Fatherhood suits Mike Birbiglia, much to his surprise
In 1908, a West Virginia woman named Anna Jarvis organized the first American Mother’s Day, and six years later, Woodrow Wilson signed a measure designating the second Sunday in May a national holiday. The first Father’s Day was in Washington state in 1910, inspired by a twice-widowed Civil War veteran who raised six of his 14 children alone after their mother died in childbirth. It was proclaimed a holiday by Richard Nixon — 62 years later.
There is some justice in that; after all, women still do two hours more of unpaid labor per day, according a recent report. But it’s enough to make even the most devoted dad feel a little second class. That’s a sensation with which actor, comedian and monologist Mike Birbiglia has always been intimately familiar. The struggle to find his place after his family went from “we” to “three” is the backbone of his last solo stage show-turned-Netflix special, which is now an expanded memoir of the same name, “The New One: Painfully True Stories From a Reluctant Dad.”
Birbiglia’s first piece to go to Broadway, “The New One” was his fifth solo theater performance. For more than a decade, his performances have found oxygen in the crawlspace between stand-up and the oft-maligned one-man show, with a bit of old-time radio storytelling thrown in. And as the format has itself grown into a reliable streaming-service mini-genre, the doughy, self-lacerating Birbiglia has become its unlikely standard-bearer.
Yet the book is no mere fan-service tie-in; it features a number of new essays wherein Birbiglia grapples with what it means, beyond doing the dishes without being asked, to be a father to his daughter, Oona. Eager to be a healthier dad, he takes his late-30s “drowner’s body” to the local Y, a place he’s hated ever since a scarring childhood experience around naked men and women, and attempts to learn to swim — chlorine, fungus and Andy Capp’s Fries be damned. In another essay, Birbiglia recalls how President Obama became the first person to learn that he and his wife, poet J. Hope Stein, were expecting. (The Father-in-Chief shared a reassuring insight: “When you bring ’em home, the poo doesn’t smell.”)
Now five years into fatherhood, Birbiglia, who turns 42 this week, expanded recently on his personal evolution during a phone call from “Birdville,” as he describes his family’s COVID-19 bug-out country home away from his Brooklyn home. “Having a child, especially in the early years, is an ongoing negotiation about who does what and when, and it has to be a constant conversation to help reverse the patriarchal structures,” he said over a symphony of chirping birds. “But ‘The New One’ is not a parenting guide by any stretch of the imagination. It’s more of ‘Well, here’s all the mistakes we made. Hope it helps!’”
The memoir’s title serves as a quadruple-entendre: new baby, marriage, life and consciousness. It covers Birbiglia’s transformation from a guy who doesn’t want a child (for seven specific reasons) to the confused but loving near-middle-age parent of a 1-year-old. And where it really shines — and diverges from his third Netflix special — is in its liberal use of his wife’s poetry.
Stein has been a collaborating producer on her husband’s projects for years, but never as a writer. While piecing together the Broadway run, Birbiglia used her poems as a way to track Oona’s milestones and often found her elegant, witty and moony verse to be much better than what he’d already written. He included a few poems in the theatrical show, but they feel more like grace notes than Stein’s version of events. The book, however, is a full-throated back-and-forth. Sprinkled with the spiritual dust of ee cummings, Rachel Zucker and Aquaman, Stein’s odes to motherhood go toe-to-toe with Dad’s neurotic rants.
“When I was having trouble getting pregnant … I found myself writing from the perspective of a fish,” says Stein, the author of two chapbooks, including “little astronaut.” “I think I had 50 versions of prank calls from a fish just sitting on my computer.” She says it “felt tonally right” to embed some of those in the book. “I didn’t plan any of it. The poems and the essays organically happened to find each other.”
A great example is the chapter in which Birbiglia tells his aging father (who, to his progressive son’s chagrin, has become a forwarder of right-wing ALL CAPS conspiracy emails) how much he loves him — in an ALL CAPS reply. The chapter concludes with Stein’s “Last Meal.”
Mommy I ate you.
And you died in my tummy.
That would be a nice place to die.
