Mike Birbiglia goes for two in the Twin Cities

RAGHAV MEHTA | Updated 2/20/2014

America’s favorite sleepwalking comic will hit Minneapolis' Pantages Theatre Saturday and St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater Sunday.

Comedian Mike Birbiglia will make two Twin Cities stops on his “Thank God For Jokes” tour.
Evan Sung/New York Times

Mike Birbiglia has a lot to say about Minneapolis.

“You have an extraordinary amount of artists — especially comedians — who came out of Minneapolis or Minnesota,” said Birbiglia, who will headline at Minneapolis’ Pantages Theatre on Saturday and St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater on Sunday. “I’m from Massachusetts, which has a pretty tumultuous weather situation as well, and I’ve heard theories that the fact there are so many comedians from Massachusetts is related to the weather.”

He says Minnesota — which has produced comics Louie Anderson, Mitch Hedberg, Maria Bamford and others — might be a similar case.

Less than a decade ago, Birbiglia was on the periphery. The world’s most famous — and funniest — sleepwalking comedian hadn’t become world famous quite yet, but by his mid-20s he’d already established a devoted following as a successful national touring act.

Years of standup gigs, a slew of widely acclaimed one-man shows and a self-written/directed/starring feature film (2012’s “Sleepwalk With Me”) later, Birbiglia, 35, has evolved into one of the most ubiquitous and reliably brilliant forces in the comedy industry.

But he’s not too big to geek out about playing Keillor’s digs.

“I’m very excited to be in that Fitzgerald Theater,” Birbiglia said. “Not only am I a fan of ‘Prairie Home Companion,’ but I’m also a fan of its film that was shot there. I’ve watched that movie maybe three or four times, so I think I probably know that room very well.”

With a loyal following among public-radio listeners for his “This American Life” appearances and plenty of TV (“Girls”) and film (“Cedar Rapids”) credits, it’d be an understatement to simply call Birbiglia a comic. That said, standup continues to be his stock in trade.

“I find comedy to be like a religious experience. If I weren’t a comedian, I probably would’ve been a priest. I went to mass over Christmas with my mom and I found myself really admiring the priest for his comedic skill,” Birbiglia said, laughing.

The priest analogy fits his approach and style. Not only is Birbiglia one of the most effortlessly funny comics of his generation, but he’s also a storyteller of the highest caliber. He bleeds personal information in his shows, including in his current “Thank God for Jokes” hour, offering a slew of prolonged anecdotes that end up being as hilarious as they are poignant. His bits are often punctuated by a moment of self-realization or moralization that, thanks to Birbiglia’s affable demeanor, never comes across preachy or self-righteous.

“I read that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. That’s just first marriages,” he explained in “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” his latest standup special. “Second marriages, 60 percent to 62 percent end in divorce. Third marriages, 70 percent to 75 percent end in divorce. That’s a learning curve.”

Despite his success, Birbiglia has managed to sustain a fan base that’s both devoted and highly involved. Not unlike in music, building a niche audience in standup is becoming the norm and Birbiglia’s career is a best-case-scenario example. He prefers the specificity over the pursuit for broad appeal.

“I think a lot of performers say they like their fans, but I really like the people who come out to the show,” Birbiglia said, adding that he views his fans as people he’d like to hang out with. “Sometimes people say to me, ‘Do you hope to make it one day?’ And I’m just like, ‘Uh, I think I have.’ About a thousand people in 70 different cities in America come to my shows. I feel like the luckiest comedian around. I don’t look at other people’s career and say, ‘I want that type of career.’ ”