Mike Birbiglia may have backed himself into a corner.
The comedian’s two best works to date — the 2012 feature film Sleepwalk With Me and the 2013 stand-up special My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend — both deal with turning points in the comedian’s life. The former detailed the ways in which his fear of commitment intersected with his sleepwalking disorder, while the latter chronicled different humiliations in his love life and the fateful car accident that led him to finally believe in the idea of marriage. Both works were poignant, insightful, and took advantage of his natural talents as a storyteller.
But those accomplishments are in the past, and unless Birbiglia develops another sleep disorder or gets in a second car wreck, it raises the question: what should he talk about now?
At Friday’s Balboa Theatre performance, the answer to that question was comedy itself. The San Diego stop on the massive “Thank God for Jokes” tour found Birbiglia examining the things he finds funny, lamenting the fact that he isn’t as amusing offstage, and giving praise to the comedians who have influenced his career. Following the revealing emotionalism of Sleepwalk With Me and the serpentine structure of My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, it was strange to see Birbiglia deliver a set of essentially straightforward comedy. You can’t blame the guy for taking a victory lap, though, and he exuded confidence as he heckled latecomers in the audience or toyed with repetitions and callbacks to see how far he could stretch them.
Unsurprisingly, the best moments in the set were the autobiographical ones. Highlights included the stories of his arrest for driving with a suspended license and the time he lost his wife’s cat, resulting in her staring him down with a look he memorably described as “divorce eyes.” Other moments proved that Birbiglia doesn’t need to jump out of hotel windows or get t-boned by drunk drivers for his stories to be compelling. His recounting of the time he tried to save a spot for his tardy wife at a crowded yoga class was hilarious, especially thanks to his helpful definition of yoga as “trying not to fart while stretching.”
As always, Birbiglia’s unassuming nature and ability to develop a rapport with the crowd were his greatest assets. Those qualities made his accounts of cursing in front of the Muppets and skewering director David O. Russell at the Gotham Awards feel less like a comedian boasting about his ability to be incendiary and more like a friend sharing embarrassing anecdotes at a bar. Birbiglia’s voice is distinctive — stifled like a yawn and ending each sentence on a soft fadeout — and he uses that delivery to subtly tweak the pace and tone of his shows. That proved mostly effective on Friday, though the energy did wane a bit as the night neared its end.
After the high-water marks of Sleepwalk With Me and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, it’s hard not to long for something a bit more conceptual from Birbiglia. But even if this tour marks the beginning of a more straightforward era in his career, we’ll just have to settle for him remaining one of the most affable and entertaining comedians around. It might not be as readily suited for This American Life, but Friday’s show was still a hilarious, successful performance. His personal life might be another story, but no one can accuse Birbiglia of sleepwalking onstage.