One of Birbiglia’s major challenges in developing new shows has been keeping his observations fresh for long-standing fans while catching up the new arrivals. “Taking material across different formats is a very specific skill set,” says “The Daily Show’s” Roy Wood Jr., whose new show, “Stand-Up Playback,” features comics watching old sets and roasting themselves. “The reason why Mike is able to do it so well is because he’s a natural storyteller ... Mike takes you on a slow-building journey,” full of switchbacks and flawless callbacks. “There’s only two things you can talk about: Yourself or the world. Mike is basically recounting his chronological autobiography over many, many years. It’s a unique gift.”
A quick march down Birbiglia’s hilarious Via Dolorosa: surviving bladder cancer at age 19; getting T-boned by a drunk driver; nearly dying after running through the second-story window of a La Quinta Inn in Walla Walla, Wash., in the grip of a sleep disorder. He emerged from the last ordeal with 33 stitches and a “This American Life” segment that became “Sleepwalk With Me,” a 2008 off-Broadway hit, followed by a movie that he adapted and directed.
Ever since, Birbiglia has primarily focused on solo acts, but he still does a lot of the prep work in comedy rooms — leaving out the heavy stuff and testing the laughs, just as he did when first making his name out on the road. In some COVID-19-weary states, clubs are opening back up, but it remains to be seen whether socially distanced seating will dampen the communal exuberance of live comedy. Birbiglia is more concerned about curbing the pandemic.
“I’ve performed in much worse situations than a half-filled room,” he says. “I once performed in the middle of a walk-a-thon to fight lupus.”
Birbiglia didn’t get a chance to perform around “The New One,” which was originally set to come out before Mother’s Day, along with a 10-city theater tour. The virus has also put the brakes on his burgeoning career as a rumpled, sensitive, Walter Matthau-esque character actor — as seen in movies like “Trainwreck” and “Tramps” and shows like “Billions” and “Orange Is the New Black.”
“I’ve wanted to be an actor since my 20s,” he says. “But what I discovered is that in your 20s, they only want to cast good-looking actors, and there’s so many of them. In your 40s, they want more of a weathered dad, which has been my look since I was 18. I’ve aged into the actor I always wanted to be.”
In Birdville, Birbiglia — ever in search of unlikely parallels — compares quarantine to the first year of Oona’s life. There’s a lot of pretending everything is going to work out fine, but also the sincere tenderness and madness of a family hunkered down. Yet COVID-19 hasn’t completely sidelined the work. As soon as the pandemic hit, Birbiglia, Wood Jr. and John Mulaney started TipYourWaitstaff.com, a site where comics try out fresh material on one another on Instagram Live, which has raised some $600,000 for shuttered comedy clubs across the country.
That project inspired him to build a new podcast around the try-out process — “the inverse of how material is usually released.” “Working It Out,” which debuted June 15, features guests like his storytelling hero David Sedaris workshopping raw material.
Five years ago, Birbiglia had feared — as so many impending parents do — that fatherhood would kill the creative spark. In one particularly funny passage from the book, Birbiglia frets that all the “dark joy” will vanish from his life: the simple pleasures of staying up until dawn, smoking pot through a watermelon, having sex on a broken kite and watching YouTube videos of waterslide accidents.
His wariness of parenthood long predated “The New One”; as he recently told Wood Jr. it was the premise of the first autobiographical joke he ever wrote, at age 19: “I’m not gonna have kids until I’m sure nothing else good can happen in my life.” It was a go-to punchline for 20 years, but now, the joke will have to be retired.
“He’s grown into fatherhood beautifully,” says Stein. “The relationship he has with Oona is special, two peas in a pod. They act and look alike, so when they eat spaghetti together, it’s like watching twins devour pasta.”
Having put to rest the notion that all good things are over, Birbiglia is hard at work killing the corollary fear that the good material has run out. He admits what many have privately thought — that the family time afforded by COVID-19 has sometimes felt like a refreshing reprieve. But it won’t last forever. Eventually, fans will be able to gather again, and Birbiglia will be prepared. He’s already writing his next solo show, tentatively titled “The YMCA Pool,” about starting to understand what it means to be over the hill.
“At 19, I saw the glimmer of death as a possibility and now I’m looking at it as the eventual reality,” he says. “So’s it’s about the existential dread of being alive.”
What the next show won’t be about is a fear of fathering. For Birbiglia, that chapter is closed.
“To me, comedy is about what makes you feel terrible and trying to find humorous catharsis within,” he says. “When it comes to my daughter, I just feel so lucky I get to be her dad.”
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.