Mike Birbiglia has found that he can make a living off a personal crisis.
Since 2008, Birbiglia, a longtime comedian and more recently an indie film director and star, has performed stand-up comedy shows on and off-Broadway about his struggles with sleepwalking, his recovery from bladder cancer and his path toward fatherhood. But his latest, “The Old Man & the Pool,” a monologue about confronting his own mortality, might be among his most candid. (The show opens on Broadway Nov. 13 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center.)
“I think I’m inclined toward autobiography because so much is based on passion,” Birbiglia, 44, said in a recent call from his home in Brooklyn. “I’m interested in paying tribute to the bizarre litany of things that have almost killed me.”
The idea for the new show, which Birbiglia has been developing since 2018, sprang from an annual medical checkup in 2017, when his results on a breathing test were so weak that his doctor thought he might be experiencing a heart attack right there in the examination room. Birbiglia, whose father and grandfather had heart attacks at 56, was pushed to improve his health; the show details trips to the YMCA pool as well as an encounter with an unclothed older man in the locker room when he was 7.
“I’m in much better shape now,” said Birbiglia, who is also set to appear alongside Tom Hanks in the upcoming comedy-drama “A Man Called Otto,” in theaters Dec. 25. “I do cardio five days a week. I’m experimenting with the idea of riding a bike from my apartment in Brooklyn to Lincoln Center every day for work.”
In an interview last month, Birbiglia discussed what turned him on to Taylor Swift, how reading poetry helps his joke writing, and why he doesn’t actually hate the YMCA. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
“Jerrod Carmichael: Rothaniel”: Jerrod is a performer who’s not filtering what he’s saying to please you – he’s not holding back from what his truth is. A lot of art will stick with me a week after, but the things I most cherish stick with me a month after, years after. “Rothaniel” had that effect. It feels like “Hadestown” – I saw it a few years ago and still play the cast album all the time.
Deep Dives: This is something my wife, Jenny, and I like to do together – start from a certain point and then follow where it leads you, through various streaming and YouTube rabbit holes. One of my favorite finds is this three-part British documentary series called “Unknown Chaplin” that shows the outtakes of Charlie Chaplin’s movies. He did hundreds of takes of some of his shots! It’s one of those moments when there’s a massive upside to streaming – I don’t think I’d be able to find stuff like this if it weren’t for all the streaming services.
“Little Astronaut” by J. Hope Stein: This is a gorgeous book of poems by my wife about her experience being pregnant and having a child. Jen’s really gotten me into poetry – she’s introduced me to Paul Muldoon, Ada Limón, Paige Lewis. I learn so much from reading poetry that’s helpful when I’m writing films, standup and solo shows. There’s a real focus on the economy of words.
“Kitbull”: My daughter is 7 and not in the head space of wanting to engage with full-on Pixar feature films yet, but there are all these incredible shorts on Disney+. Some of our favorites are “Forky Asks a Question,” “Purl” and Rosana Sullivan’s “Kitbull,” about a kid and a pit bull becoming friends – if you don’t cry during “Kitbull,” I don’t think you’re a human being.
Sarah Sherman on “SNL”: Sarah is an absolutely original voice in comedy. I worked alongside her at the Comedy Cellar, and even as a live performer she’s astonishingly alive and present and goes where the audience takes her. She has a series of guest segments with Colin Jost on “SNL” that are all just excuses for her to roast him. She basically decontextualizes everything he says, then he’ll defend himself and she’ll put up a fake headline that says like “Hamptons Homeowner Colin Jost Mocks Comedian” with a picture of what’s supposed to be his mansion. They’re phenomenal.
The Comedy Cellar: For my money, the Comedy Cellar is the best club in the world. There’s the Olive Tree upstairs, which has phenomenal Middle Eastern food – great hummus and kebabs, a fantastic bar. Then downstairs is an intimate 150-seat club – the other night I was there, and Ray Romano dropped in. You have to make reservations weeks in advance, but it’s worth it.
Improv is Life: The principles of “Yes, and” apply to everything I do: directing movies, making solo shows and working with a director, collaborating with a designer, working on a family trip to Iceland. That spirit of things is what I find to be on a daily basis the most helpful piece of education I’ve ever had.
rev’pod: I talk a lot about my sleepwalking in my shows – I jumped through a second-story window many years ago – and people always ask what I do about the issue. At first my doctor said to sleep in a sleeping bag, and I did that for a while, but then I found this thing! The idea is for a cozier sleep; it’s kind of like a cocoon cloth experience. … They recommend it for flying on an airplane to avoid germs. It’s not foolproof, but I find it to be a pretty good solution.
No More Art Snobbery: In my 40s, I’ve vowed not to be snobby about art that’s popular – there are certain things I’ve just missed out on because they were and I didn’t think they could be good. With early Taylor Swift, I was kind of like, “Oh, that’s pop music, that’s maybe not for me.” But her music is wildly personal and evocative and exciting in a way that even if she weren’t the massive pop star that she was, I think she’d have a massive cult following that she would tour from.
YMCA I make fun of it mercilessly in my show – there’s too much chlorine, a lot of cringey nudity in the locker rooms, the towels are too small. But a bunch of the New York YMCA administrators ended up coming to the workshop shows a few years ago at Cherry Lane, and they were fans of it! I do a thing on my podcast called “Working It Out for a Cause,” and I’ve given to the YMCA a handful of times. Part of it is because the more I researched the YMCA, the more I realized not only are they a rec facility, they do an extraordinary amount of community outreach and great nonprofit work. I’m very impressed by them; I make fun because I love.
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