First Nighter: Mike Birbiglia Thanks God for Jokes, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs

Mike Birbiglia is an immensely likable guy, the sort you think would make a great friend. Anyway, that’s what I was considering throughout his current–and third–stint at the Lynn Redgrave Theater, this one dubbed Thank God for Jokes.

I suppose he and his producers would like to think of the presentation as a play. It isn’t. It’s a 90-minute or so stand-up routine outfitted with a series of simulated stained-glass panels by the always-imaginative Beowulf Boritt and given plenty of movement–mic-stand rearrangements, et cetera–that director Seth Barrish hopes will fool the punters.

I don’t suppose it will. It sure didn’t hoodwink me for a second, which is why I mention Birbiglia’s undeniable appeal as a swell fellow well met. I also mention his air of bonhomie so that I can also go on to say that throughout his cheery monologue I didn’t laugh out loud once. Not once, but I hasten to say two more things about that: (1) from start to finish I smiled broadly; and (2) just about everyone else in the packed auditorium (this was on Super Bowl Sunday, no less) was giggling his or her head off.

They were responding, as was I in my more relaxed manner, to how Birbiglia lands the jibes at his multifarious targets, his physical manifestations as he does so and the almost constant smile he maintains seeming to indicate he’s enjoying himself–for good reason–as much as anyone is. (In this, he reminded me of the now almost forgotten mid-20th century comic of everyday foibles Sam Levenson.)

Thank God for Jokes does have a framework. It begins with ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel on video introducing Birbiglia as the host of the 22nd Annual Gotham Independent Film Awards telecast in 2012. This gives Birbiglia–arriving on stage in plaid shirt, casual trousers and the beginning of a paunch–the opportunity to gab about the most frightening assignment of his career.

As part of his recollections, he gabs about the nature of jokes and asks whether there are such things as inoffensive jokes. He answers his question with a decisive no. (I agree whole-heartedly that if a really pointed joke doesn’t run the risk of offending someone, it may not be much of a joke.) What Birbiglia doesn’t immediately do, however, is follow up his contention with substantiation.

Instead he heads into other prepared hunks, leaving some room for improvisation. The first subject under examination is the difference between on-time people and late people, describing himself as one of the former and his wife, Chlo (or Chloe) as one of the latter. This next-to-opening gambit is shrewd, because he and Barrish know there are always going to be a few latecomers with whom he can banter and off of whom he can bounce jolly remarks. At my audience, he got as good as he gave from one quick-witted patron.

Then Birbiglia ambles through several other not necessarily related topics about which he’s his good-humored self. I remember some and have already forgotten others I know I grinned at while they passed. One segment involves Jesus, whom Birbiglia identified as “a Jewish Socialist” and then likens to Bernie Sanders. Definitely funny and probably getting funnier in these post-New Hampshire primary days.

Eventually, however, he returns to his Gotham Independent Film Awards, declaring that jokes about celebrities in an audience are certain to be enjoyed by everyone but the celebrities about whom the jokes are told. He then pinpoints a joke he used, after much consideration, about director David O. Russell in verbal combat with Lily Tomlin on a movie set. Having already noted he generally keeps obscenities out of his delivery, he forges ahead with a lengthy vulgar quote from Russell. He gets the audience clamor he wanted.

Which, hardly by accident,, returns him to his somewhat subtle thesis about the place in comedy of jokes that can be thought of as offensive. This is where I wished he’d gone further much farther. When he initiated the discussion at the top of his remarks I got the impression that, obviously an intelligent man, he was going to expand on comedy and the need for offensiveness, for anarchy. I was certain he’d do as much not in anything resembling a declamatory mode but with his gift to find humor in any subject.

Maybe that’s the basis for my slight disappointment. In his wrap-up badinage, he does expound on his primary theme, but for me, it’s too little, too late. For others, as I say, they couldn’t have cared less. If they had, they wouldn’t have been standing at his final bow–as nowadays, of course, just about every audience standingly ovates for everything.
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Alan Cumming–who convinced me long ago that he can do just bout anything–brought Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs to Carnegie Hall a few days back. This is the show he introduced some months before at Manhattan’s Café Carlyle and has toured since, on, apparently, more concert stages than cabaret podiums.

Along the circuitous way, he’s obviously expanded it, although he’s still wearing clothes (there’s a short-pants tuxedo and a sleeveless white shirt) that Kenneth Cole picks out for him. At the famed hall (he gave some Andrew Carnegie bio info as he started), he had guests Kristin Chenoweth, Darren Criss, Ricki Lake and the 200-or-more-strong New York Gay Men’s Chorus, that combo far too large to fit on the Café Carlyle’s postage-stamp-sized area.

He also did a lot of chatting in the two-act show that had to have been longer than the Carlyle version, which I didn’t see. Affable and admirably direct about his Scottish-born, gay self, the tales individually were worth hearing but cumulatively they began to beg the adjective “prolix.” Certainly the reminiscences about the unhappy life with his father is one he should keep in the repertoire, as well as the Liza Minnelli/show-biz story he saved for much later. It’s a howl.

While he reprised numbers he’s previously done with Chenoweth (“Easy Street”), Criss (“Mein Herr”) and Lake (a condom commercial jingle he and music director Lance Horne wrote), he opened killingly with Annie Lennox’s “Why” and closed chillingly with Stephen Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch.”

In between, the Good Wife cast regular (he mentioned its imminent final nine episodes) ranged very far and very wide for material. (He joked that those in the brimming audience probably didn’t expect to hear Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb.”) Most of what he delivered was pungent as all get-out, but occasionally, when he got especially intense, his enunciation slipped.

Okay, so that was Carnegie Hall. Fans who missed it have the opportunity to pick up the just-released Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs album, where they’ll learn that the songs he gave full authority aren’t the least bit sappy.

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