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You'd probably never guess by listening to Mike Birbiglia's fairly average accent that he was born and raised around Boston, Massachusetts. "I have a very ambiguous accent," he says. "And most people just think I am from the Midwest. I am actually writing a movie write now (starring myself) and I'm placing the main character in Ohio, because people just think I'm from there (laughs)."
Most comedy enthusiasts and Comedy Central Crackheads (CCC's) will know Mike Birbiglia's name already. With "Premium Blend" appearances, a “Comedy Central Present's" special, several feature clips on "Shorties Watchin' Shorties" and a successful off-Broadway play to his credit he is an increasingly familiar face in the comedy scene.
Perhaps a little bit more context for focus is in order. You see, ever since Mike was in high school, he has enjoyed stand-up comedy from some of the same names we now revere as the newer greats. "I was drawn to comedy from high school seeing comics on television. I was always interested in Bill Cosby and Steven Wright. When I got into college, I discovered Mitch Hedberg [R.I.P.]."
“When I was in college at Georgetown, they had a "'Funniest Person on Campus'" contest,” he says, laughing at the memory. "It was this annual thing and I decided to just go for it. I put so much work into it, trying to put together an act. I won the contest. What I won was an opportunity to perform at the DC Improv. I opened for Dave Chappelle (this was long before 'Chappell's Show") but I was still a big fan of his specials at the time.”
The gig Mike did at the DC Improv went pretty well, so he went to the owner to inquire about future opportunities. “I went to the owner and I thought it would be so easy I was like 'Yeah, so I want to do this all the time.' He told me I could work there, but there would be no stage time. I could work the door and seat people and over time when there are fallouts and cancellations they would try to work me in. I did that for about 4 years."
There’s not much more "paying your dues" one could do. "It was really like my comedy college, but I had to keep it a secret from my family. My dad didn’t work his whole life to send me to college so that I could then get a job making fun of him in front of strangers (laughs) you know what I mean? This is sort of the very last thing he would have had me do, to become a comedian. He didn't even know what a comedy club was when I told him I was working at one."
At that point Mike's and his father's priorities weren't necessarily falling in line with each other. "He said "Well anyway, school is your number one priority!" I was thinking 'Ummm, not really, but okay.' So, I worked at this comedy club and kind of sneaked by in school."
While Mike was working in the background at the club, he was getting the opportunity to absorb directly what some of the best in the business were doing. "I studied these great comedians who came through, people like Brian Reagan, Dave Attell, Mitch Hedberg, Kathleen Madigan, Margaret Cho and I just learned so much about the idea of being a touring comedian. I never knew you could actually do that."
Mike performed a lot at Georgetown while he was there, building both experience and momentum. "I was in the improv troupe on campus that performed every month and then I would host everything I could find like the 'A cappella festival' or the 'Sketch Comedy Festival' or student orientation. I remember every year I hosted the new student orientations. I have done it like 11 times; because I continued doing them after I graduated'" he laughs. "I became a permanent installment of what it is to be a Georgetown freshman. If you said my name people would be like 'Oh yeah, Mike Birbiglia, of course.' I was famous in that universe only.”
Once Mike got out of school, he kept plugging along, working his way up. "I started opening for people on the road. I basically borrowed my mom's station wagon and drove it around the country from gig to gig. I went to all of the shadiest comedy clubs in the far stretches of the earth and, I performed at a lot of colleges.”
Mike credits his discovery of a niche in the college market one of the saving graces of his career. "One of the best things that happened to me when I got out of school was applying to and entering NACA because once I did, I started performing at a ton of colleges."
Mike remembers semi-fondly some of the off-hour, day, site or color gigs the college market is famous for putting in entertainers at the bottom trying to work their way up. "Some of those gigs were terrible," he laughs. "I remember showing up and they had forgotten they even invited me, so they’re like 'Oh yeah, so its 'you' and we have a lip syncing contest… why don't you host the contest, yeah, that's it, host!' This really happened once. I literally showed up and they had me host a lip-syncing contest, an art form I am not particularly fond of."
Apparently, neither were the students. "There were only 2 entries and the woman running the event was very upset about this. She was really angry and when she got up to introduce me to the crowd she goes "You know, we have this contest every year and in the past we’ve had 15 or 20 entries and this year there were 2. We don't have to have this contest if you don't want to have it and I am not doing this for me I'm doing it for you,' she says all very severely. Then she says 'And now, here's comedian Mike Birbiglia.' That was great."
Mike says there are plenty more wacky campus stories where that came from. "One time I showed up and they had me performing in the center of a walk-a-thon for lupus in the gymnasium, I'm chasing these people around with a microphone. I was like an oscillating desk fan, gently blowing humor. The best part was the guy who booked me looks me dead in the eye and says 'I know it’s not ideal…’ Not ideal?!"
