“At some point this week you told someone where you were going tonight and that person said, ‘Who?’ and you said something I’d been in and they said, ‘What’s that?’ and you said, ‘Go back to bed, Grandma,’” Mike Birbiglia explains near the beginning of his latest one-man show, Thank God for Jokes. “But I’m a niche thing.” The thirty-seven-year-old actor, comedian, writer, and director has appeared in such films as Trainwreck and Hot Pursuit and such cable series as Orange Is the New Black and Girls and is a regular contributor to This American Life on radio. In 2012, he wrote, directed, and starred in the award-winning Sleepwalk with Me, a film based on his one-man show and book about his battle with rapid eye movement (REM) behavior disorder. The success of the indie movie led to his gig hosting the 2012 Gotham Awards, which plays a central role in Thank God for Jokes. Over the course of eighty-five minutes, Birbiglia also discusses spam filters, nut allergies, cursing in front of the Muppets, riffing on Jesus at a Christian college, cats, and his fear of cops. The latter leads to an improvised conversation with an audience member that can be both funny and a little scary depending on the person’s past. He also has a blast with latecomers — the Lynn Redgrave Theater makes it clear that there will be no late seating, but when a few stragglers do indeed arrive after the show has begun, Birbiglia lets them have it. “What late people don’t understand about us on-time people is that we hate you,” he says. “And the reason we hate you is that it’s so easy to be on time. You just have to be early and early lasts for hours and on time just lasts a second and then you’re late. Forever.”
But mostly, Birbiglia delves into the art of the joke. “I say this about jokes, having thought about them a lot. Jokes are a volatile type of speech. Sometimes when you tell a joke someone will punch you in the face. And the people standing around you will go, [nodding] ‘Yeah.’” Referring to the Charlie Hebdo incident, in which twelve magazine employees were killed for publishing cartoons depicting Muhammad, Birbiglia points out, “A few of my friends said, ‘Can’t people just write jokes that aren’t offensive?’ And I’m not sure that’s possible. I think all jokes are offensive . . . to someone. . . .” Directed by Seth Barrish (All the Rage, The Tricky Part) and designed by Beowulf Boritt (Act One, The Scottsboro Boys), both of whom did the same on Birbiglia’s first two one-man shows, Sleepwalk with Me and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, Thank God for Jokes features the relatively soft-spoken and self-effacing Birbiglia walking around a small stage, the audience seated around him on three sides. On the wall behind him are religious-tinged stained-glass windows and a handwritten scrawl about Jesus. But don’t let Birbiglia’s gentle, thoughtful demeanor fool you, as he can pack quite a punch, in his storytelling and his delivery, hitting you with hilarious surprises just when you’ve settled in comfortably. He’s a friendly, engaging guy — as long as the joke’s not on you. The show continues through May 29; you can catch more of Birbiglia this July, when his second film as writer, director, and star, Don’t Think Twice, opens in theaters.