It’s a common belief that analyzing what’s funny is not particularly funny. Mike Birbiglia proves the exception to the rule in his new solo show at Off Broadway’s Lynn Redgrave Theater. The show places him among the top tier of smart-funny comedians whose humor comes from a sly, subversive and introspective place.
Birbiglia’s latest opens with a film clip of Jimmy Kimmel introducing the comedian, who was the host of the 2012 Gotham Independent Film Awards. When Birbiglia, most known for his play, book and film “Sleepwalk With Me,” steps out on the stage in “Thank God for Jokes,” he looks the opposite of a slick jokester set to chuckle-up the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Amy Adams and Claire Danes, in a place where “every possible topic would be a minefield. “
“I’m a niche thing,” says Birbiglia, noting his non-A-list status, but with a profile that’s growing a bit with a recent stint in “Orange Is the New Black.” (Among the opening night crowd at “Thank God for Jokes” were Seth Myers, Nathan Lane and Ben Stiller.)
Wearing a plaid shirt, rumpled slacks and sneakers, Birbiglia comes across as a lumpy Matt Damon: engaging, aging-boyish and sweetly matter-of fact.
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As Birgilia recounts how stressed he was at the prospects of telling jokes to this Hollywood crowd, he begins an easy-going yet often hysterically funny examination of what a joke is and what makes it funny — or not. “Jokes are a volatile thing,” he says. “All jokes are offensive, to someone.”
Birbiglia often takes the audience on a circuitous route from his standup-as-thesis, talking about people who are late for everything — and doing a terrific riff on several unfortunate audience latecomers — to a visit to his urologist (always comedy gold), to the time he and his wife met the President and had a conversation about baby poo.
Whether he’s doing puns, punchlines or truisms, Birbiglia keeps returning to his point that “jokes have to be about something. That’s what I love about jokes. They’re your side of the story. They’re your opinion.”
And opinions inevitably piss someone off. Like the time he got arrested for driving with a suspended license and the cop didn’t share his sense of humor. Or a flight attendant who didn’t appreciate his riff on nut allergies. Or when he performed at a Christian college where he called Jesus “the original Bernie Sanders.”
“Jesus died so I could tell those jokes,” he gently insists, adding when you “get” the joke, there’s a special bond between the teller and the listener, “which means, in a way, it’s like we’re married.”
The show eventually returns to his Hollywood hosting stint and the one elaborate joke he told centering on an infamous outburst by director David O. Russell that went viral on the Internet. That telling elicits gales of laughter, but it also deftly proves Birbiglia’s point that jokes are liberating, important and personal.