Mike Birbiglia on The New One and his journey to joy as a parent
Mike Birbiglia has essentially made a career out of brutal honesty and stark vulnerability. (Or stark honesty and brutal vulnerability.) His one-man show Sleepwalk with Me, which he later adapted into a film, told the story of his struggles with a life-threatening sleep disorder and his painful break-up with his college girlfriend. Another one-man show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, explored his relationship with his wife, Jennifer Hope Stein, and all the emotional turmoil around falling in love. And his second film, Don’t Think Twice, about an improv comedy group, provides a frank look at how success and ambition can start to tear a group of creative friends apart.
So suffice it to say Birbiglia’s take on parenting was never going to be entirely warm and fuzzy. His latest show, The New One (now streaming on Netflix after a Broadway run and national tour), follows the comedian’s tumultuous journey to fatherhood in distinctly Birbiglian fashion, touching on his reluctance to have a child, infertility, his difficulty connecting with his newborn daughter Oona (now 4 and a half), and a whole lot more. But as the photo below indicates, this story has a happy ending, and its ultimate message is perhaps the most uplifting Birbiglia has ever delivered.
“I feel very joyful and connected [now],” Birbiglia tells EW. “What I wanted to do was sort of hold on to that feeling of what it was like when I didn’t feel that, so that people who are experiencing a similar thing can walk into that and understand that they’re not the only ones who are experiencing that.”
With The New One (which is also arriving in book form in May) now on Netflix, Birbiglia spoke to EW about crafting and refining the show, connecting with others, and what it might be like to watch the show with his daughter someday.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s interesting that this special is going on Netflix right around Thanksgiving, because I think it’s kind of thematically appropriate for the season.
MIKE BIRBIGLIA: Yeah. I have to say, when I was told it was gonna be on Thanksgiving, I was thrilled, for two reasons. I’ve performed the show almost 500 times, and I’ve seen a lot of parents watch it with their kids who are [in their] late teens and 20s and 30s. And there is a real connection you see between parents and their grown-up kids when they see the show. ‘Cause there is this thing that I didn’t grasp before I had a child, which is, you start to understand what your parents did. [Laughs] It’s very eye-opening. And in that way, it being on Thanksgiving is sort of great.
And then I was excited just ’cause it’s sort of a prime time of the year to release something. What I do is always sort of, you know, people release it in the off times, and quiet times. It’s always under the radar. And this is sort of a big blast into a primetime slot, which is sort of overwhelming but also exciting.
Well, this show is kind of bigger than what you’ve done in the past; it’s been on Broadway, and it’s coming out in that prime time spot. How do you feel about that?
People say, like, “What does Broadway mean to you?” a lot. And, “Why this show for Broadway?” And a lot of it has to do with, I aged with my audience. I’m 41 now, and a lot of people who have been watching me since I was in my 20s and they were in their 20s, are having children now, and going to Broadway shows. So there is this natural progression that occurred, where I’m talking about something that’s more of a mainstream topic. But then there’s sort of a twist on it, which is that it is pretty dark. It’s a dark take on a familiar topic.
How do you walk that line, in terms of striking the right balance with the darkness without alienating your audience?
That was a huge challenge, particularly early on in the process. A lot of this writing came out of journal entries I had written, privately. I had felt like I was failing, I felt like I was not connecting, and not fitting in with my own family, and all of that stuff. So early on, I would put versions of those journals on stage. And there were certain ones that really connected, and there were certain ones that, less so.
Over the course of, somewhere between 500 and a thousand performances of the material in some way, shape, or form, you to start to understand which is the stuff that connects the most. That’s one of the most interesting things, I think, about stand-up comedy as an art form is that, because you perform the same material thousands and thousands and thousands of times, you really get a sense after a while of how people feel about these topics. And how all different ages and groups of people feel about it. There was an extraordinary amount of calibration over the course of the three and a half years that I worked on the show.
Can you talk more about how you developed and refined the show over time?
I said to Jen, when we got married, “I’m an autobiographical storyteller, and I’m gonna talk about my life on stage. I hope that’s okay.” And we talked through that, and she was sort of okay with it. But then when it came to having a child, she was like, “I don’t think you should talk about the pregnancy, or having a child, or anything like that.”
