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How to tell a story like Mike Birbiglia

With his third Netflix special rooted in one tale, Mike Birbiglia has become a virtuoso of long-form storytelling. He offers some advice on how it’s done.

How to tell a story like Mike Birbiglia
[Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix]

Many years ago, Mike Birbiglia jumped through the second-story window of a La Quinta Inn while sleepwalking and almost died.

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In a classic case of turning lemons into lemonade, the comedian used this most extraordinary moment from his life to step beyond the bounds of stand-up and dabble in long-form storytelling. His sleepwalking debacle served as basis for an off-Broadway show, then a book, and finally a movie.

Fortunately, Birbiglia hasn’t had further nocturnal defenestrations. He has, however, become a virtuoso at sculpting material from his biography into relatable, hilarious, long-form monologues. The deceptively meta-titled The New One, which is about adjusting one’s life to having a child, arrives on Netflix today. It’s the first of his storytelling shows to have an honest-to-goodness Broadway run, and the third to live on the streaming service, following 2013’s My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and 2017’s Thank God for Jokes. (In between the latter two, Birbiglia also wrote and starred in 2016’s Don’t Think Twice, a bittersweet film about realizing one’s potential—or not—in the comedy community.)

What sets Birbiglia’s performances apart from the oft-dreaded one-man show, and most Moth Story Slams, is his care and attention to structure, pacing, and cohesion. Not to mention the fact that his laughs-per-minute ratio is as high as any of his stand-up shows, a tribute to the way he works out his stories in smaller chunks, painstakingly crafted over months and months of club and theater sets.

As he’s matured into perhaps our preeminent long-form comedic storyteller, Birbiglia has also branched out into a mentor role, guiding Chris Gethard through his Career Suicide off-Broadway show, which landed at HBO, and producing Jacqueline Novak’s Get On Your Knees, which ran this summer to ecstatic reviews and is slated for a victory lap in New York this December.

On the eve of The New One’s release, Birbiglia has graciously offered to mentor Fast Company readers as well.

It would be a false promise to advertise that you, too, can be as compelling and funny a storyteller as he, simply by following the advice below. However, using his tips for a wedding toast, open mic, or a rather loose all-hands meeting, you stand a better shot at being the most compelling and funny version of yourself.

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Tell the story you don’t want to tell

Over the course of his three specials, Birbiglia has selflessly disclosed a lot of damning information for the sake of spinning a yarn. Take as a transparency yardstick the fact that one of his early albums was called My Secret Public Journal Live. In The New One, he even explicitly tells the audience he wishes he could leave out what he’s about to reveal.

But how could anyone in the audience not want to hear what comes after a warning like that?

“I always ask people, ‘What’s the story you don’t want to tell anyone?’ And, weirdly, that is the story you want to tell on stage,” Birbiglia says during a recent phone chat with Fast Company. “It’s the story that you’re so reluctant to tell that the audience can feel it in the room. They know, because they have stories they don’t want to tell. I think that when someone does that right, there’s an immediate empathy and the audience is more willing to go to different places, because it’s uncomfortable. I like to think of great storytelling as you’re telling secrets to the audience, because everyone loves secrets.”

[Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix]

Start with your ending

Finding the perfect opener can be hair-pullingly difficult. You can drive yourself crazy coming up with something to win the crowd over right away. But even the best starting line of all time wouldn’t save a story that has no place to go.

“Ideally, you have a strong sense of what your central event is before you begin putting anything together,” Birbiglia says. “People always say with stories: There needs to be a beginning, a middle, and an end. I disagree slightly. I feel like there just has to be an end. There doesn’t even have to be a beginning, really. You just have to have an end, and it has to be definitive, and you need to indicate to the audience that eventually you’ll get there. Because if it doesn’t end, people will be furious. They want to go home, they have plans, they have parking arrangements. They just want some ballpark indicator of how long this is going to be. The key thing is starting with your ending and then building it backwards from there.”

Be as inclusive as possible

Just as important as the quality of one’s story and its delivery is to whom you are delivering it.

