When Mike Birbiglia and his wife, Jen, got married, he was very clear about one thing: He did not want to have children.
That's what Birbiglia's newest Netflix special, The New One, is all about––not wanting to have children, being so sure that having a child will destroy your way of life, and then doing it anyways and pretty much proving your fears right.
Unlike most other mainstream comedians working today, Birbiglia's performances don't revolve around his jokes; rather, his jokes revolve around his performances. Similar to his award-winning one-man show (and book, and movie) Sleepwalk with Me, The New One functions as a single, confined narrative with jokes woven in to support the core emotional journey. Watching a Mike Birbiglia show is kind of like listening to the best episode of The Moth that you've ever heard (which makes sense, because Birbiglia is a frequent contributor to The Moth), and I mean that as the highest compliment––Birbiglia isn't just a seasoned comedian, he's a masterful storyteller.
In The New One, Birbiglia takes us with him on his emotional journey from "guy who never wants to have kids" to "guy who has a kid," a journey he posits many men have trekked throughout human history. Speaking as a guy who never wants to have kids, I think that's probably true.
Birbiglia's story begins with his couch. He describes this couch as the first big purchase he made as an adult, along with the emotional attachment and genuine adoration he has for this noble and often under-appreciated piece of furniture. He talks about some of his favorite memories and moments from his relationship taking place on this couch. "We'll lie on the couch and she'll order me a chicken kebab platter and scratch my back, and we'll snuggle with our cat Mazzie and watch a documentary about murder. And that's what love is. And it all takes place on the couch."
After setting up his way of life, Birbiglia supplies us with an extensive, seven bullet-point list on exactly how and why a child would ruin it. His reasons range from not wanting anyone to intrude on his relationship with his wife to not being sure that he's a good enough person to properly raise a child to the fact that he already has a cat. And his reasons, while presented humorously, also hit very close to home. After all, they're the same reasons that I (and I imagine many other men, too) really, actually, truly don't want kids.
But when Birbiglia's wife, who had been on the same page for the majority of their relationship, suddenly changed her mind, Birbiglia decided that he couldn't hold his wife back from motherhood if that's what she wanted. So he hopped aboard the baby train and, sure enough, all his fears turned out to be true. Birbiglia describes fatherhood as feeling like an "intern" in his own family, watching from the sidelines as the greatest love of all time plays out between his wife and his daughter, Oona. Moreover, baby Oona decides she likes to sleep on the couch, which effectively means that Birbiglia is permanently kicked off.
Eventually, this leads to the couch's destruction, a blow to Birbiglia both real and metaphorical. Then, in a moment of pure honesty, he describes the thought process behind men who leave their families, and while he denounces the action, he admits to understanding the reasoning.
It's all very funny. I mean that sincerely. Birbiglia's genius lies in his ability to spin brutal, personal, oftentimes upsetting subject matter into humorous, light, flowing narratives that leave us with a sense of emotional fulfillment.
Because in the end, after spending an hour with Birbiglia following his descent into the bowels of fatherhood, he reaches his denouement. With Oona in tow, he and Jen go to the store to buy a new couch. And in the store, while trying a new couch out, he and his wife and his daughter all have a "moment" together. In the end, Birbiglia realizes that even if fatherhood ruined his old way of life, it's also given him a new one.
I still don't think I ever want to be a dad, and I don't think I'll ever really understand why someone does. But Mike Birbiglia was in my shoes once, and I get the sense that he figured it out.