Who is Mike Birbiglia?
"It's such a common refrain," the comedian says. "[My fans] invite their friends to come to the shows and people are just like, 'I don't know who that is.' "
He's not challenging Kevin Hart, Louis C.K. or Jeff Dunham in the popularity race, but in the past few years that refrain has become less common.
There have been three Comedy Central specials, starting with "Two Drink Mike" back in 2006. Appearances on NPR's "This American Life" dating back to 2008. And his 2012 feature film "Sleepwalk With Me," based on his one-man show and best-selling book.
That big-screen debut opened a door that brought him to Pittsburgh last fall for a visit that was unrelated to stand-up. He spent a week here shooting a part in "The Fault in Our Stars," the adaptation of the John Green best-seller starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort.
During his stay, he got to revel in the city's most famous "blackout."
"At the last minute, John Green and I went to the Pirates playoff game against the Reds," he says. "It was amazing. I became for one night the biggest Pirate fan in America. It was definitely exuberant, crazy seeing all those people out on the boats. It was definitely one of a kind. Pittsburgh on that night was a sight to behold."
When he returns tonight, for his biggest show here yet at the Byham, he'll play to an audience that has discovered him through a variety of media.
"Ultimately, what happened is all of these people from different places have accumulated over the years. So now when I tour, it's a real hybrid of an audience," he says. "My shows are so fun because they feel like this odd inside joke with the audience. I'm not on a sitcom. I'm not a movie star. Most people are there because their friends or their wife or their husband or their girlfriend told them about me. I call my show 'Thank God for Jokes,' because I feel like telling jokes to strangers and have them all laughing at the same time is like almost a religious experience."
This newest tour follows "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend," which debuted in 2011 as his second off-Broadway show. It was a look back at his romantic pratfalls going back to first kisses and unfortunate events on the amusement park ride the Scrambler. He's working on a screenplay for "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" using the live show as a launch pad.
"I started out by writing a straight-up adaptation of it, but at this point way more people have seen it than I thought would see it. I thought it would be a little thing and maybe a half million people would see it. But at this point, on Netflix, millions of people have seen it and it was just nominated for an American Comedy Award for best comedy special. At this point, I'm more writing a screenplay that is inspired by the show."
His unlikely writing partner is his wife Jen Stein. Writing with her, he says, was "definitely touchy."
"The stuff I talk about in 'My Girlfriend's Boyfriend,' in most cases, the relationships sounded like things you'll never want to talk about with your spouse again. Like, let's not bring up that."
"My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" and "Sleepwalk with Me," which focused on a sleep disorder that prompted him to jump through the second story window of a hotel room in Washington state, were narrative based. He reverts to prior stand-up days for "Thank God for Jokes."
"I wanted to go back to my early albums where it's like quick one-off stories that don't add up to a single story. Does that make sense? It was just jokes and stories and the funniest things I could think of. It's fun not being bound to a structure. The more I performed those stories, the more I was like, 'Oh, there is a theme and the theme is jokes.' "
And yet, Mr. Birbiglia is a comic storyteller who loves to make himself the punch line. So it's not a night of 'a guy walks into the bar' jokes. In fact, he doesn't even have a joke repertoire.
"What's funny is, I don't even tell people I'm a comedian, like socially. I was at a party two months ago and this guy goes, 'Oh yeah, you're a comedian? Then how come you're not funny now?'
"I usually just say I'm a writer or I say, an actor. I try to never say it, because I feel it's a very misunderstood profession. I feel like the illusion for me is that you're funny all the time. And it's just not true. No one is funny all the time. You're a human being and you're living the struggle of existence, and what comedians do is they take that struggle and figure out how to turn it on its head and make it funny."