Fathom Mag

Published on:
November 11, 2020
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4 min.
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All Saints: Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia finished his story and stole my breath.

Comedy specials—at least as we perceive them—make our ribs ache with laughter and elicit a few shocked gasps. They might even slow our pulses long enough to let a few uncomfortable truths sink deep.

But the last seconds of Birbiglia’s My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend tilted, then toppled my axis of expectation. After a virtuosic hour of keeping his story straight, of balancing beginnings, middles and ends—and the people, places and things within them—Birbiglia drew a conclusion. And, with a single-sentence epiphany, he leveled his world and mine. 

With these words, he became my patron saint of storytellers everywhere: “… But I believe in her and I’ve given up on the idea of being right.”

With these words, he became my patron saint of storytellers everywhere: “… But I believe in her and I’ve given up on the idea of being right.”

Explaining the gravity of those words might technically qualify as a spoiler. But it’s nearly impossible to spoil the joy of watching Birbiglia arrive at them. My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend retraces the storyteller’s steps on his way to his wife, the poet Jen Stein. But much more happens here. 

We listen as Birbiglia describes the dawning, disappointing nature of adolescent sexuality, a “long history of failed kisses,” his wrestling match with the meaning of marriage, and the obsessive aftermath of a near-death experience. And we bear witness as a man learns not to lean on his own understanding. 

His work, here and elsewhere, never wears a single label. Birbiglia knows the dimensions of a theater’s stage, the pop of public radio and the view from a director’s chair. 

I adore the savvy standup of John Mulaney, but he never exhales like Birbiglia, completely undone by a moment. I respect the narrative craftsmanship of Birbiglia’s frequent collaborator Ira Glass, but the NPR impresario can’t build the same lived-in suspense. Even my favorite modern novelists fail to connect the dots in the same fashion. 

Birbiglia’s comedy is cerebral until it’s physical, slapstick until it’s sobering. This full, multi-faceted approach grounds audiences in reality: life never unfolds one event or emotion at a time. Seemingly singular choices and gut reactions bear the fingerprints of a million moments and subconscious stimuli. 

We survive and, if we’re lucky, flourish thanks to the stories we tell. Narratives explain us to ourselves. Yet we struggle to sift this common currency. Like kids who value a nickel over a dime—it’s bigger, after all—we rarely recognize what we hold or esteem it honestly. Unable or unwilling to tether our stories to the stories of others, unless it’s to lay blame, we muddle along as unreliable narrators.

Birbiglia teaches a lesson worth its weight: attending to every fragment of our stories enables us to find the whole.

Birbiglia’s storytelling models a more excellent way. He tempers his running inner monologue with hindsight; a well-placed “stay with me” or “I’m in the future too” leavens a story with the long view. Our stories deserve the same treatment. This is how we live, after all: informed by the past, yet unfolding in the present tense. 

Birbiglia leaves few details alone. He troubles them and pays them due respect, interrogating and examining even the smallest matter. Any aside or circumstance is open for interpretation or further probing. 

Blame the comic’s psyche if you will, the benevolent neurosis. But Birbiglia teaches a lesson worth its weight: attending to every fragment of our stories enables us to find the whole. We regard all our moments—not to obsess over them, but to emerge as better people on the other side. 

I swim within stories, scrutinizing details and refreshing memories. I spend much of my life and writing groping for lengths of rope, ways to tie my story to yours, to tether myself to a story that will outlast me. But I’m nowhere close to doing what Birbiglia does.

Give me an hour and a microphone, and I fear where my last breath would land. No doubt, the words would break my own skin—a few jokes at my own expense, feints here and there toward vulnerability. I could identify, and even thoughtfully render, the main characters in my story; I’d even name most of the minor ones. 

If I stop you in your tracks, let it be because my stories end like prayers.

But I fear the whole affair would end up serving me. My confessions, my revelations, my growth. The genius in Birbiglia’s work points away from the storyteller. Maybe it’s the craft that saves him. Spending tens of hours refining every beat and every breath should yield softness. 

But Birbiglia always sells it, as if no other order is natural. He remains at the center, yet demonstrates that even the hub of a wheel fails without the spokes. Connection and comedy always sound greater than him, dependent on time and history and other people. 

And my Lord, those closing words from My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend: “I’ve given up on the idea of being right.” Daring to believe in something—or someone—else always leads us here, surrendering our rights to be right. How often do our stories alight on a similar recognition? Even at our most self-effacing, we cast ourselves as the martyr, the hero, the point. Rarely do we leave our audience wanting more details about the people who brought us to the end of ourselves.

Reader, I want to steal your breath—never with my prowess or the polished ring of my halo. If I stop you in your tracks, let it be because my stories end like prayers. My will aligned with another being’s, my awe and affection directed outward and upward. Then, and only then, may I take my place a few yards from Mike Birbiglia, somewhere in a line of truly reliable narrators. 

Where to begin with Mike Birbiglia:

Sleepwalk with Me (2012) Birbiglia wrote, directed and stars in this barely-fictionalized big-screen version of his own foibles. Telling his true tall tale, the comic builds upon the rocksteady foundation of a This American Life episode and stage show, sifting his experiences with a dangerous sleep disorder and a strained romance—and trying to determine which evokes greater fear.

My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend (2013) Birbiglia has made great work before and after this standup special—and will no doubt continue to evolve as an artist. But it’s hard for me to imagine anything he does will hold greater power over me; relating a love story it took a lifetime to realize, Birbiglia masterfully weaves together minute threads and ends up with a tapestry. 

Thank God for Jokes (2017) Rather than gather an hour-long string of punchlines, Birbiglia crafts an entire longform special on the holiness—and profanity—of jokes. The work retains his signature union of self-deprecating humor and fathomless storytelling. What’s more, Thank God for Jokes could—and should—be taught as lived-in theory, delineating what comedy stands for and what can be cast on the discard pile of “I’m joking.”

Aarik Danielsen
Aarik Danielsen is the arts and music editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri. He is a writer, editor, and curator concerned with the intersection of faith, culture, and human dignity. Follow him on Twitter or read more from Aarik on Facebook.

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