There’s an interesting subgenre of monologue show that I think began—or at least conspicuously took hold—with Rob Becker’s Defending the Caveman back in the early 90s. It’s where a person who is really “only” a standup comedian shapes his act to concentrate on one topic for the length of a double set, and either by dint of organization or confessional, molds the monologue into a piece that is something of a play, i.e. sturdy enough that it can be assumed by another actor when the originating performer moves on. (Indeed, on Broadway, Becker was replaced by Michael Chiklis, and in the years between, Defending the Caveman has become a franchise, with numerous actors booked out to perform it regularly all over the world).
The latest entry in this category is from comedian Mike Birbiglia, called Thank God for Jokes. This is his second foray into theatrical monology (his first, in 2008, was Sleepwalk With Me). Its premise is fairly simple: Given the difficulties and complexities of life—married life, religious life, familial life—he finds himself able to stabilize and navigate with his own leavening sense of irony and the absurd. Yet for all the simplicity of the premise, he weaves a detailed, layered, intricately constructed narrative.
Birbiglia has a deceptively low-key delivery (like Steven Wright, without being so abstracted, or Michael Keaton, without being so frenetic), and compared to most comics, he presents himself as having been a long-developing babe in the woods about most things in life; and with that “limited innocence,” to coin a phrase, works almost entirely “clean”—the four-letter expletives are few and far between (and when they come, the use of profanity is itself the subject referenced)—and also with a refreshing lack of hostility and outrage. Rather, he is an awed, often dumbfounded observer of his own life, trying to make sense of it all. Indeed, such may be among the key elements that distinguishes a standup “play” from a standup rant, such as those brilliantly delivered by Bill Maher and even more brilliantly by the late George Carlin. While the latter two are furious commentators who TELL you what’s what, guys like Birbiglia and Becker are on a quest for answers and understanding.
As with his previous show, Birbiglia takes a circuitous, quirky path through his personal woods, and does so engagingly, again under the direction of Seth Barrish. And as I said before: I would not be surprised if he, too, found a franchise in his future…
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