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Mike Birbiglia Swims Through Mortality and Family Life in The Old Man and The Pool

Birbiglia’s stand-up comedy routine (slash, one-man show) hit London on his big tour on 12 September, and is due to finish on 7 October. Birbiglia’s show centres around a health crisis tied in with a traumatising childhood visit to an acid-like chlorinated YMCA Pool in his hometown. 


Birbiglia’s persona on stage is almost cheeky in the ways in which he has managed to charm a British audience; a challenge he makes look easy. His performance is smooth, and the way he links back to the overall picture he is trying to set while allowing tangents and misdirection gives his audience a delightful surprise in how they somehow forgot his original point before pleasantly returning to it. If comedians write their set out in bullet points, then Birbiglias is a mind map. A circle. Until a shocking ending, but I won’t spoil it for any prospective Birbiglia fans, which could rival Fleabag.


Birbiglia’s delivery seems almost Steven Martin-esque, delivering absurd observations on everyday life that the audience can’t help but laugh at when put into perspective by him; they feel obvious and yet still fresh. He touches on sensitive topics, as usually he does in his past shows. For example his last Netflix special focused on how he now has a daughter, and the journey he took to having one, despite not wanting children. Yet, Birbiglia is never mean. He is never cruel. He even remarks in an off-handed anecdote about not wanting his daughter to become a mean comic. 


He never touches on politics or makes his own audience feel small or the centre of his jokes. It is simply a fully packed hour and a quarter of blissful, safe escapism that also makes you think about family and mortality. Yet, you’re at ease for the entire journey. Despite the heavy topics, it never feels like a lecture from Birbiglia. Some comedians can fail to balance their observations and personal outlooks on life when it comes to stand-up - coming off as pompous and a know-it-all. Birbiglia simply shows you a side of his life and takes you through it like an amusing short story that leaves you pondering your own life. 


The show centres around Birbiglia’s latest health scare (to which he talks about his others; a long list to rival the most unfortunate of people) and how he was diagnosed with diabetes type two. From there he recounts how he was meant to help this new diagnosis. By running? Absolutely not. Swimming? He gave it a shot, despite retelling his time in a scary “jungle of penises” of the changing rooms of a YMCA pool as a child when his mum would take him. Since then, Birbiglia has not gone back. From the sea of genitalia, the old men caking themselves in talcum powder (no sense of dignity or modesty about the act at all), and the chlorine-to-water ratio that could help any serial killer get rid of a body, the decision to not go back may be a wise one, when you put it like that. Yet, after heart-warming and surprisingly serious moments of recounting his time with his daughter, Una, and real excerpts he’d written in his journal, we see the stand-up decide to take hold of his health in a quite hilarious manner.


Other reviews have also shared the awe of this set. The Guardian declares it to be “without stinting on the jokes, his sensibility is as poetic as it is comic. Where other midlife male standups splash in the shallows of domesticity, dinner parties, and feeling tired, Birbiglia – on a cool blue set tiled to resemble his local swimming pool – plunges into the deep end of mortality, families, and the meaning of life.” (The Guardian, September 2023).


The Evening Standard declared Birbiglia as “part stand-up, part storyteller. The Brooklyn-based monologist specialises in autobiographical pieces, putting his whimsical imprint on this distinctive hybrid” (The Evening Standard, September 2023).


In a recent interview with The Stage, Birbiglia stated that “I think my superpower is humour [...] I don’t think I was placed on the earth to tell dramatic stories. But I think that I’m decent enough at telling dramatic stories, that I can use humour in those stories and have them work together” (The Stage, September 2023). It seems most would agree with that, as The Old Man and the Pool continues its success, with its tour continuing into next year.


You can catch Mike Birbiglia’s show until 12 October at the Wyndham’s Theatre, Charring Cross Road, London. After that, the comedian will be off to Boston, Massachusetts, USA, from 16 December until 23 December. More information on tour dates and ticket information can be found on Mike Birbiglia’s website here: https://www.birbigs.com/. Birbiglia’s other work can also be found on Netflix: My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, Thank God For Jokes, and The New One

Edited by: Anwen Venn

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