Instant Gratification Vol. 6: Mike Birbiglia’s “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” on Netflix

I was trying to explain Mike Bribiglia to my friend the other day and this was the best I could come up with:

Imagine if Ira Glass took up stand up comedy and his fodder for jokes was Lloyd Dobler’s love life.

This didn’t really do much to clear up the confusion regarding what exactly Mike Birbiglia is. Most people say he is a stand up comic, which is probably the most accurate representation of what he does. Unlike other comics though, there is a sentimental side to Birbiglia’s work. There are moments in his performances which are not intended to be funny, they are intended to be resonant.

Birbiglia finally came to Vegas for the first time this weekend, but I was out of town for a wedding, so I missed the show. Thankfully though, I at least got to glean a sense of what the show might’ve been like because “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” is now available on Netflix.

It is fascinating to get a seemingly honest glimpse inside the head of a single guy. There are a glut of movies and TV and stand up out there where women sincerely discuss the mixed emotions that come with being a single modern gal, but as I watched Birbiglia’s show, I realized I hadn’t really seen anything like this before. Sure, male screenwriters like Cameron Crowe write semi-autobiographical screenplays, but to listen to a guy honestly discuss his trepidation about marriage or how vulnerable he felt on dates is just something you don’t come across that often. You hear it in music, you read it in books, but when it comes to monologues or stand up or TV shows and movies about single dudes built around a male lead’s real life persona, there is something that feels a little glossier than it should. When you look at other comics, they revel in their low points too, but they present it in a manner that is self-aware and in on the joke. Birbiglia, on the other hand, is comfortable with being sad about things with us still. He can see the humor, but it is not the snarky, jaded tone of his peers. Instead, it is, to lift a phrase from the title of Birbiglia’s book, “painfully true.”

This is thing I love most about Birbiglia though–he realizes things that are incredibly sad can simultaneously be incredibly funny. This is why the Mary Tyler Moore Show episode “Chuckles Bites the Dust” is amazing. It is why people joke that they laugh to keep from crying. People say I am not much of an optimist, but I find the optimism in works like this, where you can be reminded that there is something to learn from and laugh at in any situation. Anybody can smile when on vacation on a tropical island or after winning the lottery. Real optimism is going through a tough situation and managing to keep cracking jokes.

I was actually speaking about just this subject with my best friend Lindsay the other day. We were discussing a situation in which I had been labeled “negative” and I started to get really frustrated. While I am certainly never going to be Mary Sunshine, I don’t really think of myself as a Debbie Downer, I’m just pragmatic.

Telling yourself “life’s great” or “don’t worry, be happy” just seems like poorly thought-out advice to me. Life’s hard. Right? How many people are really like, “man, this life thing, it is a breeze, I could do this all day.” People want breaks. People need help. People frequently hope things get better and, I’m sorry, but “it’s get better” is not a productive mantra.

You know what is a much more practical way to be optimistic? Country music. No one who sings country music is trying to convince you life is sunshine and rainbows. They tell it like it is. Yes, life is hard, not just for you, but for most people. But here’s the thing–I’m going through it too, so let’s drink our sorrows away and just enjoy each day at a time.

Now, while there may be a little too much call to alcoholism to make this your full time approach to cheering yourself up every time you have a bad day, but at least there is an action plan beyond “hey, cheer up!” You feel bad? Here is an, albeit ill-advised, way to feel better.

When I watch Mike Birbiglia, I feel like he offers a bit of an action plan. In those moments where humor and sadness intersect, there is something to reflect on and something to learn from. He’s in the thick of it with you and, unlike Garth Brooks, he isn’t offering a drink to help you get through life, but he does offer you a laugh, which is infinitely better.

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