Mike Birbiglia on His Latest Netflix Special 'The New One' and the Comedy of Fatherhood

Mike Birbiglia had made it clear to his wife Jen Stein that he didn't want to have a kid. Birbiglia recounts all the tribulations that led him from being someone who never imagined having a child to a loving father, throughout his most recent special The New One, streaming on Netflix now. "One of the goals of the show was to strip the experience of all its candy-coating," Birbiglia told Newsweek.

Recorded during The New One's Broadway run, the special is perhaps Birbiglia's most ambitious yet. While the 41-year-old comic has made a name for himself telling long stories about his life, The New One features music queues, props and his wife's poetry. While many comics share their reservations and difficulties of being a father, Birbiglia delivers his story with enough grandness and humor that's fit for the Great White Way.

With stories that inspire awes and hysterical laughter, Birbiglia talked to Newsweek about Broadway, connecting with audiences of all ages, and fatherhood.

Mike Birbiglia Jen Stein
Mike Birbiglia and Jen Stein attend the opening night of "Mike Birbiglia: The New One" at the Cherry Lane Theatre on August 2, 2018 in New York City. Birbiglia's latest special on Netflix "The New One" explores his wife and his journey into parenthood. Cindy Ord/Getty

Performing on Broadway, did you feel the need to up the production of this special to be more than just standing onstage telling jokes?
The set design elements that are spectacular were born out of necessity. When I was on tour, I was seeing the audiences every night and I was experiencing this hiccup in the show. When I would say, "And that's when our daughter was born," the audience would think the show was over. Two or three minutes later, they're starting to look at their watches and stuff. In movies and books and things, when people have children, more often than not, that's the ending or that's the moment before the epiphany, and of course, with this, it's like rock bottom. It's a different structure. I was kicking around with my team [things] like, "Something has to happen. Something big has to happen." We talked about some kind of big gesture, and this idea came out of the toys.

It's not something you normally see in a standup show. Did you have a version of that that you did on the road before you brought it to off-Broadway?
Yeah, the version from the road is sort of funny. It's just me dragging all of those things on by hand, which was actually pretty funny. Me just walking offstage and just throwing it out, which is pretty good too, but nothing can compete with the sort of speed and abruptness of the actual drop.

You use your couch as a motif to tie the show together. When did that come up in your writing process? Is that an idea you had at the start, or did it come up along the way?
I had workshopped the material in front of club audiences and small theater audiences, and it was mostly people who were my age-ish, maybe older, and had the common experience of either having children or having friends who have children. It didn't have the couch stuff, and I thought I was home free—"I really got it. This show's really in great shape"—then I took it to a college. I was performing at Princeton. It felt like the material was hitting a brick wall. Not only do most of these people not have children, they don't even have it in their mind that they are even considering having children. They don't even have friends old enough who are having children who they're annoyed by. I started thinking, What was my life like when I was that age, and what do I have in common with those kids that I feel now? And I started thinking about my couch and how crazy it is when you get a couch for the first time. When I was in college, we got a couch on the street, and I started thinking about how that's an interesting metaphor for growing up and weirdly, the themes of the show, which I think have to do with change and how we can all metaphorically choose to stay on the couch or we can get up and go out of our comfort zone, which for me is what having a child was.

Have you heard from couples or men who were insecure about fatherhood that this show spoke to?
One thing about this special that I always should point out to people is that it's a comedy, but it's a dark comedy. It definitely goes there in terms of why maybe people shouldn't have kids in the world that we all are existing in currently. It arrives at a redemptive other side, but it is not without a fight that it arrives on the other side. People have a wide range of reactions when they see it. Some people go, "Oh my god, that was great! I'm never having a kid." Some people go, "That was great! I'm definitely having a kid." Some people go, "That was great! I don't know what to think about having a kid." Those are all good reactions. I feel strongly that you can't tell people that any experience of art is wrong. I want people to experience whatever they experience.

I thought that the most exciting response from someone was a friend of mine who became a dad this summer. He goes, "If I didn't see your show in December, I might have gotten divorced, because I didn't know what was coming. But, I was prepared for it, because you had built it up so much, and I was aware of what it was."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.