Thank God For Jokes: Review by Tolly Wright
At the climax of his latest Off-Broadway show, Mike Birbiglia delivers a tirade of four-letter expletives with an apologetic smile. For the stand-up comedian who gained a large following through personal tales of social awkwardness and unusual medical conditions on NPR’s This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, the riff is a departure from his normal vocabulary, but not his signature method of winding, honest storytelling.
For Thank God for Jokes, Birbiglia recruited frequent collaborator Seth Barrish, who also directed Birbiglia’s triumphant debut, Sleepwalk with Me (2008) and the award-winning My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. Much like Sleepwalk, the new piece hinges on one pivotal, life-changing moment, but takes the audience down several seemingly unrelated, meandering asides before knitting threads together thematically. Such narrative and theatrical deftness transcends traditional stand-up.
While the catalyst in Sleepwalk was a near-death experience, Thank God focuses on the circumstances that led the mild-mannered comic to choose to tell a controversial joke at a highly publicized award show. Though neither of Birbiglia’s prior shows (which toured nationally) were suitable for kids, both were basically PG-13, and this choice to commit to racier material is a career step for a comic whose clean(ish) reputation earned him spots performing at large Christian universities or with The Muppets.
While the material lacks Sleepwalk's emotional punch (it’s hard to compete with a story about falling out of love and a second-story window) the writing and delivery is as sharp as ever. Not every performer has the confidence to spin a ten-minute bit around a lame pun like “Catsachussettes" and have us roaring. When he throws crowd work—admonishing latecomers—the teasing is quite endearing. Longtime fans might miss the more radio-friendly material, but Birbiglia makes a compelling argument for regular usage of the word fuck and earns forgiveness for straying from a reputation that was not always true to him.—Tolly Wright
Lynn Redgrave Theater (Off Broadway). Written and performed by Mike Birbiglia. Directed by Seth Barrish. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.