With the amount of content on Netflix, it's hard to identify a coherent strategy beyond sheer quantity. Netflix is confident you'll want to subscribe to the service with the most toys. So, while places like HBO, NBC, and FX have developed brand identities, Netflix's big identifiable brand marker just might be the endless scroll. This applies to all genres, including stand-up comedy specials, which Netflix traffics in heavily. Every week, there's at least one new addition. Recently we've seen new specials from Iliza Schlesinger, Seth Meyers, and Jenny Slate. And those are just the major ones. This week, it's Mike Birbiglia who is bringing his latest special, The New One, to the table. With it, he's stepping to the forefront of Netflix's comedy offerings.
For much of his career, Birbiglia has been the kind of stand-up comedian whose shows have set him apart. His 2008 comedy show Sleepwalk with Me was a comedy landmark of the last 20 years. It also belonged to the category of "one-man show," a distinction that often lies on the other side of a very thin line from stand-up comedy. The one-man or one-woman shows that incorporate multi-media presentations, songs, or characters feel immediately recognizable, from Whoopi Goldberg's old Broadway performances, to John Leguizamo's Freak, to Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking. And then there's the one-person show that feels like Big Idea Comedy, almost akin to a TED talk. This was the vibe for Hannah Gadsby's Nannette, which ended up dividing comedians over whether her anti-comedy stance and recitation of traumatic events counted as comedy rather than just an impassioned monologue.
Birbiglia's version of a one-man show doesn't involve songs or elaborate character work. And it's not Big Idea Comedy, unless you consider telling anecdotes from your life to be a big idea. What they do, however, is tell a story. And stacked end-to-end, they're building this kind of Marvel Cinematic Universe of a stand-up career, where every subsequent show fills out another phase of his life. That alone isn't unique to Birbiglia. Lots of comics continue to talk about their life as they age, evolve, and grow. But Birbiglia's comedy feels like he's adding chapters in a book, one by one.
2008's Sleepwalk With Me was about (among other things) being diagnosed with a rare disorder that caused him to act out his dreams while he slept, leading to incredibly dangerous (but also, in his telling, undeniably hilarious) results. The show was a sensational success, vaulting Birbiglia into the upper echelon of comedians, and leading to, among other things, a narrative film based on the show that was a big, splashy Sundance Film Festival success.
His next show was My Girlfriend's Boyfriend in 2013, followed by Thank God for Jokes in 2017, each one adding a chapter to Birbiglia's self-effacing story of himself. His new special, appropriately titled The New One, comes to Netflix after a critically-acclaimed three month-run on Broadway and a subsequent national tour. In it, Birbiglia sets out to tell the story of how he became a dad.
One of Birbiglia's gifts is his ability to take a perspective on a situation that adds to the story simply by its vantage point. As he tells it in The New One, he didn't want to have a kid, for very many good and reasonable reasons, not to mention a few cosmic signs from the universe that it wouldn't (shouldn't?) happen. He speaks about his wife, Jen, with such specific tenderness, treading the same familiar Wife Guy territory that Seth Meyers recently covered, but with the benefit of so much accumulated texture that comes from the earlier chapters in his comedy story. Sleepwalk With Me asserts itself again as Birbiglia wrestles with how his sleep disorder affects his wife and the prospect of their child, simultaneously transforming his previous one-man-show into backstory. Birbiglia is a captivating comedian who has succeeded in making a character of himself.
There's one sight gag in The New One that is so surprising and delightful, and so in keeping with Birbiglia's comedic vibe. Just a big, happy (but secretly melancholy and meaningful) thing that takes you by surprise. That's the story he's been telling all along, and it's great to experience the latest chapter.
Mike Birbiglia: The New One is now streaming on Netfllix
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.