Birbiglia’s comedic format breaks conventional molds

When writing a comedy set, a comedian has to decide the right balance of one-liners, riffs and personal stories. Some comics overburden their sets with one-liner after one-liner, leaving the audience hungry for a main course, while others may end up with long rambling stories that don’t pay off. Of course, the safe formula, and what most comics do, is go right to the middle, telling humorous stories and riffs in five to ten minute segments with some one-liners peppered in. But while this formula works, it’s almost too familiar.

Comic Mike Birbiglia chose to break from this formula with his 2010 set “Sleepwalk With Me,” and the results were phenomenal. In it, he masterfully pulls stories from throughout his life into a side-splitting, unified and ultimately poignant narrative. It’s hardly surprising to learn that “Sleepwalk With Me” marked the beginning of Birbiglia’s sort-of partnership with Ira Glass of WBEZ’s “This American Life.” The style taken by Birbiglia in “Sleepwalk With Me” feels like what “This American Life” would be if it were a comedy show: a series of loosely connected stories forming a much larger, more meaningful and more hilarious whole.

Recently, on NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” Birbiglia spoke about his collaborations with Glass. “A few times a year I’ll go in and I’ll pith a story [to Ira], and he’ll be like, ‘No…’.” Birbiglia noted that Glass will probe further into his stories, in which usually “‘there’s no way [he] would talk about that on the radio because it’s too personal, it’s uncomfortable,’ and [Glass] is like ‘Yeah, that’s the story [you’re going to tell].’” Birbiglia and Glass also worked together to create the film adaptation of “Sleepwalk With Me,” released in 2012. It’s easy to see Glass’s influence on Birbiglia with his genre-busting “Sleepwalk With Me” show. With his first follow up show, it’s easy to wonder if Birbiglia can match his breakout performance. Having spent over two years focusing on the one story, you might think him to be a one-hit wonder.

And yet that couldn’t be more wrong. With his latest set, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” it seems that Birbiglia has really begun to master the format he took with “Sleepwalk With Me.” Where in “Sleepwalk With Me” there are some jarring transitions between humor and sincerity, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” walks a finer line. The show has an overall more serious feeling to it, but that’s not a bad thing. The show centers around Birbiglia’s struggles with love and belonging, and as such doesn’t feel solely like a comedy. Rather, Birbiglia has positioned himself as more mature than most other stand-up comics. Sure, he continues to use his exaggerated I-just-rolled-out-of-bed, unenunciated voice for laughs. But while he still often has the character voice of a teenager, Birbiglia seems to have grown tremendously in the past four years.

“My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” is not flawless. Not all of his tales of woe and misadventures in trying to find love as are good as the rest, and there’s the occasional joke that falls flat. Despite these imperfections, it’s clear that Birbiglia is continuing to mature as a writer, comedian and individual at a rapid pace. He has an uncanny knack for making people not only laugh hysterically but also think introspectively. Birbiglia’s mixture of humor and earnestness is rare, and his shows are sure to please.

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