“It’s an evening of theatre that centers on mortality and death,” says comedian Mike Birbiglia of his latest solo show, The Old Man and the Pool, now playing the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center.
Hilarious, no? Well, actually, yes. Birbiglia has a gift for marrying tragedy and comedy.
Birbiglia’s career started with traditional stand-up, but it was his first solo show, 2008’s Sleepwalk With Me, where he discovered his unique talent for long-form storytelling and his ability to transform trauma. In the show, he shared his struggle with REM Sleep Behavior Disorder, a rare condition in which his body physically acts out his dreams while he’s still sleeping. “I literally jumped through a second story window, and it nearly killed me, which served as a metaphor in the play, but also literally happened. It’s a good story to tell, and sort of oddly funny,” says Birbiglia. “I think what I discovered from that experience is that if the audience can see that you’re okay—that you’ve lived to tell the story—then they have permission to laugh at it.”
Birbiglia adapted that show into a book and a film, but then he returned to his theatrical solo show format, creating My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend in 2011, followed by Thank God for Jokes for Netflix in 2017. His fourth show, The New One, premiered Off-Broadway in summer 2018 and transferred to Broadway’s Cort Theatre for a three-month fall run.
“The thing that any writer should write about is the thing that we think about the most, because, ultimately, it’s the thing that we’re most passionate about. My last show [The New One] was all about having a child, and in the last couple of years all I’ve been thinking about is death and mortality and how we lose people we love,” says Birbiglia about the origins of The Old Man and the Pool. “I would describe it as the existential and comedic questions that go through all of our heads when we’re thinking about the idea that anything could end at any moment.”
The show begins with Birbiglia’s annual physical and leads him down a rabbit hole of medical issues, but he’s found in performance of The Old Man and the Pool, which premiered in Los Angeles earlier this year, that in this moment following the pandemic, audiences really need laughter. “People have really been through it…we’ve all been through it in the last few years,” he says.
“I found that comedy is a certain type of coping mechanism because it allows you to see the entire absurdity of life and existence, which I believe is absurd and is outrageous.”