So I wasn’t talking about this, but I was writing in my journal, and then when Oona was 14 months old, we brought Don’t Think Twice, which Jen and I had both worked on, to the Nantucket Film Festival. And the festival director said, “There’s a storytelling night, and the theme is jealousy. Do you want to tell a story?” And I said no. And then Jen said, “You should talk about Oona, because you’re jealous of Oona, our daughter.” So I told a story about being jealous of our daughter, and some of it ended up in the show. A couple of the lines, like, “I didn’t know what nothing was until became a dad.” You know, “I became this pudgy, milkless vice president of the family.” That was literally one of the first lines that I wrote, and it made it all the way.
And so over time, it was sort of like figuring out, which of these stories help create an arc that feels earned? Which is, going from feeling disconnected to your own family to feeling connected to your own family. Or another way to put it is, being averse to change in your life, and then being open to change. Those are two different ways to look at the arc of the show.
You mentioned seeing people watch the show with their kids — what do you anticipate the experience of watching it with your daughter will be like?
People ask us that a lot, and Jen always laughs. And she’ll go like, “She won’t believe it.” I’m so present in [Oona’s] life now, that I don’t think that she could imagine there was a time where I didn’t feel connected. So I think in that sense, I’m okay. And I actually do think that a lot of what the show’s about is candor, and honesty, and saying how you really feel, as opposed to what you’re supposed to feel. And if there’s anything I have to teach my daughter, which, you know, I probably only know about three things, that’s one of them. [Laughs] So I’m very proud of teaching that, which is honesty. Or an attempt at honesty, an attempt at having candor with people.
There are a lot of well-worn comedic topics that you give a fresh spin to here, especially parenting and pregnancy. What was your approach to finding a new angle on on those topics?
That was definitely a fear. I think that in comedy, originality is paramount. The most essential thing is being original, and then also connecting with people. It’s a balance of those two things. So at every turn, I would basically be hyper-aware, if anyone ever said that they had heard something like that before, they’d heard a joke like that before. I remember, [Wet Hot American Summer director] David Wain came to the show when it was off-Broadway. And he says, “There’s one thing you say, at the birth, that the man writes an email, and the woman gives birth to this bowling ball. I think Robin Williams has that line in one of his specials.” I looked it up, and it wasn’t the exact wording, but he does use the word “bowling ball.” And so I was like, “Okay, so I gotta change that.” I think that good comedian friends look out for their fellow good comedian friends in terms of the originality side of it. You know, people go, “Just so you know, there is a joke that’s playing the same sandbox.”
Can you talk about how you decided to integrate Jen’s poetry into the show?
It was such an organic thing. Jen is so private, and it wasn’t something that she wanted to necessarily be in the show. But I was working on this stretch of the show where I talk about Oona’s milestones, her first time talking or first time crawling. And I said to Jen, “Do you have any good memories of Oona crawling or anything like that?” And she showed me this poem she wrote called “An Infant Reaches,” which ended up being in the show, and I read it and I was like, “Oh, f—, well, I can’t write anything better than this. So, can I just say this on stage, and say that you wrote this?” And she goes, “Yeah, you can do that.” And then it became, there are three poems in the show that are sort of laced through. And a lot of it had to do with, Jen is very soft-spoken, and she expresses herself more specifically in poetry than she does in speaking. So I think it was a good way to attempt to represent her character.
As someone who’s worked in many different mediums, how do you decide what it is you want to do next?
A lot of it is, I write several things simultaneously, and then it’s sort of a fight to the death for what stays alive. There’s that thing where you go like, what do I want to make, versus what do I have to make? What do I like versus what do I love. This was a show where I felt like I had to make it. I was like, I’ve never heard this take. Whenever I speak privately with mothers and fathers about the experience of this, they’re like, “Oh yeah. That’s true, but nobody talks about that.” And I’m like, “Oh, okay, I’m gonna talk about that.” To me, that was a worthy topic because I hadn’t seen it, essentially, and I felt like it could be powerful.
And as I’ve turned the corner and get in my 40s, I’ve started to be like, “Well, I only have a certain amount of time.” I’m only gonna be able to make so many things, and so I’m much more focused on what I have to contribute, and I’m much less inclined to, like, just be an actor in other people’s stuff, or do things where I don’t feel like it’s essential that it’s me. I think what I have to contribute, if anything, is the creation side of it.