Mike Birbiglia goes back to his comedy roots

05/15/2014 3:52 PM

05/15/2014 3:53 PM

Don’t worry, Mike Birbiglia fans: The comedian, storyteller and master of the awkward, embarrassing tale will never run out of material.

“I couldn’t possibly run out of stories,” said Birbiglia, who will bring his “Thank God for Jokes” tour to the Wichita Orpheum on Friday. “Because life is just so funny.”

Funny and humbling. Funny and brutal. Funny and – well, just consider the following story.

Birbiglia’s recent special “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” was nominated for best special of the year by the American Comedy Awards, so he and his wife, Jenny, attended the ceremony.

It was hosted by Chris Rock and attended by Seth Rogen, Amy Poehler, Bill Hader and other big names in comedy. Bill Cosby was honored with the Johnny Carson Award for Comedic Excellence. People wore tuxedos and fancy gowns. The audience applauded as, one by one, honorees went onstage to accept their awards.

And they skipped right over Birbiglia’s category.

“So Chris Rock goes, ‘That’s the show. Good night.’ And my wife looks at me and says, ‘I guess they’re not going to do your award?’ ” Birbiglia said, chuckling. “I’m totally serious. That completely happened.”

When producers called all the nominees to the stage for a final group photo, “I was like, ‘Oh, no, am I even a nominee?’ ” Birbiglia said. “I started to have this ‘Beautiful Mind’ moment where I’m like, did it even happen? Are these real people? Was I even invited to this?”

He was. The stand-up comedian and “This American Life” regular had his major breakthrough in 2012 when his film “Sleepwalk With Me” became a critical smash. That film, based on his off-Broadway one-man show, followed Birbiglia’s real-life journey dealing with an increasingly hilarious and dangerous sleep disorder.

He followed that up with “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” – available via Netflix, Amazon or iTunes – which recounts how a car accident led to his decision to get married. (That performance also features the funniest rendition of a carnival Scrambler ride you will ever see.)

Unlike those shows, in which Birbiglia tells a series of stories that add up to a single narrative, the “Thank God for Jokes” tour is a return to his more traditional comedy roots, he said.

“I wanted to go back and see what happens if I just try and make the funniest show possible, just a collection of funny stories and observations,” said Birbiglia, 35. “And a theme kind of emerged along the way.”

That theme is jokes – how they can enhance life and how they also can be dangerous.

“Jokes make me feel closer to people … but they’re kind of a double-edged sword in that they can get you in trouble and they can alienate you from people,” he said. “It’s this interesting kind of risk vs. reward proposition, where you have to always be evaluating who is getting hurt. Who’s the collateral damage, and is it worth it?”

Friday’s show – part of the final leg of Birbiglia’s 100-city American tour – will mark the comedian’s first trip to Wichita. A niche artist, Birbiglia has a devoted cadre of fans who tend to follow his comedy work, movies and Twitter feed ( @birbigs), but “it’s weird town to town,” he said.

“I might go on local radio shows or TV shows, and they’re saying, ‘We don’t know who Mike Birbiglia is.’ And I just say, ‘Well, I don’t know what to tell you. They’ve heard of me in the other places.’ ”

This summer, wider audiences will see him in “The Fault in Our Stars,” a movie based on John Green’s best-selling young adult novel. Birbiglia plays Patrick, the leader of a cancer patient support group. And within days of returning home from his comedy tour, Birbiglia will begin filming “Trainwreck,” a movie written by Amy Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow.

In the meantime, he plans to keep doing standup and keep telling stories – about getting passed over at awards ceremonies, missing planes, losing arguments or the countless other indignities of daily life.

“Just burned my belly on a chicken finger. #DontAskDontTell,” he tweeted recently.

So of course we had to ask.

“Oh, yes, the secret incidents of my life,” Birbiglia said. “I was wearing no shirt, and as I was taking the chicken fingers out of the oven, one of them flew against my belly. And I was like, ‘This is something that needs to get to the people. This information needs to be relayed immediately.’

“Life is funny,” he said, “because life is bad. And it’s not going to go away.”

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