Aspen Laugh Fest: Mike Birbiglia recalls the story that changed his life

Comedian Mike Birbiglia will headline the Aspen Laugh Festival on Saturday.
Evan Sung/Courtesy photo |


Who: Mike Birbiglia

Where: Aspen Laugh Festival, Wheeler Opera House

When: Saturday, Feb. 24, 7:30 p.m.

How much: $75

Tickets: Wheeler box office;

More info: Additional Laugh Fest events on Saturday include a 4 p.m. Aprés Comedy Hour at Silver City (free), and a 10:30 p.m. performance by Tiffany Haddish ($55). On Monday, Belly Up hosts an “Aspen Laugh Fest Encore” with T.J. Miller ($28-$45).

Mike Birbiglia was 24 years old and mostly unknown when he landed a spot at HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen in 2003.

The experience was a creative breakthrough for the comic, who has since established himself as one of the great contemporary storytellers with his one-man shows, films, spots on “This American Life” and one of 2017’s most acclaimed comedy specials: “Thank God for Jokes.”

At that pivotal Comedy Fest, Birbiglia recalled recently over email, “The Moth” invited Birbiglia to tell a story on a bill alongside Janeane Garofalo, Lewis Black and other comedians.

“It was the first time I told a story onstage and (it) actually led to this whole different direction of my career where I’ve become a storytelling comedian,” said Birbiglia, who will headline the Aspen Laugh Festival on Saturday.

The story he shared at the Wheeler Opera House, now familiar to Birbiglia fans, was about his awkward experiences in high school with a supposed girlfriend who made him promise not to tell anyone she was his girlfriend. He later expanded it into an Off-Broadway one-man show and a 2013 Netflix special titled “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.”

“I’ve listened to the audio of that performance years later and my voice was trembling,” Birbiglia said. “I was so nervous about revealing something that embarrassing about myself.”

But that’s sort of become Birbiglia’s calling card, crafting long-form stories that are by turns revelatory and hilarious (and often still embarrassing).

Five years after his storytelling debut in Aspen, Birbiglia got his big break with the Off-Broadway one-man show “Sleepwalk With Me,” which he adapted into a bestselling memoir and into his first feature film as writer and director (he followed it with the semi-autobiographical indie film “Don’t Think Twice,” about a New York improv troupe, in 2016).

His theater work and movies have landed him acting gigs, including a recurring role on “Orange is the New Black” and small parts in hits like Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck” and “The Fault in Our Stars.”

Despite all that, he said, stage performance will always be his primary focus.

“It’s as old as anything, just this idea of a person telling a story to a group of people,” he said. “There’s just something about it that’s just so raw, unfiltered, uncensored and personal. Live performance happens in the moment and then it disappears. The bond that is created between you and the audience is intangible, but it’s forever.”

After catching the storytelling bug in Aspen all those years ago, Birbiglia believes he’s found his niche crafting intimate theater and personal stories on film and stage. He won’t be chasing Hollywood stardom as an actor and won’t be gunning to get behind the camera on a superhero franchise.

“I feel like at this point in my career I’ve zeroed in on wanting to direct small movies and want to make these small shows and specials,” Birbiglia said. “I always want to do better for the audience and sort of give more of myself to the audience.”

The new stand-up show that Birbiglia is bringing to Aspen follows “Thank God for Jokes,” which he released as a Netflix special a year ago. For now he’s officially titled the new one “The New One,” and he’s not giving details on what it’s about.

“I recently had this revelation that my best audience experiences are when I don’t know anything about the movie, or the show, or the stand-up act that I’m about to see,” he explained. “It leads to the most surprise. So I’ll tell people nothing.”

And don’t look to social media for clues about the new one. Though Birbiglia most frequently uses Twitter these days to critique President Donald Trump and resist his agenda, Birbiglia said he won’t let the president into his stage act.

“I feel like what I’m trying to do onstage is personal and I don’t want him anywhere near my personal life,” Birbiglia said. “But Twitter is just garbage and so I think he’s fine for the garbage.”


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