Callbacks can be cheap. Audiences like to feel in on jokes, and a callback is an easy way to evoke a big laugh, earned or not. Their overuse in comedy has become a trope in and of itself, the airplane food of stand-up these days (best parodied on Community).
Mike Birbiglia employs callbacks regularly in The New One, his one-man play about becoming a father, but with a significance that these references usually lack in lesser performances. Yes, occasionally they’re just for laughs, but in the show’s most meaningful moments, Birbiglia harkens back to earlier jokes to demonstrate how he’s grown from a man all but sure he doesn’t want to be a father, to a dad that embraces his new, utterly changed life.
The celebrated comic tracks this progression in tandem with his love for his couch, represented onstage by a stool. It’s a funny, appropriate modern metaphor; the couch symbolizes the state of his life and, coincidentally, is where he spends much of his time. Soon it is commandeered by his daughter Oona, who loves sleeping on it, and likewise his marriage and daily routine aren’t as they used to be. The show is well-crafted in every dimension. The title itself can refer to his new couch, his newest family member (Oona quite literally means “one”) and his new life.
While Birbiglia’s wife Jen is a poet, he shows off his poetic side in the play, both in his use of language and masterful control of his voice. He whispers or yells frantically, often coming across as though he’s speaking in one run-on sentence. The technique heightens the impression that he is running an unending marathon in trying to navigate his new role and keep up with his wife and daughter.
A one-person production always runs the risk of not being visually dynamic enough, but Birbiglia quickly banishes that worry. He makes full use of the stage, pacing around and commanding the space. He drastically changes the fairly bare-bones set when Oona enters his life: a layer of colorful toys fall from the ceiling, carpeting the floor in a manner any parent or babysitter is all too familiar with. It works both as a visual gag and a quite literal representation of how having a child alters one’s life. He picks through the mess for the rest of the production, plucking out props like he’s playing a one-man scavenger hunt.
No matter how sick you may think you are of another comedian discussing the perils of parenthood, don’t let that cloud your perception of The New One. Birbiglia’s latest Netflix special is candid and never saccharine, which oddly makes it all the more heartwarming.
Clare Martin writes about comedy, music and more for Paste.