Mike Birbiglia performs his one man show “The New One” at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles on Oct. 23. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Mike Birbiglia performs his one man show “The New One” at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles on Oct. 23. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Comic Mike Birbiglia finds the funny in reluctant fatherhood

“The New One,” the stand-up comedian’s latest 85-minute show, premieres on Netflix on Nov. 26.

  • Sunday, November 17, 2019 1:30am
  • Life

LOS ANGELES — Stand-up comics come in a few varieties. Some you’d like to hang out with at a bar. Others you’d prefer to keep at a safe distance. A few perhaps you might like to get to know more intimately.

Mike Birbiglia is the one you hope takes you to IKEA. The guy writes hymns to his couch. “It’s a bed that hugs you,” he remarks gratefully. Simple, honest pleasures are reassuring in a dude.

Mild-mannered to the point that even when angry his mode is apologetic, Birbiglia sidles across the stage, a blur of Banana Republic. His solitary presence is curious company at the vast Ahmanson Theatre, where “The New One,” his set of comedy about reluctant fatherhood that went to Broadway and will premiere on Netflix on Nov. 26. Have we caught him puttering around the house on a Saturday afternoon?

Let’s call the experience relaxed. There’s no great pressure to laugh. The show is 85 minutes or so of comedy foreplay. His delivery delays punchlines only to heighten the strangeness of the humorous payoff. A diarist with first-hand experience of existential extremes, he mines the muddle of a life spent making nice as darkness rolls in.

Much of the material is drawn from familiar comic tropes. Birbiglia’s wife decides she wants to have a baby. Birbiglia objects that a child will wreck their lives. He relents, discovers his sperm are rotten swimmers, has a harrowing medical procedure and eventually becomes a delighted, disquieted dad.

If “The New One” is ever adapted into a movie, Paul Rudd must star.

Beneath the conventional surface, however, lies a Prometheus who can’t shake the memory of being chained to the rock. Birbiglia’s medical file swarms with horrors. Bladder cancer when he was 19 has kept him on high alert for a sucker punch from on high.

When his doctor told him some bad news after a physical, the conjunction “and” fitted between the words “diabetes” and “Lyme disease” made him feel as though he had been told at a parent-teacher conference that his kid was getting straight Ds and had also been molested by the gym teacher. “One at a time!” he protests.

A sleep disorder that’s dangerous not only for him but also for anyone in the vicinity requires that he sleep straitjacketed in a sleeping bag in a locked room, which he’s forced to share with a cat that treats him with no respect. It was the cat’s bathroom before it became his nighttime safe haven, and the cat won’t let him forget it. In the genial observational humor about marriage that he indulges in here, Birbiglia plays his own straight man. The jokes are usually on him.

He doesn’t tell mother-in-law groaners — thank God — but if he did, he’d be the butt of them. His wife, he says, speaks to him in a voice “that has a thread count of 600,” a remark reminiscent of King Lear’s line about Cordelia (“Her voice was ever soft, Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman”). Birbiglia’s patriarchal nature is also soft, gentle and low. It’s sometimes more pronounced in what he leaves out of his anecdotes than in what he includes. But to his credit, he’s retrofitted his retro material for a new age.

Still, his act depends on the solidarity of men just like himself — married heterosexual city dwellers who a generation ago would have been pushing lawnmowers on weekends — and the women who lovingly endure them. This can feel like a closed circle in 2019. But his proud masculine bumbling isn’t meant to exclude. Its appeal, however, may be more fully appreciated by a certain kind of mainstream audience that doesn’t necessarily think of itself as mainstream.

The production, directed by Seth Barrish, is mostly bare, keeping the focus squarely on Birbiglia. A scenic coup occurs on Beowulf Boritt’s set, but this is a comedy show, not a play or work of performance art. The amplification that’s required for such a large house is off-putting. At w of heightened emotion, the sound is deafening. It’s a sign that something is out of whack between artist and venue.

Not that you’d hold it against Birbiglia, who’s so agreeable that you’re happy to hear more about his new couch or latest health scare. A surrogate pal while onstage, he’s always admirably himself. And like those friends who stay in our good graces, he knows just when to leave.

Talk to us

More in Life

Create your own simple syrup for the best summer drinks

Try two drink recipes — a sparkling lemonade and a margarita — that call for chile lemon simple syrup.

Pinot gris continues to merit gold medals for Northwest wine

The Cascadia wine competition proves the Burgundy white grape is just as worthy of attention as ever.

Flavorful chicken salad is perfect for a hot summer night

The only cooking you need to do for this dish is toast the walnuts to enhance their flavor.

Keep masks on the kitchen counter next to your phone so you remember to grab one when you leave the house. (Jennifer Bardsley)
Household strategies to manage summer’s hottest new accessory

This mom lays out her plan to keep clean masks available to all four family members at all times.

2020 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon EcoDiesel: Don’t call it an SUV

The new engine produces 442 lb-ft of torque. Its partner is an eight-speed automatic transmission.

With COVID-19, this is a once-in-a-century kind of summer

Though we’re in a pandemic, we can still find imaginative and resourceful ways to enjoy summertime.

How Impossible’s plant-based burger meat compares to beef

Thanks to the pandemic, the plant-based meat alternative is no longer impossible to find in stores.

This summer, your table is waiting on Main Street in Edmonds

The city is closing off the street on weekends to provide a safe place for dining. Bothell is doing the same thing, but seven days a week.

Whidbey Island’s roadside red door is a portal to nowhere

The door on Cultus Bay Road has been a South Whidbey Island icon for 30 years. Here’s the story.

Most Read