Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010

Enter the title...Mike Birbiglia: A Semi-Esoteric Comparison

Stand-Up Spoken Word Storyteller Shuffles Through Town on Tour

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Stand-up comic/storyteller Mike Birbiglia hit the historic Pabst Theatre last night. The last stop on his Painfully True Stories Tour met with a respectably large and diverse crowd. Known for his various albums, touring performances and intermittent appearances on This American Life, Birbiglia made it to the stage with a warm reception.

Seeing Mike Birbiglia live is pretty much what one might expect. Birbiglia’s charm comes from a humble, ingratiating stage presence. In contrast to most successful stand-up comedy, Bibiglia’s appeal comes from an even-tempered casual delivery. It seems almost like you’re listening to him talk about life over a beer or a cup of coffee, which is a tremendous accomplishment for someone who has rehearsed and performed the same stories countless times over the course of the past several months. Subjects covered include unwillingness to get married, the first kiss, an auto accident and various other difficulties not uncommon to the human condition.

Birbiglia’s humble presence works well onstage in person. Most stand-up doesn’t necessarily feel any better live than it does on television or in some pre-recorded format. Birbiglia’s emotional connection to the audience as a storyteller adds a depth to the live experience that makes it worth a trip to the theatre and almost worth the ticket price. A couple of years back, he did a one-man show Off-Broadway. It’s not difficult to see the appeal in that.

Birbiglia’s stand-up feels something like a cross between locally-born-and-raised writer/performer Matt Cook and locally based actor/storyteller John McGivern. Here’s a quick look at the comparison—

Birbiglia vs. Cook

Matt Cook, author of Eavesdrop Soup and In The Small of My  Back Yard performed quite a bit on the local poetry slam/spoken word circuit before he left Milwaukee. Hearing Birbiglia on the radio, I never really felt any correlation between the two, but having seen Birbiglia live, the similarities feel really strong.  The two have very similar stage postures . . . they look and feel very similar onstage. The big difference is the material . . . Matt Cook’s stuff, being firmly grounded in a poetry background, is very dense and intellectual. The remarkable thing about this is that Cook can pull off the profoundly intellectual stuff without making it sound anything less than conversational. There’s a kind of high gravity approachability about Cook’s work that makes it easy to forget just how heavy the material is. And it’s very, very funny stuff. (Most of it.) By contrast, Birbiglia’s work, though having the exact same kind of humble approachability about it, is a lot less intellectually heady. Birbiglia’s work lacks the kind of intellectually eclecticism that makes Cook’s stage performances so powerful. Without that kind of offbeat intellectualism driving it, Birbiglia’s work is a lot more marketable . . . hence the one-man show, the successful book, the upcoming film and so on . . . where as little has been heard from Cook since his first three books came out.

Birbiglia vs. McGivern 

The local Emmy Award-winning actor and autobiographical essayist John McGivern is consistently one of the highest profile performers in local theatre and it’s not difficult to understand why. He’s got a very pleasant stage presence that is deeply respectful of the audiences that flock to see him every year. McGivern talks about his childhood in Milwaukee with a kind of love and nostalgia that mixes comedy with genuine emotion in a way not at all unlike Birbiglia. Younger and a bit more offbeat than McGivern, Birbiglia also has a younger and more offbeat audience. This is a man who has written and performed extensively on the subject of somnambulism—jumping through a plate glass window in his sleep only to wake-up to find himself running away from the hotel he had just been sleeping in. Birbiglia’s psyche is going to be substantially more skewed than McGivern’s . . . but when Birbiglia goes for the more sentimental end of human emotion, it feels ever so slightly borrowed—ever so slightly put on like a costume. By the most minute shadows, Birbiglia’s deeper emotion isn’t quite brought to the stage. This is McGiern’s strength—the emotion at the heart of what he’s delivering is consistently authentic emotion to the stage again and again . . . and that’s what keeps people coming back to his performances every time.

The biggest McGivern-like moment Birbiglia brought to the stage was a bit he delivered for an encore—a piece that will evidently appear in this year’s This American Life Christmas show. In it, Birbiglia talks about being a Catholic altar boy. It’s a distinctly different altar boy experience that Birbiglia is relating here—the instant expectation of those in power for altar boys to love Jesus simply because he loves them is absolutely priceless. It's also quite a bit more cynical than anything McGivern brings to the stage.  

Mike Birbiglia’s Painfully True Stories Tour ended last night. His book SLEEPWALK WITH ME and his video WHAT I SHOULD HAVE SAID WAS NOTHING are available various places including his online store.

 


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