ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The comedian Mike Birbiglia has checked a lot of big items off his bucket list. He wrote a bestselling book, "Sleepwalk With Me: And Other Painfully True Stories." He directed and starred in a successful movie, "Don't Think Twice." He's been on TV and radio. Now he can check off a new item on the list. For the first time, Mike Birbiglia is on Broadway with his latest one-man show called "The New One."
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE NEW ONE")
MIKE BIRBIGLIA: By the way, I've never wanted to have a kid for seven specific reasons.
BIRBIGLIA: Number one, I've never felt like there be more of me in the world. And don't get me wrong. I think one is funny. I mean, one is like, ha-ha. Good one. Let's get tickets.
BIRBIGLIA: But I - I believe in survival of the fittest, and this is not the fittest.
BIRBIGLIA: I have the body of someone who's just about to start P90X...
BIRBIGLIA: ...And then doesn't.
SHAPIRO: As you can probably guess, "The New One" explores his mixed feelings about becoming a parent. The day after I saw the show, Mike Birbiglia came into our New York studio. And I asked him whether he's violating some unwritten rule that says parents have to pretend that having children is their greatest joy.
BIRBIGLIA: That's why the show is a little bit of a Houdini-ish (ph) trick. If it works - I'm tying myself up, and I'm putting myself in a tank of water because basically I have to get out of it. I have to have redemption on the other side because I know my daughter, who's now 3 1/2, is eventually going to be 15, and she's going to hear this. And...
SHAPIRO: So - so that's a given...
SHAPIRO: ...That she's going to - yeah...
BIRBIGLIA: Of course, right? And I think about that all the time.
BIRBIGLIA: I'm really - right? I mean, in so many ways, I'm, like, writing it for my own daughter. And I really feel strongly that the first half of the show really has to go there and be as dark as possible in terms of why no one should have a child and so that when I have a child, people go, oh, wow. He got out of it.
SHAPIRO: There's another common narrative about having kids, which is that no matter how you felt about getting pregnant, the first time you hold that baby in your arms, you have sparkles in your eyes and pink hearts flying out of your head, and the world goes all gauzey.
BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, feels so bogus to me.
SHAPIRO: You talk about that moment in the show.
SHAPIRO: Let's listen to this.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE NEW ONE")
BIRBIGLIA: At a certain point, they hand you this monkey. And you're like, but we're humans. And they're like, this is what it is.
BIRBIGLIA: And then you're like, can we speak with a manager?
BIRBIGLIA: And they're like, there isn't one. And you're like, that's the problem. There's no accountability and then...
BIRBIGLIA: ...You have to take it home. I mean, it's completely frowned upon to leave it there.
BIRBIGLIA: And they - they try to dress it up. They're like, we'll put a striped blanket on it and a beanie. We'll make it look like ET.
BIRBIGLIA: You can give it a name.
SHAPIRO: How universal do you think this is?
SHAPIRO: I mean, do you think you're an outlier, or do you think this is kind of more common than we let on?
BIRBIGLIA: I think the laughs are what tell you usually. In this case, I worked - I toured with this show as a work in progress for about two years. And I tried a lot of lines that didn't work. I mean, there's a lot of cutting-room-floor lines that go to the edge and perhaps crossed the line. And...
SHAPIRO: You mean saying things about a child that just made people kind of go (inhales sharply)...
SHAPIRO: ...Rather than laugh.
BIRBIGLIA: And then I sort of - I've, you know - and that's - that's what - comedians, that's sort of the task of the comedian is you have to - you cross the line. And then once you realize where the line is, you inch back from it and so that you're always sort of going there for people.
SHAPIRO: And every time you crossed the line, did you feel like, oh, God, I'm actually a terrible person.
BIRBIGLIA: Well, I already think that.
BIRBIGLIA: No, I - I - no. When I would cross the line, I would usually walk it back with an audience. Like, these would be 150-, 200-, 300-seat audiences - intimate enough where you can say to people, like, that might be too - what I just said might be a little too much.
BIRBIGLIA: I might be overstating this.
BIRBIGLIA: And so in the finished product, that stuff all peels away.
