If you learn anything from Fred Armisen and Mike Birbiglia, it is to not take comedy for granted.
“It’s not a practical life decision to pursue comedy as a career,” Birbiglia said during an interview with The Signal. “But if you have to do it long enough, eventually it can become one.”
Friday’s headliners of the CUB-sponsored Fall Comedy Show — “Saturday Night Live” star Armisen of observational quirkiness and Birbiglia of classic stand-up — expressed the disparity in turning jokes into jobs. Both are successful and critically acclaimed performers, which easily came across during their sets at the College. But each has a particular style that can correspond differently per audience. Comedy may seem universal, but its players are not.
“I like to think I’ve made a career out of bombing shows,” Armisen said when asked about the risks of performing cold for crowds, speculating that it teeters on the listeners. “Reactions vary from audience to audience. And it’s not that I enjoy feeling uncomfortable in the silence of a joke, but it’s what ultimately keeps me going.”
Armisen, though having the longevity of 11 years on “SNL,” opened the night for Birbiglia. Many of his jokes attempted to translate his improvisational success into a dialogue with the audience, sporting topics that everyone could identify with. But as he predicted, reactions varied.
He then waltzed around stage impersonating people’s physical responses to music, like that mysteriously hip, hotel lobby jazz, and took requests for world accents that he performed at the drop of a hat: Latvian, Swedish, all five boroughs of New York and a confused, Bostonian Mark Wahlberg. He even jammed as “SNL” punk personality Ian Rubbish. For those unfamiliar with the skits, his musical comedy may have fallen flat. But Birbiglia, as his friend and hype man, praised Armisen’s versatility as “the real deal.”
It was Birbiglia’s presence on stage, though, that illustrated the disparity in their humor. Where Armisen drew chuckles and sing-alongs from a string of unrelated, conversational pieces, Birbiglia was a storyteller. Much like the show and subsequent film “Sleepwalk with Me,” his narratives are both self-deprecating and charming, never holding back a giggle that makes his stories all the more hilarious.
“One time when I was sleepwalking, I jumped through a window,” he said. “And by jumped, I mean … I went through the closed, second-story window and just kept running. Like the Hulk.”
His anecdotes brought the audience hunched over in their seats because they were relatable and understandable stand-up, simple and pure.
“I was raised Catholic, I was an altar boy, and if you’re wondering, the answer is ‘no,’” he said.
This is precisely what the audience expected from Armisen but got instead from Birbiglia: relentless and well-rounded jokes, unapologetic, but told with a smile. When both comedians regrouped for a question and answer session after Birbiglia’s performance, they bounced jokes off each other gracefully while giving Armisen the chance to do his specially requested “Mike Birbiglia impersonation.”
But some were still unimpressed. The famed Fred Armisen, as seen on TV, was reserved and off-beat — compared to Birbiglia’s set, it was almost a letdown. But this is a comparison of comedic apples to oranges.
The two work in vastly different spheres of comedy: Armisen in sketch comedy and Birbiglia in one-man shows akin to “Louie.” To claim that Birbiglia killed while Armisen flopped would detract from Armisen’s obvious talents and undermine the purpose of the show: to make us laugh, one way or another.
“To do comedy, or anything artistic really, is to be delusional about it,” Armisen said. “You have to convince yourself that it’s going really, really well when it isn’t, and sooner or later it’ll start to.”
Whether enamored with the comedians’ performances or not, they’ve established themselves as well past the point of pretending to be funny. From different fields of comedy, they’re hitting out of the park. And, of course, be sure to expect more work from them to come.
“I’m always fascinated by artists who are so prolifically creative,” Birbiglia told The Signal. “The fact that people can continue generating new material for years or decades is just unthinkable — and better than the half-decent stuff I do … So basically, I want to be Bob Dylan.”