I walked into Campbell Hall last Sunday night prepared for the usual stand-up comedy routine. Before the show, my knowledge of the comedian Mike Birbiglia was limited to half of his Comedy Central special “Tales from My Secret Public Journal” (now available on Netflix Instant!) and the trailer for his 2012 film “Sleepwalk with Me.” Though I entered the theater a “Birbigs” novice, I left a dedicated fan.
From the very beginning, I could tell that “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” was not just another comedy show filled with disconnected jokes and humorous observations. It had a carefully constructed narrative with relatable characters, a timeline and a plot the audience quickly felt invested in, all narrated and acted out by the likable Birbiglia.
The show originally premiered in 2011 as a one-man, off-Broadway performance, which garnered Birbiglia the Lucille Lortel Award and nominations for the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for outstanding solo performance.
Theatrical aspects like music and lighting were important additions to the show, adding to its dramatic comedic style; the narrative jumped around quite a bit, but it told the story effectively rather than disjointedly.
Birbiglia opened the show by explaining how often he gets into arguments with people. The problem at the root of his arguments, he explained simply, is that he knows he is right and that they are wrong. He gave a few examples and the audience laughed appreciatively. A moment later he mentioned the time he broke up with his college sweetheart — his fiancée actually — and stopped believing in marriage. Here, Birbiglia shows his natural propensity for mixing comedy and drama, a technique that is common in solo performances but that certainly sets him apart from other current comedians.
For the next hour, Birbiglia talked of his long-time girlfriend Jenny, of the first time they met, their first date, the first time she rejected him when he tried to kiss her, eventually dating seriously, breaking up, moving in together and the hit-and-run accident that changed his entire attitude about relationships and arguments.
Throughout this story, he sporadically jumped back in time to middle school, high school and college to sprinkle the present with tales of past (often failed) romances. He talked about rejection, being a member of the “Non-Makeout Club” in 7th grade and a horrifyingly hilarious date at a carnival that involved a ride called “The Scrambler” and massive amounts of popcorn, cotton candy and ice cream. There is no choice but to respect Birbiglia for such honesty.
At the heart of performance, however, was Birbiglia’s skill when it comes to entertaining. His casual demeanor and expertise in weaving events kept me captivated from beginning to end, constantly wondering what would happen in his story and what actually did happen in his life. Unlike some comedians today, who aim to shock the audience with profanity and over-the-top loudness, Birbiglia seemed to be himself on stage. He was unassuming and self-deprecating, adding quiet one-liners that made it seem like he was talking to himself. He slowly built the conflict in situations, using silence and repetition of dialogue to pull the audience in and keep them hanging onto every word. He did not need to be “in your face” because he quickly won his way into the audience’s hearts.
Birbiglia ended the show as a completely transformed character. Every story he had told so far led to his final line, a variation on the first topic he presented to the audience.
“I’ve given up on the idea of being right,” he said.
I am so grateful to Arts & Lectures for bringing such talent to UCSB, an event that left me desperately wanting more Birbigs. But this is a pretty simple task to achieve with the accessibility of his work. If you weren’t lucky enough to be part of the packed crowd in Campbell Hall Sunday night, there are plenty of ways to get your comedy fix. Birbiglia currently has three Comedy Central specials, three CDs, a bestselling book called Sleepwalk with Me and & Other Painfully True Stories, as well as the 2012 film based on the book. I encourage you to check him out!