Though comedy is wonderful, attempting to explain it can be deadly dull. E.B. White once compared comedy analysis to dissecting a frog: “Few people are interested, and the frog dies.” That’s all very well and good for the audience, but for the comedian, analysis is an essential part of the process in creating their work.
That can be either an intellectual or practical process, as Mike Birbiglia notes. His brilliant new show, “Thank God For Jokes,” is currently running for another month at the Lynn Redgrave Theater and, like his previous outings, is top-notch and not to be missed.
What you’ll see on stage is a meditation on the nature of jokes, told through jokes. They range from lateness — be on time, or else — to childhood in a church to a particularly untoward episode with the Muppets.
“The genesis of the show,” Birbiglia says, “was that after I did the first two shows, I wanted to just joke and tell stories for a while. And the theme I arrived at over time was jokes themselves. I realized I had a fascination with jokes, and that jokes are a really modern topic that’s important to discuss. Increasingly, with the Internet, we are all becoming neighbors. We’re going to have to face this. What if we don’t like what other people say? I want to understand why things are funny. I want us to listen to each other in the context in which we intend the words. We have to listen to each other, or we’re going to kill one another.”
Birbiglia fully embraces the notion that not everyone will see something as funny, but his humor and his stories are so warm and based in truth that the audience is invited into the exploration. Along the way, they will delight in his wry and spot-on observations and inevitably laugh at themselves. He says that a great deal of the power of his comedy comes from “recognition and surprise.” We see ourselves in the stories and realize the absurdity in our own lives. It’s a welcome tonic for our intensely self-focused culture. Birbiglia reminds us of the power and relief of laughing at ourselves.
For most people, Birbiglia notes, jokes are “your side of the story.” He explains, “One of the guiding principles of the show is that we all have the right to tell jokes. And we all have the right to be offended by jokes.” As he developed the show, he says, he spent a lot of time exploring “the ethics of jokes.” As in walking a tightrope, the intent of a joke must be balanced against how it will be perceived.
The concept of truth is central to all of this, Birbiglia insists. If something happened to you, you have every right to repeat it, but being truthful is essential.
“You have to ask, ‘Is the thing true?,’” he explains. “One of the prices you pay if something isn’t true is that the audience recognizes it’s a bit. It’s funny, but it’s not true.” The power of the joke is diminished because “what’s lost is laughter and truth… and connection.”
In practice, much of the exploration comes from getting things up on stage.
“You throw it up there and you see how it goes,” Birbiglia says. “If people don’t laugh, I wouldn’t do it again.”
Suffice to say that all the jokes in “Thank God for Jokes” have survived that process. Thank God Birbiglia was willing to dissect the frog. We all benefit from what he discovered.
THANK GOD FOR JOKES | Lynn Redgrave Theater, 45 Bleecker St. at Lafayette St. | Through May 29: Wed.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 4:30 p.m. | $56.50-$96.50 at thankgodfo