Personal and awkward

Mike Birbiglia thanks God for jokes at Victoria

By Gary Spencer

Photo: Comedian Mike Birbiglia will perform at the Victoria Theatre on Sept. 12;


According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “religious” has a few synonyms, two of which are the words “devotional” and “sacred.” Most comedians could be said to feel religious about their craft – they hold it sacred and are devoted to the cause of making people laugh. American comedian Mike Birbiglia is no exception.

“The tour is called Thank God for Jokes because I almost think of live comedy as a religious experience,” Birbiglia said. “I just think standup is a sort of cathartic experience. We’re all in a room together, laughing at the same time about borderline insane ruminations and stories. And we’re all laughing, which I think is a good thing.”

And if laughter is a good thing, Mike Birbiglia could be thought of as a saint. With Time magazine hailing him as the “master of the personal, embarrassing tale,” Birbiglia has endeared himself to audiences all over the world as a relatable comedic personality, which has won him a loyal following. Mike’s anecdotes of awkwardness most anyone can relate to has earned him a reputation as one of the best storytellers and standup comedians in the modern millennium. Even The New York Times hailed him as a “supremely enjoyable monologist.”

Birbiglia’s journey to comedic fame began as man do – seeing comedy performed live in person. When asked how he discovered he wanted to be a comedian, his response was immediate:

“The first comedian I saw live was Stephen Wright,” Birbiglia explained. “My brother Joe took me to see him at the Cape Cod Melody Tent and it was one of those epiphany moments where I decided ‘oh, this is exactly what I want to do.’ And I went home and started writing jokes in my notebook. And then I discovered Mitch Hedberg, Jake Johannsen, Brian Regan, Kathleen Madigan, Dave Atell, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor and all of these great comedians who really influenced me in terms of what kind of comedian I became.”

Birbiglia attended Georgetown University, joined the Georgetown Players Improv Troupe, and entered his first comedy competition.

“I entered the Funniest Person on Campus [contest] at Georgetown,” Birbiglia remembered. “It went pretty well and I had all this confidence and bluster like ‘I got this, I don’t need a lot of work, I’m just a natural.’ It won me the chance to open for Dave Chappelle at the DC Improv [Comedy Club]. That was the second time I performed standup and I bombed. And then I found out no one’s a natural.”

But that didn’t deter Birbiglia much, as he continued to hone his craft. He worked the national comedy club circuit for years, including several stops here in Dayton, before he made it big across the nation.

“I’ve been coming to Dayton for about 13 years,” Birbiglia said. “It’s a special town for me because it’s where I first met my comedy hero Mitch Hedberg, who sadly passed away. I met him at Joker’s Comedy Club, which no longer exists, but was a great club. I opened for Mitch and it was probably one of the most exciting weeks of my life. I learned so much from watching Mitch. He was one of these guys who really broke down the rules of standup comedy and did it his own way. Every time I watched him, I learned something.”

Since then, Birbiglia has won multiple awards for his standup shows, starred in three Comedy Central specials, made roughly 50 appearances on network television, become a panelist on NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” and has even directed and starred in a feature film adaptation of his one-man show, Sleepwalk with Me, which won an audience award at the Sundance Film Festival. In the last handful of years, Birbiglia has even branched out into the world of Hollywood and taken on acting roles.

“I’ve been taking a lot of acting work right now,” Birbiglia said. “I’m doing a part in the next season of ‘Orange is the New Black’ [and] I’m in Judd Apatow’s new movie that Amy Schumer wrote. I’m in ‘Annie’ that comes out at Christmas, [and] I was just in ‘The Fault in Our Stars.’”

Even with Hollywood calling his name, standup comedy is still Birbiglia’s bread and butter. It’s his favorite form of entertaining people, and that has been his modus operandi with his current tour.

“I wanted to return to a show that was pure comedy, pure jokes,” Birbiglia said. “That’s how I started and I wanted to return to that. Saying things that, for whatever reason, are taboo, whether they’re too personal or too political or just uncomfortable in some way, I thrive on that. I don’t think I’ll ever stop doing standup, just because it’s sort of in my blood. It’s my first love. I feel I’ll always want to tell stories. I’ll always want to relate how I feel through the prism of comedy.”

Mike Birbiglia brings his Thank God for Jokes tour to Dayton on Friday, Sept. 12 at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St. The show begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $39 to $49. For more information, please visit

Reach DCP freelance writer Gary Spencer at

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Gary Spencer is a graduate of Miami University and works in the performing arts, and believes that music is the best. Contact him at

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