When Lin-Manuel Miranda calls your one-man show “As perfect a night as you’re gonna get,” it might seem like an it’s-all-downhill-from-here moment. But for Mike Birbiglia, there is no downhill, as the comic, actor, playwright and director’s personal projects continually supersede their predecessors. His latest one-man show, 2017’s The New One, which inspired Miranda’s sterling review, is also Birbiglia’s most honest and transparent performance to date. The show wrestles with Birbiglia’s initial opposition to having children, and how his thoughts on parenting rapidly shifted toward clichés such as, “This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” While the story contains tons of jokes, he gets real about feeling like an intern in his own family and having bouts of jealousy toward his daughter. Known for his versatile storytelling, Birbiglia has made frequent stops on NPR’s This American Life, directed films Sleepwalk with Me and Don’t Think Twice (and starred in the former), and has appeared in several popular TV shows. Before he brings his Broadway show to National Theatre on September 24-29, we caught up with him about his process, writing about the personal and his first year as a dad.
On Tap: At what point did you know this story was a one-person show? What about the narrative lent itself to that kind of performance?
Mike Birbiglia: There was actually a gag order in my family about talking about the pregnancy or having a child for the first year, where I would tell [my wife] Jen [Stein] jokes I was working on and she’d say, “I don’t think you should talk about that.” At a certain point, I was in Nantucket at the film festival and they asked me to tell a story about jealousy. I said, “No, I don’t think I’m gonna tell a story.” My wife said, “Well, you’re jealous of Oona.” That’s our daughter. And I said, “That’s true.” On that trip, Jen and I started writing a story together about how I’m jealous of our daughter and that’s the seed of what became the show. Jen started sharing her writing with me and I started sharing my writing with her, and we got really honest about what had happened in that first year [as parents] and the things we had struggled with. That’s why ultimately the show is really funny and has a ton of jokes, but it’s also very close to the bone and I couldn’t have written it without Jen for that reason.
OT: With something so personal, it’s likely you weren’t necessarily planning on telling this story while you were living through it. How do you know when something you’re going through can become a story?
MB: Once you decide that you’re a storyteller of any kind, your whole life is forever looked at through the lens of, “Could that be used as a story?” No matter how happy or sad or weird or strange or cool, it does cross your mind. If a writer says it doesn’t cross their mind, they’re probably lying. My stories, they’re so personal. So, it was important to me that Jen and I were both on the same page about telling the story. Ultimately, the story is about change and how I never wanted to have a child and [how] I was so glad that we had a child. Really, it’s about transformation and the idea that the things we’re sometimes the most reluctant to do are the things that we need most.
OT: What was the toughest thing to admit and be honest about when writing about yourself?
MB: I think the toughest thing was admitting that I could have done better as a dad in that first year of my daughter’s life. I worked too many hours. I traveled too much. I say it in the show, but I was basically the intern of our family. I was the pudgy, milkless vice president. Huge title, no power, also oversees Congress. But if I’m being completely honest, I could have been a better intern.
OT: What’s the writing process for your one-man shows? How do you approach formulating the narrative?
MB: My director Seth Barrish and I have worked on four solo plays that have been off-Broadway: Sleepwalk with Me, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, Thank God for Jokes and now The New One, which moved to Broadway. The way we work is when we arrive at what we believe to be the main event of the show, we work backwards. In other words, with Sleepwalk with Me, it was jumping through a second-story window. With My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, it was being in a car accident and deciding to get married. With Thank God for Jokes, it was telling an inappropriate joke at an awards show. And with this one, it was the moment I understand all the clichés people say about having children. All the things I made fun of and laughed about for all these years [suddenly] made sense to me. So, we really built backwards from that to understand what’s the most impactful way to arrive at that feeling.
OT: What does it mean to have had this performance on Broadway? Was that something you aspired to? How did that experience differ from your previous productions?
MB: Going to Broadway was something we had talked about with all three of the other shows. This one felt like it was the right thing because it was in some ways the most universal. It’s about having a child, but it’s also really just about change and deciding to be alive and what it means to be alive and why we choose to be alive. Plus, it was maybe the funniest of the shows. In terms of Broadway itself, I think what’s special about that is that you enter a community of people who you admire coming to your shows and you going to their shows. I went to Heidi Schreck’s show What the Constitution Means to Me and she came to my show. I went to Rachel Chavkin’s musical Hadestown and she came to my show. That kind of back-and-forth between being in a community of shows and supporting each other, I think that’s the most special part of it. For me, it’s not what street you’re on.
OT: You went to Georgetown University and had a stint at DC Improv. Does performing in DC feel like coming home at all?
MB: I think the most exciting thing about performing in DC is that I can invite Jake Tapper and Neal Katyal to come to the shows. The second most important thing is that I lived in DC and started doing comedy there. It’s very meaningful to me to think that when I was seating people and bringing nachos to tables at DC Improv, the idea that I would be performing my Broadway show at National Theatre down the street would be unfathomable. But in the same way, everything in your life is unfathomable. It’s just a matter of which type of unfathomable it ends up being.
Mike Birbiglia’s The New One runs at National Theatre from Tuesday, September 24 through Sunday, September 29. Tickets start at $39. For more about the one-man show and Birbiglia, visit www.birbigs.com.
National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.com