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Over the past few years, Mike Birbiglia's voice has become a familiar one, thanks to occasional appearances on This American Life, where his slightly woebegone cadences accompany stories that are both uniquely funny and unpredictably moving. In My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, which he performed as part of the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, Birbiglia knit several pieces with which TAL listeners are likely familiar into a virtually seamless performance that located the pain, and the unexpected sweetness, in the tragicomedy of American romance.
A prose comedian in a world of one-liners, Birbiglia has more in common with the late Spaulding Gray than with the general run of stand-up comics — the type Gray himself once defined as purveyors of "genital-scented humor" of the pop!-bang! variety. A splendid and surprisingly affecting monologist, Mike Birbiglia makes comedic hay of the found material of his own experience.
Charmingly self-effacing, Birbiglia has a motor that seems to run a little slow, but that is simply persona and illusion; like most great comedians, he's three or four jumps ahead of his audience. The phrase "I know," invoked at the sound of his listeners' laughter and enunciated as three syllables, is almost a trade-mark with him: a deliciously gentle, self-conscious reminder to his audience that it's his story he's telling, that he's aware of its ironies. It's as potent a device as the way he allows a joke its pay off, long after it makes its initial appearance, by triggering the audience's collective memory — humor as a seemingly spontaneous thought, spurred by delighted recollection.
Birbiglia sounds a bit different in a large space than in the smaller venues at which he's been recorded for radio. The presentation is a little broader, the voice a tick less intimate, although it retains that vaguely slurred component his admirers have come to recognize, and anticipate. Working for a big crowd seems to juice him up, and you may miss the tentative, almost bewildered, quality he's brought to This American Life. The compensation lies in watching him at work, in glimpsing the shy smile and slightly fearful blue eyes, and his comic physicality during the visual set-pieces, as when he pantomimes dancing in strobe-light or evokes his mortified adolescent self wrestling with an unruly digestive system while held captive on a sadistic, spinning carnival ride called, appropriately, The Scrambler.
Although his humor is seldom topical, Birbiglia's nimble mind dances around ideas no one else seems to have considered (who's to say, he wonders, whether a few of the 72 virgins of legend promised to Islamic martyrs might not be Lesbian, and how would that alter Paradise?) More often his targets are those acutely embarrassing, even chilling, moments in life that defy logic or the best laid plans, like being the first in a relationship to say, "I love you." Without dipping into mawkishness or bathos, Birbiglia does not merely explode the most ghastly and insupportable indecencies to which he has been made victim in laughter but wraps them in something even more annealing. Call it a form of grace.
The NC Comedy Arts Festival presents The Second City Touring Company at the Carolina Theatre on 2/11 - for details, click here - and continues through 2/19. If the presenters will provide additional event info, we will be happy to include it in our calendar.