If you don’t remember the guy who tore your ticket at the DC Improv 20 years ago, you might know Mike Birbiglia, 38, from his one-man show turned book and movie, “Sleepwalk With Me,” or from comedy specials such as “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” from bits on “This American Life” or from his appearances on “Girls” and “Orange Is the New Black.”
It was Birbiglia’s movie “Don’t Think Twice,” which he wrote, directed and produced and in which he is featured, about the improv comedy world and the nature of success, that connected with audiences nationally this summer.
Birbiglia, who graduated from Georgetown University in 2000, returns to the Washington area this week with the road version of his last off-Broadway one-man show, “Thank God for Jokes,” which comes to the Music Center at Strathmore on Friday.
We spoke recently to Birbiglia from the road about the show, which he’s fine-tuning for a Netflix special he’s shooting next month; how his Georgetown improv group influenced “Don’t Think Twice”; and why he had to fail at Wiseacres in Tysons Corner before he got any good.
Q: What’s the thesis of “Thank God for Jokes”?
A: The show is about how jokes have the ability to bring to bring us together and also have the ability to get us in trouble. In that sense, they’re risky. Every time you tell a joke, you’re taking a risk. But ultimately they’re worth it.
Q: Are you talking about your personal life or broader events in the world?
A: People often ask me to tell jokes offstage, and it’s hard to do, or explain. My doctor said to me once, because he didn’t believe I was a comedian, “You’re a comedian? How come you’re not funny now?” What I wanted to say was, “I’m going to take this conversation we’re having and repeat that to strangers, then that’s the joke. You’re the joke, later.” But I didn’t say it, I just thought it.
Q: And did you do that joke in the show?
A: I did it in the show. That’s what I try to explain to people: Jokes are this odd thing where people have this impression that we’re all just whipping off jokes all the time. But a lot of times they’re just thoughts you have you can’t really say, because it would feel socially unacceptable. That’s why onstage we accept it as a forum we accept for people saying things that might not be appropriate.
Q: Aren’t jokes always trying to get as close to the edge without going over?
A: Yes. I think that’s why culturally, we’re in a tricky moment, because everything is on the Internet and everything is recorded and filmed, all that kind of stuff. With standup comedy, for example, it becomes harder and harder to find the line. Because in order to find the line, you need to cross the line. So if you’re very short of the line, you need to go across the line to see what the line is. And increasingly, with everything being recorded and filmed, it’s harder in an art form like standup that is trial and error. We have to remember with trial and error if you get rid of the error, there’s going to be less great stuff.
Q: And this doesn’t have to do with political correctness or things like that, right?
A: I don’t think so. I actually go out of my way to never say the term “politically correct” in this show. And the reason is that it’s become a co-opted term by the kind of Trump political movement, which I think is unfortunate.
Q: Does your show change as you go along to react to things in the news?
A: I acknowledge in the show incidents like the Charlie Hebdo incident in France and the Seth Rogen/North Korea incident where they cyberattacked Sony. I acknowledge the fact that increasingly we’re living in a world where people are taking jokes very seriously, primarily because the world is getting smaller. We’re neighbors now with people who live in China, or neighbors with people who live in Russia, or neighbors with people who live in Texas, which to me is the most worrisome.
Q: How much of your life is in “Don’t Think Twice”? Was it based on your improv experience here?
A: I was cast in an improv group at Georgetown, when I was a freshman, actually. And then my improv group moved to New York together. We had a regular show at the UCB Theatre. The group was called Littleman — Nick Kroll was in it as well — and eventually the group broke up and I veered into standup and movies, and they moved into writing and acting and different things. So, yeah, I’d say it was autobiographically themed but not autobiographical in the story itself.
Q: Was D.C. was a formative place for you as a comic?
A: Absolutely. I would work the door at the Washington DC Improv. I’d sell tickets and bring food to tables, and the reason I got to learn everything is basically when someone wouldn’t show up, they’d throw me up onstage. . . . I’d say, “I’m Mike Birbiglia. Some of you might recognize me from the door,” and that always got a laugh. When I graduated from that job and moved to New York, actually, the person who took over for me took that line.
Similarly, if a headliner was drunk and staying out all night and couldn’t wake up to do radio in the morning, they would call me. That’s how I ended up being on “Jack in the Morning” for the first time. Jack Diamond’s show on 107.3 was the first time I ever was on the radio, ever, because the headliner who I was opening for wouldn’t wake up.
Q: Did D.C. have a good comedy scene then?
A: When I was there, in 1996 to 2000, it was small. I used to go out to the Best Western in Tysons Corner — there was a club called Wiseacres. They would have an open mic every Wednesday, and I would go out and enter a lottery to perform. Eleven people would get picked out of 30 at random.
Some weeks I’d drive out all that way and I wouldn’t even get onstage. And some weeks I would. It was definitely where I cut my teeth. I really wasn’t good. I really hadn’t figured it out. As I said, comedy takes an extreme amount of trial and error. And a majority of the work I was putting onstage was error.
Q: When did that turn around for you?
A: I think it turned around a couple of years after moving to New York City. I was working at this place called Comic Strip Live on the Upper East Side. The person who booked the Comic Strip was this guy Lucien Hold, who said, “You should talk about yourself onstage. Because if you write jokes about yourself, no one can steal them.” And I thought that was the smartest thing I had heard about comedy.
Mike Birbiglia Oct. 7 at 8 p.m. at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets: $20-$60. 301-581-5100. strathmore.org.