In 2008, Eli Gonda and Nathan Lane took a chance on comedian Mike Birbiglia to turn his act into the Off-Broadway show Sleepwalk With Me. No other solo shows from comedians were being produced. “We had to sort of invent a model,” says Birbiglia, “for how to [reach] an audience that wasn’t familiar with me and what the show is like.” Today, shows in the vein of Birbiglia’s frequently pop up Off-Broadway, as with Chris Gethard’s Career Suicide and Monica Piper’s Not That Jewish, and even on “BruhdWAY” in John Mulaney and Nick Kroll’s Oh, Hello on Broadway. But where is the line between comedy acts and theatre? And if you can pay $10 to watch comedy at a club, why shell out for a stage show?
According to Gethard, it’s about content. “There are some parts of [Career Suicide] that are very emotional just for the sake of being open, honest, and vulnerable onstage,” he says. “I don’t know that that’s a quality that can fly in a stand-up club that has a two drink minimum, where people are there for a night out to laugh and you have to make them laugh.” In his poignant, cleverly funny piece about his depression, alcoholism, and suicidal thoughts, Gethard hits deeper than stand-up generally allows. And as for the ticket price, he “had a lot of fear about asking for more than your alternative stand-up show [from $3 to $10], because I wondered, Does anybody want to pay this much for comedy? I realized and believed it was on me to put in the work and make it worth it for people. I’m not just walking off of a stand-up stage and saying, ‘Oh, I got my set down. Let me charge $100 and call it theatre.’”
Birbiglia has now mounted three successful one-man Off-Broadway shows, including My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and Thank God for Jokes. “In terms of crafting, it all has to do with having everything that I’m saying build towards the ending,” he says. “If any scene or moment doesn’t feel like it’s about the core, we try to take it away and replace it with something that’s more about the core. The story is most important. The jokes are in some ways secondary.”
Though Monica Piper’s Not That Jewish is also a one-person show, it is unlike Gethard and Birbiglia’s pieces as she slips into different characters (who happen to be her family members). The veteran comedian best known for her writing on Nickelodeon’s Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys feels that comics should not be doing their acts and calling it theatre, and agrees none of the aforementioned pieces do so. “You’ve got to keep getting the laughs, no matter what, when it comes to stand-up,” she says. “There are jokes from my act that I throw in [my show] if they’re on point, but it’s ultimately a story.”
In the past ten years as comedy has boomed, so has the proliferation of these solo shows. Whether it’s a way to get younger audiences to the theatre, an attempt to upset the apple cart in defining theatre, or both, Gethard says it’s also simple: “Comedy is very unpretentious and easy to understand, so it’s easy to produce at a theatre.”
Often a single actor, a simple set, and a short runtime make these comedies appealing to producers, but the challenge entices directors—who do heavier lifting than you may think.
Director Kimberly Senior delved with Gethard to make Career Suicide less stand-up and more theatre. “She’d say, ‘See right there, you’re being a little bit too much of a comedian and you don’t have to,’” remembers Gethard. “‘If you slow down, let them breathe and think, they would actually consider the point that you’re trying to make. You don’t have to keep grabbing them the way that you do when you’re on a comedy stage.’”
“[Director] Seth Barrish and I hold our shows to two standards,” says Birbiglia. “We hold it to the standard of, ‘Is this a play?’ and we hold our show to the standard of ‘Is this a great comedy show?’ I think by doing that simultaneously, we’re able to satiate both audiences: the theatergoers and the comedy-goers. Even if people don’t think of it as a play, they’ll laugh their asses off, and even if people don’t think it’s funny, chances are it might make them think.”
Whether or not these shows can be categorized seems besides the point. “I think audiences can sense when something is very honest and respectful towards them, and I think the amount of work that is put into something can shine through,” says Gethard. “You definitely see it with Oh, Hello. To do shows like ours, comedians hit a certain point with their material, and then they clearly actively turn it up an extra notch to challenge themselves.”