SHAPIRO: When I was watching the show, I wondered how much of the discomfort being a parent is connected to the sense that you've spent your whole life becoming good at the things an adult has to be good at, and then suddenly, there's a new thing that you're not at all good at and not at all prepared for. And it's kind of a sense of dislocation almost.
BIRBIGLIA: I think that's right. Yeah, the - and that's part of the reason I never want to have a child. It's unspoken in the show, but, yeah, it's a control thing. You get the hang of life. And then you have a child. And it's like, well, that's out the window. There's no such thing as control anymore.
BIRBIGLIA: And there's - I won't give it away, but there's some set design elements that sort of evoke that.
SHAPIRO: I've heard songwriters talk about the challenge of writing about love because it's an experience that everybody has had and everybody's written about. And how do you say something new about it? And parenting seems to have some things in common with that.
BIRBIGLIA: (Laughter) Yeah.
SHAPIRO: Was - were you confident that you had something new to say about parenting, that you could come to it from an angle that had not been approached a hundred times?
BIRBIGLIA: No, no. As a matter of fact, I wasn't confident, and the first real pop of my balloon was the first time I performed some of this material at a college. It was fine. Like, I won't say, like, I bombed. But I was like, this is not connecting the same way it's connecting with, like, people in their late 20s and middle age. It was this realization these people not only don't have kids, most of them, they don't even know anyone who has kids.
BIRBIGLIA: They don't even relate to the idea of even, like, you know, how could they even - you know...
SHAPIRO: Right, the anxiety - the anxieties of parenting are totally foreign to them.
BIRBIGLIA: Completely foreign, and so I called my agent. And I said, hey, just book me out at a ton of colleges because I want to...
SHAPIRO: Oh, wow.
BIRBIGLIA: I want to...
SHAPIRO: Interesting. You...
BIRBIGLIA: I want to crack...
SHAPIRO: ...Leaned into that.
BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, I want to crack this.
SHAPIRO: Oh, that's so surprising.
BIRBIGLIA: I want to figure out - and so then, that's when I came up with the metaphor that opens the show, which is a - it's a sort of - opening a sort of a love letter to my couch...
BIRBIGLIA: ...And my relationship with my couch through my 20s...
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE NEW ONE")
BIRBIGLIA: I was like I'm a [expletive] man. I'm going to buy a [expletive] couch.
BIRBIGLIA: And then I went to a department store, and I was like, wait, how much is it?
BIRBIGLIA: A thousand dollars? Is there going to be a sale?
BIRBIGLIA: This is the sale? Do you think you might go out of business at some point? You are going out of business?
BIRBIGLIA: And then once I did that...
BIRBIGLIA: ...College kids got on board...
BIRBIGLIA: ...With this show...
BIRBIGLIA: ...That was about having a kid...
BIRBIGLIA: ...Which they just - they don't know anything about.
SHAPIRO: Setting aside the content of the show for a minute, you've been off-Broadway a bunch of times.
SHAPIRO: This is your first time on Broadway.
SHAPIRO: Congratulations on that.
SHAPIRO: Does it feel different? What is different about it?
BIRBIGLIA: Well, I feel more exposed because it's so much more - so many more people.
SHAPIRO: Just like a bigger house, you mean - more seats.
BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, so it's, like, you know, whatever - a thousand people a night or so. I don't know. I mean, it feels like mainstream in this way that I, like, never really aspired to be, yet it feels right because I didn't mean for this to happen. But it has the most wide appeal in terms of, like, ages and types of people.
SHAPIRO: You mean this show compared to your other shows.
BIRBIGLIA: Yeah. So, like, I think, like, for example, it's, like, 16-year-olds come sometimes with their parents and even the grandparents. The parents look at their kids like, see what we did?
BIRBIGLIA: And the kids look at their parents like, oh, you did that?
SHAPIRO: And did you feel that way about me?
BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, did you feel that way about me? Which is - which is a real crazy thought.
SHAPIRO: Mike, thanks a lot for coming to the studio.
BIRBIGLIA: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: Mike Birbiglia's show, "The New One," is on Broadway through the end of January.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAY UP LATE")
TALKING HEADS: (Singing) Mommy had a little baby. There he is fast asleep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.