Mike Birbiglia’s couch is the spine of his engaging one-man show, The New One, playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre through the end of August. Couches, he muses at the top of the show, are humble, not like those holier-than-thou beds that demand we name a whole room after them. The couch is “a bed that hugs you” — an eternal comfort, symbolic of a cozy status quo.
The comedian and filmmaker is practically describing himself. Like his favorite piece of furniture, Birbiglia is a soothing presence. Loose and friendly, at the performance I saw, he began to greet the audience before he put on his headset microphone, as if we were guests gathered to hear a story in his living room. The subject of The New One is Birbiglia’s resistance to and gradual acceptance of fatherhood, but it creeps up on you slowly, as if to mirror the shift in his attitude toward being a parent.
From the opening bit about his beloved couch, Birbiglia steers the show, subtly but deftly, into the subject of parenthood and his unambiguous feeling, at the outset, that it’s not for him. “I never wanted to have a kid for seven specific reasons,” he divulges, not least of which is that “People aren’t great.” To be fair, he’s got some legitimate reasons to be wary of procreating, such as a sleep disorder — the subject of his breakout show and subsequent 2012 film, Sleepwalk With Me — that requires him to be physically restrained in bed while he sleeps. “There are details in my life that are both setups and punchlines,” he quips.
After a visit to his brother, whose children appear to be making him miserable despite his insistence that they’re the best things that ever happened to him, Birbiglia returns home to his couch and his wife, the poet Jennifer Hope Stein, who confesses that she, too, would like children. She promises this addition won’t change the way they live their lives. Cue uproarious laughter.
Directed by Birbiglia’s frequent collaborator Seth Barrish, The New One is simply staged, at least at first, with just the odd lighting change and a stool, placed in an upstage corner, standing in for that couch. Midway through, set designer Beowulf Boritt introduces a creative and appropriately surprising visual rendering of life after baby. At this point, Birbiglia’s tone shifts from gentle and relaxed, like a well-worn pair of jeans, to a panicked bark as he outlines the ways in which life with a newborn baby who refuses to sleep is, it turns out, a bit of a change.
Birbiglia is a seasoned storyteller, and he plays the audience like they’re an old acoustic guitar he’s been noodling on since childhood. Sometimes his voice will drop so low it’s practically a whisper, and the audience leans in, hanging on every word. He’s not the first comedian to tackle fatherhood, but he resists the caustic spit of Louis C.K. — who’s always coaxed laughs from the edgy juxtaposition of shockingly dirty humor with thoughtful material about raising two little girls — or the addled exhaustion Jim Gaffigan channels when riffing on raising a big family in Manhattan.
Birbiglia has always substituted the in-your-face aggression that characterizes so many male stand-ups with a kind of bemused detachment. Here, that approach certainly encourages vulnerability — he divulges that he and his wife had trouble conceiving because his “boys don’t swim” — but it made me feel at times as if I was being forced to sympathize with him against my will. “I get why dads leave,” Birbiglia admits late in the show, describing the hermetically sealed world that his wife and baby seemed to inhabit, while he was stuck on the outside looking in, feeling useless. Being a dad, he says, is like being the “pudgy, milk-less vice president of the family.” It’s a funny line, as is the one where Birbiglia’s wife points out that the story he often tells about her and the baby ignoring him while he does the dishes is true — except for the part where he does the dishes.
It wasn’t until after I left the theater that I began to think about how The New One might have been received were it a woman standing onstage, confessing that she does practically no housework, never wanted to have her daughter in the first place, and understands why mothers leave their babies. I commiserate with people raising children, regardless of their gender, but I wish our culture had the capacity to give mothers the same kind of empathy and reverence we bestow upon fathers. It’s telling that when C.K. was talking about the pain of being a single dad at the height of his career as a stand-up, the most prominent female comic was Amy Schumer, who rose to fame on her persona as a party girl who’s “sluttier than the average bear.”
That’s why it was such a radical departure for Ali Wong to perform her debut stand-up special, 2016’s Baby Cobra, while seven months pregnant. Wong was also pregnant, with her second child, during the filming of her 2018 special Hard Knock Wife, and I can’t think of another stand-up who’s dived so unapologetically and angrily into the topic of what childbirth does to a human body, and the ludicrous reality that women in this country still don’t have federally mandated paid leave to heal their quite literally broken bodies before returning to work. Her tone isn’t bemused and calm; it’s furious and fed-up.
But Birbiglia is not the kind of comic who aims to shock. He appears more eager to put his audience at ease, to assure us that all will be well. He ends the show on a positive, heartwarming note, so that we’re literally applauding him for not leaving his wife and baby. In the realm of stand-up comedy, dwarfed for so many years by C.K. and his meditations on family life, the concept of a father who actually parents his children and is subsequently showered with admiration has become a kind of status quo. Maybe it’s time for a new one.