a comic introductory video by Jimmy Kimmel taped for the occasion opens this show — in which he decided to recite word-for-word director David O. Russell's notoriously profane dressing down of Lily Tomlin during the making of I Heart Huckabees. Russell, in attendance to receive a special award, was not amused, and stormed out of the ceremony, a response which Birbiglia uses to great comic advantage in his retelling. Suffice it to say he won't be appearing in any of Russell's films anytime soon.

On a gentler note, Birbiglia describes how he and his wife, who was nine months pregnant, met President Barack Obama on a reception line. His wife impulsively asked the POTUS if he had any parenting advice to share, receiving a surprisingly detailed answer. Doing an uncanny imitation, the comedian says that Obama ended the exchange by musing, "That was pretty good advice." Even the head of the free world, it seems, needs self-validation.

Birbiglia delivers all this in a low-key, deadpan fashion, although he clearly enjoys making himself the butt of his jokes. And that enjoyment proves irresistibly infectious.

Venue: Lynn Redgrave Theater, New York
Writer-performer: Mike Birbiglia
Director: Seth Barrish
Scenic designer: Beowulf Borritt
Lighting designers: Aaron Copp, Davison Scandrett
Sound designer: Jim Corona
Presented by Mike Berkowitz, Joseph Birbiglia, Ron Delsener, Mike Lavoie