Mike Birbiglia Is Committed to Showing Us How the Comedy Sausage Is Made

On his current stand-up tour, Birbiglia reveals the secrets behind comedy magic
Mike Birbiglia Is Committed to Showing Us How the Comedy Sausage Is Made

A magician, they say, never reveals his tricks. You don’t saw a lady in half, then spin the box around to reveal that (SPOILER ALERT) the limber magician’s assistant was curled up inside one half of the apparatus the entire time. No entertainer wants to ruin the illusion — except perhaps comedian Mike Birbiglia. 

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I caught Birbiglia last night on his Working It Out tour, where revealing tricks was the main event. On his popular Mike Birbiglia’s Working It Out podcast, Birbigs does a smart variation on the familiar comedian-talking-to-comedian format. Rather than sharing anecdotes from the road or heckler horror stories (although there’s some of that too), he invites comics like Chris Redd or Atsuko Okatsuka or Ray Romano to work out comedy material in real time. For aspiring stand-ups or avid comedy nerds, it’s a fascinating look into how the silly sausage is made — how do you turn an embarrassing experience at your daughter’s dance recital into three minutes of stage-ready jokes?


That was the conceit Birbiglia brought last night. A series of colorful note cards, each containing a word or three, served as prompts for the comedian to try out new jokes. He even dissected his success rate as he worked through the new bits. For example, the audience roared as Birbiglia described his days as a single man, searching in vain for a partner who was interested in being naked at the same time. When he fell in love with his eventual wife, he had to awkwardly break up with his old girlfriend, hemming and hawing until the conversation collapses into humiliation. “Ah, you were with me on the wandering around naked part,” Birbiglia told us, making mental notes for the next time he’d perform the bit. “But I lost you when I had to tell the old girlfriend, ‘Remember when I said, ‘It’s not you, it’s me?’ Actually, it’s you.’”

In the hands of a less confident comic, the idea of trying out unfinished material might seem like a rip-off. Why are we paying good money to watch a comic figure out his show? (When I saw Sarah Silverman in March, that vibe was definitely in the air as Silverman delivered polished hunks, then somewhat awkwardly retreated to a legal pad to figure out what she wanted to try next.) But Birbiglia makes “working it out” an integral part of the show, explaining the process and then hilariously demonstrating how he shapes a routine to its final form. When he does a brilliant riff on a furnace breakdown in a rental house, then shows us a note card that reads “Petro/Pedro” (I won’t spoil it), the audience applauded at the audacity of spinning comedy gold from such a simple prompt.

Birbiglia ended his set with extended routines that were clearly more evolved. That conceit works as well — we get to see how all that “working it out” pays off into fully evolved comic stories guaranteed to kill. Even a magician intent on revealing where the rabbit is hiding in the hat knows that he has to end with a bang. In this case, knowing how the trick was done just made it more satisfying.  

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