Mike Birbiglia talks his book The New One, vulnerability, and the YMCA circle of life
We’ve all been embarrassed. It would actually be embarrassing if you’ve never been embarrassed (are you a robot?) But no one’s made embarrassment as poignant and honest as comedian Mike Birbiglia. His critically acclaimed 2008 one-man show Sleepwalk With Me, which explored heartache, anxiety, his sleep disorder, and more, was adapted into a book, which then became a beloved movie. And now the comic is back at it again, expanding his celebrated Broadway show and 2019 Netflix special The New One into a book of the same name.
The New One, which debuts Tuesday on hardcover, explores the same fears of fatherhood that Birbiglia mined in the special, but as the comic tells EW, the two projects are very different. There are lots of stories in the book that he couldn’t fit in the 90-minute show, and it also features companion poems from his wife Jennifer Hope Stein about her own parenting anxieties. In a conversation with EW, which took place back in March, Birbiglia discussed his modus operandi (“catharsis through confession,” as he called it), how David Sedaris influenced his writing, his next special, and of course, why the YMCA represents death.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How have you been holding up during coronavirus?
MIKE BIRBLIGA: You know, Jen’s a poet and I'm a comedian. So we're not exactly the two best people in a crisis. We're both people who think about the end of days all the time, like creatively that's like what we're always contemplating. So then when something happened that resembled the end of days, it's like pure panic.
How did this book come about?
It started with a period of suppression where Jen just said you can't write about having a child or about our child. And she just felt like it was private. And so I didn't talk about the pregnancy and I didn't talk about the first year of having [my daughter] Oona, and then we were at a film festival and they asked me to tell a story, the theme was jealousy and I said, "I'm not going to tell a story." And then Jen said, "You're jealous of our daughter, you should talk about that." And so then I told the story and it ended up being a story that's one of the stories in the book, which is about realizing that I was the pudgy milkless vice president of the family, and then Jen started showing the poems that she had written in that year or two.
What was it like collaborating with your wife? Was it a back-and-forth in regards to planning it out?
I started showing her things that I'd written privately in my journal and then once we started writing the book, it wasn't prompting each other, it was more like pairing essays that I'd written about fear of becoming a dad and becoming a dad, with poems that she had already written about fear of being a mom and being a mom. A good example of that is, I have this chapter in the book called “Friendly Advice From Other Parents.” It's like, “Your daughter is getting a sunburn. You're getting a sunburn. We're all getting a sunburn. Let them cry. Don't let them cry. I'm great with kids. Seems like you're not great with kids. Kids will murder each other if you let them. You have to let kids murder each other. Murder is wrong. Murder isn't always wrong. Meat is murder. The murder burger at this restaurant is phenomenal.”
And so I wrote that, which is a long list of crazy things parents basically say to you. And then when I showed Jen that, she showed me a poem that she had written called the “A toast to the third arm,” about essentially overbearing neighbors trying to offer their help but in ways that when you don't accept their help, they become angry. A lot of it was like, "Oh, this fits with that, this fits with that." It was almost like fitting together puzzle pieces.
Before reading the book, I thought it was going to be the same as the special, but they felt more like they complemented each other while being different.
Yeah, that was really important for me and Jen, to have them be two very different things. With The New One, one of the things that was really important to me is that people could pick it up who had never seen me live, who had never seen me in person, who had never even heard me on This American Life or in an album, and they could just read this book and get something out of it. And that's why along the way, Jen and I had a lot of authors who don't really know my work read the book for their honest take on it.
What’s been some of the most interesting feedback you've gotten on it?
What's funny is that in terms of people who read the book who have kids versus people who read the books who don't have kids, it's sort of a Rorschach test where people who don't have kids are like, "See? I was right, he's making my point about how you shouldn't have kids." And then people who do have kids are like, "See, he's right. He's making my point that you should have a kid,” so it's kind of a ridiculous experience how people see what they want to see, they read what they want to read, there's no way around that.
Being so vulnerable with talking about parenting and fatherhood in the book and the special, I can’t imagine it’s always easy to relive your mistakes or rough moments.
I think comedy that I've always liked, whether it's in a book or special, is comedy that is cathartic and makes me feel like I'm not alone in feeling a certain way. So the first comedic author who I ever felt attached to was David Sedaris. I read Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day and I feel like I was laughing at things in those books as hard as anything I've ever [laughed at in] any movie or TV special or anything. And so when it was a struggle — which of course it is, writing is always a struggle, especially if you're writing about your own mistakes — there was a part of me that was always like, "If I can do a fraction of what David Sedaris does in his work, then I think it'll be worth it." It's that idea of, how can I be of service? I think the way that I'm most helpful is opening up about my own issues and being as funny about it as possible.
In terms of reactions, is there anything you want people to get from The New One?
What's funny is when I look at Sleepwalk With Me and My Girlfriend's Boyfriend and Thank God For Jokes and this book, there seems to be a recurring theme where I talk about essentially experiencing catharsis through confession. And being open with the people who you're close to about the things that you're most embarrassed about or the things that you're ashamed of, and the connection that's possible through that and the catharsis that's possible through that. And this idea that all we have is each other. So if it's true that all we have is each other, wouldn't we want to be closer to each other? And I think being honest with each other is paramount to that. When I'm performing the show, and when I was writing the book, the biggest question that people said to me was, "Oh, what's Oona gonna say when she reads the book?" And for me and Jen, we are thrilled for Oona to read the book, because so much of the book is just about being open about your own flaws and your own humanity.
Do you have any plans for a new special?
I do. I'm writing a new show right now which is tentatively entitled The YMCA Pool, which I'm going on tour with, knock on wood. Hopefully, we'll be off-Broadway in the fall, but then again, who knows if we'll be outdoors? Nobody knows anything. If there's one thing we've learned from this whole thing is don't count on anything except the people within a five-foot vicinity.
Will the special be an extended version of the YMCA chapter in the book?
Oh, that's a funny point. It's not that. It has some excerpts pulled from that. But it's actually like, you know that if you look at The New One as being a show about birth, The YMCA Pool is really a show about death. It's about arriving at middle age and realizing that natural causes are on their way, like they're not close but they're coming. I used to go to nursery school at the YMCA in Worcester, Mass., and then here I am now. I'm a member of the YMCA in Brooklyn, and I am in middle age and I swim laps, and one of the lines is, "And I never wanted to return." That's the whole thing. I never want to return to the YMCA, but I say, "From the YMCA we are born, and into the YMCA we shall return." It's all full circle.