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Comedian Mike Birbiglia analyzes the importance of jokes in his second Netflix special

Miles Andersen, Video Editor
Originally published March 20, 2017

At Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris, France, 12 employees were killed over a joke. Publications around the world pronounced their support of Charlie Hebdo, people began posting “je suis Charlie” on their Facebook feeds, and comedian Mike Birbiglia wrote a stand-up special.

Birbiglia returns to the Netflix comedy field with ‘Thank God for Jokes,’ a special that tackles Birbiglia’s personal relationship with humor, as well as its importance in an increasingly dark world. From the first few minutes of the hour-plus long performance, you can immediately quantify just how much this man loves a good joke. They come at a near constant pace, with the joke-per-minute ratio of greats like Jerry Seinfeld and George Carlin. Birbiglia’s best jokes, however, aren’t just funny for funny’s sake; they’re thoughtful and commentative. They exist to suggest, as if to bring a new perspective to a concept that the audience hasn’t previously experienced.

Birbiglia explains in the last few minutes of the show the effect that the Charlie Hebdo shooting had on him. As a comedian, seeing a group of people killed for telling a joke is more than a little daunting. He’ll certainly stop and think about whether or not he should say a certain joke, but as he says in his special: he just loves jokes. They’re meaningful to him, and the joke is often worth the backlash. He’s the quietest free-speech-rights advocate in the comedy scene. In a cyber-world where “Respect thy neighbor” could apply to a country on the other side of the planet, it’s easy to offend someone you don’t mean to.

Most comedians address the idea of a “politically correct” or offense-less world by getting angry, or by mocking. In the same Netflix comedy section as Birbiglia’s special, you can find a special by comedian Joe Rogan titled ‘Joe Rogan: Triggered,’ the poster of which features an image of Rogan with a mocking look of shock and dominance. Birbiglia chooses the road less travelled, comedically speaking — he instead addresses both sides of a joke: the person telling it, and the person the joke is about.

The central storyline running throughout ‘Thank God for Jokes,’ is Birbiglia’s disastrous stint as host of the 2012 Gotham Awards, and how a joke at the expense of a certain person in the audience led to his realization of just how impactful a joke can be. The lesson imposed on Birbiglia because of the incident is not that people should cease to say anything offensive; it’s that what has been said completely depends on the context of the statement.

This is a funny special, maybe his funniest to date. However, as most Mike Birbiglia specials go, it’s not the most emotionally resonating. His previous Netflix outing, ‘My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,’ offers deeper and more relatable insight into more universal ideas such as love, marriage and the acceptance of wrongdoings. ‘My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,’ was clearly written for the audience. It’s vague enough to be completely truthful, but still niche enough to feel like an original thought. It panders, but never feels like it does — like a talented friend telling a story at a party.

If ‘My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,’ was written for the audience, then ‘Thank God for Jokes,’ was written for Mike himself. Birbiglia clearly cares about the material he’s reciting. There’s an honesty in the comedian’s voice that’s so clearly visible that it improves the special as a whole, almost making up for the fact that it doesn’t have the emotional-kick of his last outing.

Mike Birbiglia is a comedian for people who say they don’t like stand-up comedy. He is, in a sense, the anti-comedian. His jokes do sound like jokes, but they always feel necessary to the more important point that he’s trying to make. A common critique of stand-up is that it’s too formulaic. Set-up, punchline; rinse and repeat to desired effect. There’s no impact to these types of jokes. They matter, but there are jokes that matter much more; jokes that revolve around ideas, points and arguments; jokes that, despite the phrase’s cliche, “make you think.” These are Mike Birbiglia’s jokes, and you’ll love them.

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Comedian Mike Birbiglia analyzes the importance of jokes in his second Netflix special