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“I only found the beginning of [The New One] about eight months into the writing process. Before that, it was all about my wife’s pregnancy, and it was really killing with people in the audience who were roughly my age. And I was like, ‘Yeah, this is it. This is the show.’ Then I played at Princeton University one night, and it didn’t bomb, but it was softer. And I was like, ‘Oh, not only do they not have kids, most of them have never even considered the idea of what that would be like,” Birbiglia says. “So I needed to come up with a metaphor of something that people can all relate to. And I started thinking about what I was like when I was in college and about how me and my roommates brought home a couch from the street, and then I was like, ‘Oh, that’s sounds like a great metaphor for the whole thing.’ So I sort of tracked the whole story through this metaphor of the couch. Like, what was it like to be married with a couch, what was it like to be single with a couch, and what it was like to have a child with a couch. And it really becomes about changing from what is comfortable to what is expansive. That’s the purpose the couch metaphor serves. Just about everybody can relate to it.”

Every detour needs to be essential

It’s perfectly fine, even encouraged, to take a detour in the middle of a story. But there has to be a good reason for it. Otherwise, what’s the point? (Something you should know before the audience starts wondering.)

“With any digression, it’s really about whether it serves the purpose of your central story,” Birbiglia says. “[In The New One], I give several of the reasons I never wanted to have kids, and one of them is that I don’t think there should be more of me in the world. I have a lot of physical maladies, and I tell a story about having cancer when I was 20 and getting a cystoscopy every year and what it’s like and how painful it is and how the doctor was like, ‘Relax your butt,’ and I was like, ‘You relax your butt!’ It’s a really long digression, but what’s actually happening there is, even though we’re goofing around about the pain of illness, the audience is also registering, ‘Oh, this is real. This guy actually had bladder cancer.’ You’re showing versus telling. You’re not just saying, ‘I don’t think there needs to be more of me.’ It’s like ‘Here’s why,’ and the showing of that. You almost want people to go, ‘Yeah, maybe he shouldn’t have a kid.'”

[Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix]

Beware the digression-inception

Taking a detour too far, though, risks the audience forgetting which direction you were heading in already.

“For whatever reason, with my stories, the audience is generally good with a digression, but they’re not as good with a digression of a digression. Double digression,” he says. “Ultimately, you want people to be invested in your central story. The New One, for example, opens on this idea of, here’s the reason no one should ever have a child. And then, Jen [Stein, his wife] and I start trying to conceive and then we’re on our through line. If you go too far from that, you can lose people’s investment in the equity you’ve built up in the relationship. So much of storytelling comes down to, in my opinion, the same thing you’d experience if you’re talking to someone at a party when you just met and they asked you about yourself and you told them a story. If you digress, you might get away with it if it’s really funny. But if you digress on top of a digression, that person might be like, ‘Uh, I’m gonna get a drink.'”

Be as authentic you as you can be

Birbiglia arrived at his impeccable sense of timing and command of the audience by being a successful comedian for nearly two decades. But rather than attempt to emulate his delivery, aspiring storytellers would do well to follow their own instincts.

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“A big breakthrough point for me was in My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, the ‘Please stop the ride’ story,” he recalls. “Basically, when I was in seventh grade, I invited this girl I had a crush on to go to the carnival and go on the Scrambler and it did not go well. And when I would tell the story to friends, they would laugh so hard when I acted out the Scrambler. People would be like, ‘You should do that on stage.’ And I swear to god, I would say, like, ‘No, no, no. My stage persona would never do that.’ That’s a huge mistake. That was a big personal breakthrough for me to be like, ‘No, I’m the fucking Scrambler!’ I stopped caring whether some people might think, ‘Oh, he’s trying to do physical comedy now,’ or whatever. I just did what felt right for me. In comedy or storytelling, it’s amazing when you figure out how to be yourself. It’s so hard to do, and it takes years and years. I still struggle with it. To this day, I’m always trying to be more myself.”

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