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‘Good One’ goes behind scenes

Mike Birbiglia documentary takes a look at comedy

By Evan Rosen, New York Daily News
Published: April 13, 2024, 5:32am

NEW YORK — If you’ve enjoyed Mike Birbiglia’s dry sense of humor and deeply personal one-man shows, it turns out the feeling is mutual.

“I think I’m one of the very few comedians who really enjoys my fans. They’re generally really funny people,” the 45-year-old “Sleepwalk with Me” star recently told the Daily News.

That shared respect might be partly why he allowed a camera crew to follow him around and film his comedic process, capturing behind-the-scenes footage of how he builds a show in what became the new Peacock documentary “Good One: A Show About Jokes,” released March 26.

Birbiglia, a comedian and storyteller from Shrewsbury, Mass., compares the documentary to “literally opening the curtain to what it’s like to create an hour of comedy,” a subject he’s also been exploring in his podcast “Working It Out.”

“Every episode I’m working on jokes in real time. Some of them work and some of them don’t, but they make for good conversations,” he explains.

The documentary, directed by Eddie Schmidt, offers a unique look into Birbiglia’s life and creative philosophy, with interviews featuring his family, friends and industry peers, including comedians Seth Meyers and Hasan Minhaj.

In watching “Good One,” it’s easy to see that Birbiglia’s comedy revolves around his ability and willingness to connect with his audience.

He talks about discovering early on in his stand-up career that sharing vulnerable stories about his life is not as dangerous as his father had once warned him. Instead that vulnerability has the potential to forge deep connections with audiences.

It’s a methodology that he’s used to great effect throughout the years, beginning with his 2008 one-man show “Sleepwalk with Me” and the film adaptation by the same name, which revealed his struggles with REM sleep behavior disorder.

In “The Old Man and the Pool,” Birbiglia’s latest Netflix special , the comedian muses on death and his more recent health struggles with Type 2 diabetes.

“When I see my fans, they feel like they know me because they kind of do,” Birbiglia says. “I’m not withholding that much.”

It’s true, Birbiglia is a fairly open celebrity. He’s quick to share that he lives in Brooklyn with his wife, poet Jen Stein, and their 8-year-old daughter Oona.

He says he enjoys performing extended runs of his shows in the city because “you feel like you’re part of a community, and you feel like you’re sharing a thing with a group of strangers who for that period of time, don’t feel like strangers.”

Birbiglia is currently in the midst of a national tour, taking his new stand-up act “Please Stop the Ride” across the country. He’ll make stops at Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre on June 8 and several shows in Sag Harbor later this summer.

“Good One” shows the first step in the process of creating his new act, which in this iteration began with small workshop performances in a sectioned-off mezzanine – what Birbiglia calls “The Strange Attic” of the Columbus Theatre in Providence, Rhode Island.

“You’re probably thinking, ‘How come we don’t get the final product? We just get the first draft,’” he teases the small audience. “I feel like Providence is a first-draft town. I feel like maybe that’s who you are.”

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At the end of the documentary, Birbiglia admits he still isn’t sure what his new hour of comedy will be about. Now that he’s touring it, he says he’s still “in the first year of development.”

“I can tell you what I’m thinking about this week,” he offers, when asked about the subject of the new routine.

“I’ve been meditating on how, when you raise a child and they’re 8, they start to ask more questions and more sophisticated questions, and you realize, as a 45-year-old, how few answers you have for these questions. It’s a shocking age to realize how little you know,” Birbiglia explains.

“But when I look back on my life, it’s not the things that I know or don’t know, or right about or wrong about. It was the small acts of kindness that I’ve either perceived or given that are significant in my life. That’s sort of what I’m meditating on these days.”

Whether the tour will lead him back to Broadway, where “The Old Man and the Pool” enjoyed a popular stint at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater from October 2022 to January 2023, remains to be determined.

Birbiglia keeps finding himself performing at increasingly larger venues, which he attributes to an increasing demand for live comedy in trying times.

“In this moment of massive disconnection and polarity over essentially a new issue every day, I think that live comedy is a really special thing to have,” he explains. “Maybe let’s just put aside that stuff for now and have 90 minutes where we laugh and remind ourselves that we’re just so lucky to be alive.”