GRAND RAPIDS — One of Mike Birbiglia’s most brilliant jokes is also his naughtiest.
The comedian’s LaughFest performance on Sunday night received an R-rating ahead of time, due solely to one incredible story involving director David O. Russell with Amy Adams, Nathan Lane and Lily Tomlin as supporting actors.
Birbiglia, a 35-year-old comedian and storyteller from Massachusetts, delighted the audience at DeVos Performance Hall in Grand Rapids by recounting the night he hosted the Gotham Independent Film Awards in New York City in November 2012.
To set the stage: David O. Russell (director of “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” among others) was set to receive an achievement award at the Gotham festival. Russell was sitting in an audience that included actress Amy Adams and actor Matt Damon, among other noted celebrities, as Birbiglia took the stage as host that night.
Birbiglia chose that special moment to remind the audience of a certain time in Russell’s life, back when he was in the process of filming “I Heart Huckabee’s” in 2004.
A video, leaked on YouTube in 2007, showed how tensions ran high on set during the filming of the existential comedy. The raw video captures a rather low point between Russell and actress Lily Tomlin as they argue over the filming process. The transcript of the video is not safe for publication in a family newspaper, but, suffice it to say, expletives of frustration are used, frequently and with great emphasis.
During the Gotham awards, Birbiglia referenced the video whilst comparing Russell to other celebrated directors.
“The great director Elia Kazan once said you have to get the shot no matter what it takes,” Birbiglia recounted for the Grand Rapids audience. “David O. Russell once said … (insert colorful language here).”
The Grand Rapids audience laughed in naughty delight as Birbiglia painstakingly recited Russell’s entire infamous diatribe.
Russell walked out of the room after the roast, but later returned to receive his achievement award from actress Amy Adams, who was a great deal more polite.
It wasn’t a thoughtless joke … Birbiglia had called his friend, actor Nathan Lane to run the act by him and get his feedback. Lane cautiously encouraged Birbiglia to tell the joke, noting the story was true and too funny not to tell.
“I think you should be able to joke about anything,” Birbiglia told the Grand Rapids audience Sunday night. “That’s one of the Gilda principles, I believe. We’re all guilty of taking ourselves too seriously.”
Birbiglia was referring to the late Saturday Night Live comedian Gilda Radner, the namesake of Gilda’s Club in Grand Rapids. Gilda’s Club is a free cancer and grief support community. All proceeds from LaughFest, which is in its fourth consecutive year, benefit the emotional healthcare programs offered through Gilda’s Club.
Birbiglia made friends with the appreciative Grand Rapids crowd right away Sunday night. He started his show by reading a tweet from a man in the audience, then invited the man to sit in the front row, amid a bevy of empty chairs. Birbiglia then humorously discussed the importance of being on time to events, noting that early is “forever,” but on time only lasts a minute and then you’re late.
So when the group holding front row tickets walked into the show — late — Birbiglia and his audience were ready. Birbiglia good-naturedly teased the front-row ticket holders as the audience joined in with a rousing echo of Birbiglia’s previous sentiments about being on time.
When asked why they were late, one ticket-holder said the group missed the trolly.
“You missed the trolly? What is this, Sesame Street?” Birbiglia asked as the audience applauded. “Are you a 7-year-old child?”
Birbiglia kept his audience entertained for an almost-two-hour performance as part of his “Thank God For Jokes” tour. He discussed with humor and honesty his parents, his marriage and his Catholic school upbringing. His disdainful musings about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit may have made some audience members uncomfortable, but it was an obvious attempt at portraying the confusion many people feel about the complexities and inconsistencies of religion.
Birbiglia transitioned from one topic to the next with likable ramblings, imaging Jesus returning to the world as an angry and disappointed Jewish socialist … recounting the time he accidentally dropped an F-bomb on a Muppets television special (he had to follow Fozzie Bear as the opening act, plus heckling from Statler and Waldorf, only to be consoled backstage by Kermit the Frog) … and repeatedly bursting into full-fledged Catholic alter boy song (“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again …”).
Birbiglia reminisced about the last time he was in Grand Rapids, at the “beautiful” Fountain Street Church in 2011, when he was performing his off-Broadway hit “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.” He ended Sunday night’s show by taking requests from the audience and choosing one from “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.”
He performed audience favorite “Scrambler,” which he called his “favorite story to tell because at the time it was so painful and the theory behind Gilda’s Club is to heal with laughter.” He enthusiastically threw himself into the story about seventh grade confusion and hopes for a first kiss being dashed by a carnival ride.
The performance was a physical one with Birbiglia literally running around in circles to reenact the carnival ride while breathlessly yelling the play-by-play to an audience roaring with laughter. The night ended on that high note.
LaughFest is a 10-day festival and continues through March 16, with multiple acts scheduled to perform for the Gilda’s Club fundraiser. Notable upcoming comedians include Lily Tomlin herself tonight at DeVos Performance Hall, Jay Leno on Wednesday at DeVos Place, Chris Tucker on Friday at the Grand Rapids Community College Ford Fieldhouse and Sinbad on Sunday at Fountain Street Church.
Many family-friendly events are featured and some are free. Visit laughfestgr.org online for more information.REVIEW: Comedian Mike Birbiglia entertains Grand Rapids during LaughFest,