I’ve had an unjustifiable aversion to storytelling. I can’t really explain why I haven’t given it a chance. Storytelling is like brussels sprouts. People keep telling me they’re good and good for me, but I just don’t want them on my plate. Give me pizza.
This aversion is why I stopped following Mike Birbiglia. His slow transformation from stand-up to storytelling put me off. Finally, though, I watched My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, his new special on Netflix, and now regular stand-up comedy just seems like a joke. Stand-up has always been at least a little hokey and mechanical. What mediocre stand-up comedy eventually boils down to is “set-up, punch-line,” which is the same formula as bar jokes and even knock-knock jokes. Good stand-up goes beyond that and adds political or social commentary, or tries to make the audience engage with life. However, good-not-great stand-up still has the goal of getting laughs, and that takes precedence over everything.
Sometimes the artistic merit of the performance is cheapened because of the need for laughs, or because the comedian is too afraid to be 100% honest. There’s a tendency for comics to be false or contrived, even if they’re not the type to run up to the stage wearing a spinning bow-tie to shout, “You ready to laugh?” That’s an extreme example, but there’s nothing more annoying to me than character comedians. It’s just cheap entertainment.
Aziz Ansari’s “Randy” character might be amusing, but I’m not going to remember it or be affected by it. But really every comedian has a stage character, even if it’s a small deviation from their real self. It’s one of the reasons I just don’t like a lot of comedians. Dane Cook is an obvious example. His on-stage persona is so apparent that it’s like he’s wearing a suit of armor. He hides behind his antics and overall loudness so that no one really realizes he’s simply trying to entertain rather than engage.
In My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, Mike Birbiglia might have a thin veil of a character, but it’s so hard to see. His performance is just so earnest and vulnerable. His goal isn’t to get laughs. The special is admittedly not as funny as Jim Gaffigan’s Mr. Universe, but it doesn’t matter. The goal is to get the story out, which he does beautifully. What makes it work so well is that the performance isn’t just storytelling and isn’t just stand-up, but somewhere in-between, and blends a tangential narrative with basic stand-up stuff like observational comedy and audience work.
It’s not a perfect performance. Sometimes Birbiglia overreaches on the emotional affectation and his narrative anchors become somewhat predictable, but the story is so brilliantly told and honest that these flaws can be forgiven.
My hope is that stand-up will take notes from storytelling and become something greater than what it already is—by becoming more connected, more honest, and more vulnerable.