Arts & Culture

Mike Birbiglia blends heartbreak and humor in upcoming SLO comedy show

Comedian Mike Birbiglia performs Saturday at the Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly.
Comedian Mike Birbiglia performs Saturday at the Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly.

Comedian Mike Birbiglia could teach a class on the art of the anecdote.

Over the course of a half-hour conversation, he meanders from musings about fame and friendship to a cautionary tale about why you don’t want to get caught fibbing in Boise, Idaho. (Hotel desk clerks in that city, it seems, are particularly good at ferreting out falsehoods.)

“There are certain towns that are so small that you can’t even lie,” Birbiglia explains with a chuckle. “You can get away with that in Chicago or Dallas, but in Boise, you can’t be playing fast and loose with your local anecdotes.”

Telling stories — specifically, heartfelt first-person narratives filled with the kind of intimate details normally reserved for the psychiatrist’s couch or the confessional booth — is what Birbiglia does best. He’s bared his soul in a series of one-man shows, including “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” “Sleepwalk with Me” and “Thank God for Jokes,” that toe the line between comedy and theater.

“Sometimes as an exercise, I’ll try to take the saddest or darkest story from my memory and try to find the humor in it,” explains Birbiglia, who brings his latest show, “The New One,” to San Luis Obispo on Saturday.

He calls comedy “a coping mechanism.” “We’re all just trying to come to grips with how absurd an existence this is,” he says. “And jokes can sometimes make us feel closer in the process.”

Storytelling wasn’t Birbiglia’s first love. A native of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, he credits Steven Wright with inspiring him to become a standup comic.

Birbiglia discovered improvisational comedy at Georgetown University and performed at The Improv in Washington, D.C. — experiences he later drew on for his 2016 movie “Don’t Think Twice,” about an improv troupe that’s torn apart when one of its members is recruited for a “Saturday Night Live”-style show.

But Birbiglia’s performance style gradually shifted, thanks in part to his first experience telling a story on stage at the 2003 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado. Now he juxtaposes jokes with emotional revelations.

Birbiglia credits two of his favorite filmmakers — James Brooks and Cameron Crowe — with influencing his storytelling style.

Watching “Broadcast News” or “Jerry Maguire,” “You’re laughing one minute. You’re crying the next. You’re feeling the range of human emotion,” Birbiglia says. “There’s something aspirational about it, artistically.”

That’s a throughline that unifies all his projects, he says.

“I love standup and I love movies,” Birbiglia says. “I know those two things seem dissimilar, but the connecting line is, whenever people see my movies or people see my live shows, I want them first and foremost to laugh. And second and secondmost, I want people to feel something, feel some kind of emotion.”

Few projects reflect Birbiglia’s blend of heartbreak and humor better than his critically acclaimed one-man show “Sleepwalk with Me,” which debuted off-Broadway in 2008. In it, he recounts his struggles with a stalled career, a stale relationship and rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder — a condition so gnarly that it once caused him to jump through the window of a second-story motel room.

That show inspired a New York Times best-selling book, 2010’s “Sleepwalk with Me and Other Painfully True Stories,” and the 2012 movie “Sleepwalk with Me,” Birbiglia’s directorial debut.

Birbiglia, whose screen credits include “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Trainwreck” and TV’s “Orange Is the New Black,” jokes that the success of “Sleepwalk with Me” has opened him up to “a lot of sleepwalking stories” from fans.

“Their story is always like, ‘Oh, my son woke up in the middle of the night and he walked to the corner and he peed on the humidifier.’ (I’m) like, ‘OK, well, I jumped through a window. I feel like my story is better,’ ” he says, chuckling. “I don’t mean to be arrogant about my life-threatening story, but it’s true.”

Birbiglia’s latest show also pulls from personal experiences. “There are a lot of things that at the time I was experiencing them were very painful, and I was able to find the humor over time,” he says.

Although Birbiglia hesitates to share too many details about “The New One,” he says it’s a “definitely a sequel” to “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.”

That show, which inspired a 2013 Netflix special, deals with Birbiglia’s misadventures with romance and relationships — ranging from a traumatic car accident to a disastrous date that ends with a teenage Mike tossing his cookies on a carnival ride. (Like “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” “The New One” deals with mature subject matter; it’s recommended for ages 16 and up.)

“ ‘My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” can remind you of how it felt to fall in love for the first time and how it was to have your heart broken for the first time,” he says. “If you can switch between that and laughing about throwing up on the Scrambler, to me that’s a real feat. It’s a cool little magic trick.”

Mike Birbiglia

8 p.m. Saturday

Harman Hall, Performing Arts Center, Cal Poly

$40 to $90

805-756-4849 or pacslo.org

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