Mike Birbiglia: orchestrating anxiety


Mike Birbiglia creates masterful endings. It’s not good form to talk about endings, especially in stand up, when an effective ending can be so transformative. With tension such a key component – both at the level of individual jokes and of fully developed sets or specials, with punchlines and closers providing the release (or not) to that tension, a good ending can justify, and even vindicate any manner of bad or uneven material. So, to focus on endings is to potentially cheat the clean release of that tension. But endings are also a huge part of the artistry of stand-up, and as such, can’t be critically ignored. 

The ending of Birbiglia’s most recent special, The New One, is particularly interesting in its orchestration of tension. A show centred on his ambivalent feelings about having a child, it ends as it begins, with a description of a couch; from the first one beloved as a symbol of his life with his wife to a ‘new one’, which represents his acceptance of the new reality. In an absurd equivalence, the ‘new one’ of the title is, of course, both the couch and the child (called Oona, as in ‘one’). 

At the heart of the story is a call-back to an earlier anecdote about a birthing class he and his wife go to during her difficult pregnancy; where, caught up in their anxiety about the baby’s health, they feel alienated by the sentimental language. Particularly scornful about one woman’s desire to ‘see the world through baby’s eyes’, it’s this wording that he later returns to. Playing a game with Oona, he suddenly, unexpectedly, ‘sees the world through baby’s eyes’, and the scorn of those original words is emptied out, and filled instead with joy. The intensity with which we experience that sweetness is partly due to Birbiglia’s masterful management of our emotions. While it seems to give us something we didn’t know we needed, the hunger has actually been carefully crafted. Throughout his account, a slight nagging concern has been building about the bleakness of it all; his ambivalence is very funny – partly precisely because of the incongruity between his scepticism and the prescribed positivity about children, but there is no real acknowledgment of any affection for his baby to offset it. However, because the balance between acerbic and sweet is so carefully maintained (the steadfast love for his wife, his genial physicality – that slow smile, the slightly bouncy, slightly ponderous gait), we don’t identify our anxiety. So, when he clears the path to the joy of that ending, there is a good deal of unrecognised relief in our pleasure. He plays with the convention that insists upon a certain piety about child-rearing to great comic effect, and then harnesses the power of the taboo to fuel the ending’s efficacy. 

It’s interesting looking back at the ending of an earlier special, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, which is also structured by a call-back, and where Birbiglia again uses anxiety for the pay-off in tension. Earlier in the show he describes the gesture gymnasts make when they complete a routine – arched back, arms flung up high – a convention that holds even when a routine has collapsed into complete disarray. The gesture is so competent and persuasive that it’s almost enough to convince anyone watching that the preceding routine was, in fact, functional. In the final section of the special, after seemingly getting bogged down in the detail of a car accident, rendered furious and myopic at its injustices, he stands, arches his back and flings his arms in the air. The economy of the gesture as a punchline is rather extraordinary: a self-reflexive comment that toggles between life and art – acknowledging both the mess of his own behaviour and the mess of the art he’s made from it. Once again, our slight anxiety fuels the intensity of our enjoyment; after wondering at the lack of structure and laughs in the storytelling, and that doubt creating tension, there is relief at suddenly seeing the design emerge.  

The rhythm of this ending is very different to The New One: here the anxiety is deployed only briefly and is much less diffuse. It’s hard to know just how systematic Birbiglia is in varying these dynamics, and it’s tempting to trace a development from the more obvious use of tension in the earlier special to the subtle design of The New One. But whatever the trajectory, he has proven himself to be a master storyteller, with his orchestration of anxiety just one skill among many.

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