It’s kind of a medical miracle, what Mike Birbiglia has done.
No, not fathering a child after fertility doctors informed him “my boys don’t swim.” (A fact he notes resignedly, “isn’t surprising because I don’t swim.”) Rather, he has miraculously breathed life into a catalogue of ancient comedy targets. Among them:
-Babies on airplanes
-Cats, indifference to human feelings
-Cats, indifference to litter boxes
-Porn at in-vitro clinics
-Pregnancy hormones that make women weird
-“Natural” birth classes that are anything but
-Husbands, uselessness in delivery rooms
-Husbands, uselessness in breastfeeding
-Babies, indifference to sleep schedules
Airplane jokes date back to the dawn of flight; cat jokes, likely to the pharaohs. Only a fool or a savant would attempt to build an act from these chestnuts. And yet this is the challenge Birbiglia faces in his latest one-man show, The New One, directed by his frequent collaborator Seth Barrish and running Off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theater. It concerns, if you haven’t already guessed, the transmogrification of a comedian into someone’s father.
His take on these subjects is frequently hilarious, and fresh nearly to the point of innocence, as Birbiglia encounters each awful reality for himself. Among his more clever bits is one that starts with a close observation of the language spoken in birthing classes, where definite articles have inexplicably fallen out of fashion; no one says “the baby.”
“What’s the most exciting thing about having baby?” he recalls the instructor asking the parents-to-be. One woman’s answer sets him off: “I just want to see the world through baby’s eyes!” He makes relentless fun of this phrase, even as it effectively describes what he’s doing for his audience: Showing us a familiar world anew. Laughs from pregnant lady food-cravings? Still possible through comic’s eyes.
Besides, if anyone deserves a little time in the realm of the been-there-done-that, it is Birbiglia who first gained attention for another one-man show (later a film), Sleepwalk With Me, about something so not-universal it is shocking even when he summarizes it here. “It’s based on this true-life incident about 15 years ago where I sleepwalked through a second-story window at a La Quinta Inn in Walla Walla, Washington. When I say ‘through’ I mean ‘through the glass’ and if the glass been a centimeter to the left it would have cut my femoral artery and I would have bled out and died.”
He was diagnosed with REM behavior disorder, which necessitates his going to bed in a sleeping bag and wearing mittens so he can’t unzip it and hurt himself or anyone else. (Birbiglia’s wife, Jennifer Hope Stein, is a poet whose work figures into the script of The New One. She also sounds super patient.) When their daughter, Oona, is born, Birbiglia takes the further step of moving (along with the hostile family cat) to a separate bedroom bolted in by a chain-lock on the door, ensuring he can’t hurt the baby in his sleep.
The arrangement is extreme, but here the unusual circumstances of Birbiglia’s real life provide an apt metaphor for the cratering effect a first baby has on so many marriages. Suddenly we’re back to the universal: What new mother, during a third middle-of-the-night feeding, hasn’t looked at her husband and regarded him as being as vital to the task at hand as, say, someone proffering a sleeping bag, a cat, and a pair of mittens? What father, sensing his new status — in Birbiglia’s words, the “pudgy milk-less vice president of the family” — has never wondered if this wasn’t all a terrible mistake?
A frequent contributor to This American Life, Birbiglia has narrative style that will be familiar to listeners of that public radio show. TAL creator Ira Glass (also a producer of The New One) has likened it to the structure of Fiddler on the Roof: An affecting story is at first funny, then sad, and finally profound. Given the miracle-of-life stuff, that is where we end up: Facing the deep and inevitable change that comes with parenthood. This is hardly a spoiler — it happens to everybody. And, to take nothing away from each laugh Birbiglia earns mining this territory, maybe his talent lies also in recognizing that we need to hear these stories over and over again. Who would believe them otherwise? A-