But Mike is quick to point out he doesn't want to give the wrong impression about his experience here. "That's what a lot of those early college gigs were like, but then even more of them were great. It was a really mixed bag, but it got to where more and more of the college students coming out would email me."
Mike says the two to three hundred schools he performed at during this time were a trial by fire for him. "It was the best thing for me at the time, because to be honest I didn't have a ton of material then. It would force me to show up at the schools and just improvise a lot of stuff. I would go on stage with just an idea of what a story was and then I would tell it. As it went along I would come up with jokes and very quickly from doing that I developed a couple of hours of material. It was a really big part of me becoming a comedian."
It takes "big ones" to go out there and put yourself in a sink or swim situation like that. "I strongly believe that to go out and become a comedian, you have to be a little bit delusional. Particularly when you are starting out, there is so much failure and amidst that failure you have to tell yourself 'It's going quite nicely!' Otherwise, you would never get on stage again, thinking 'Well, I guess human beings don't like me.'
"I remember the first time I had a paid gig it was at this bar in Virginia. I drove out there and the back stage area was just the sidewalk of this strip mall. I was so scared because I didn't know what was going to happen. I was supposed to perform like 30 minutes of comedy. I only had like 11. They open the door and say 'Mike you're on.' I turned around and puked on the sidewalk and walked on stage.
"Now, I have heard many bastardizations of my last name in my life (its BIR-BIG-LIA), but this particular gentleman (and this is the worst I have ever heard) says ‘Ladies and Gentleman, please welcome Mike Bavuski…’ I was so mad, I was thinking ‘You didn’t even try! You just said a B and the first thing you could think of and you made me Polish, and that's a really specific choice…’
"I got on stage, did 4 minutes of comedy and left. I thanked the audience and apologized at the same time, which was weird because I had never done it before. It was like 'Thank you, sorry!' (laughs) I walked off and went home to my girlfriend and she asked me how it went.
And so the fledgling comic's self-delusion swoops in to save the day. "I told her it was amazing because in my mind, it had been. If it hadn't, I wouldn't have gotten on stage again.”
Fortunately the comedy club's kingpin didn’t send Mike out the back with Lil' Joey. "I went into the manager's office and I thought that he might, you know, punch me in the face or pull a gun or something, but he just took out $50 and put it on the desk. He said 'Thanks for coming and we'll see you again next time'. It was a completely preposterous moment for me because it was the first time where I was thinking 'But, I'm a comedian now!' You learn your lesson and become humbled; the next time I got a paid gig I made damn sure I had the 30 minutes I needed. You really do have to become delusional to become a comedian; you have to lie to yourself and tell yourself everything is going well when its really not going well at all."
But eventually it does. "Over the years, people have kind of taken to specific jokes and things that I didn't expect," he says. I have a about being a 'cracker' and I use the word 'cracker' on stage. In the same way that some black comics use the n-word, I use the c-word on stage. Cracker please, (laughs)."
It just goes to show how some of our most classic bits have the simplest origins. "I was just trying to come up with as many jokes as I could and all of a sudden people were quoting that back to me and I was like 'Oh okay, I guess I'm onto something. The same thing has happened to me with so many of the bits, it is really exciting in a way."
Mike has an interesting philosophy that is especially audience-minded and, may explain why he has so handily been able to build such popularity over his short years in the business. "There is a famous quote that Jerry Seinfeld once gave. He said words to the effect 'You don't tell the audience what's funny about you, they tell you what's funny.' I think that's very true; I think you have to kind of step back and see what is connecting with people, in your comfort zone. You don't want to pander completely to what every audience wants and become this sort of amorphous comedic Backstreet Boy of comedy. At some point you have to go out and do what you do and see what the most people react to. Then you can always try to figure out why."
Mike Birbiglia is currently performing a variety of dates not only in the college market, but also in comedy clubs and successful theater shows. He is the perfect choice for clean, universal comedy almost any audience will enjoy. He has experience and name recognition, but is not yet to the point of astronomical impossibility for most institutions. Consider bringing him in for your next Georgetown Freshman Orientation today…just kidding. But, what's no joke is Mike Birbiglia's ability to be the next big hit on your campus.
BOOK IT! For more information on bringing Mike Birbiglia to your school, contact Jackie Knobbe at (310) 888-4291. For online media of Mike, including video, pricing, tour dates and booking info, log on to our website at www.campusactivitiesmagazine.com. Click on “Artists” under the “Buyer’s Guide” Tab and either enter Mike’s name in the given field or find it browsing through the letter "B."
Mike Birbiglias article photos are by Brian Friedman.