At one point during Mike Birbiglia’s new Broadway show, “The Old Man and The Pool,” he jokingly scolds the audience for laughing over a story about the death of a man in a YMCA pool. He stares, he admonishes, he reminds the crowd what, exactly, they’re laughing at. And then he pauses. The crowd can’t stop laughing. One after another, someone’s howl becomes contagious, and the laughter keeps going for several minutes as Birbiglia watches.
Last Thursday, it became too much, and he broke on stage. He giggled so hard he had to turn away from the crowd.
It’s a genius part of the show, when Birbiglia becomes a sort of conductor of this rolling laughter. It’s also his favorite part of the show.
“It started from improv [that part of the show.] I was working out the show, at Cherry Lane Theater and thematically I was talking about a lot of the same stuff early on, but I was talking about the man who died holding his breath in a YMCA pool. And people were laughing somehow. They were laughing like a little too much,” Birbiglia told CNN in a recent interview. “And then I was like,’ Oh, actually that’s a little too much.’ And then I just started toying with the idea of like how much is too much laughter kind of thing. And like, what if, what if I scold? You know, like I started improvising, scolding people.”
He said it ended up being a “fascinating psychological experiment” because “the more you scold people and tell them what they can’t laugh at, the more they laugh at it.”
Birbiglia said the laughter on Thursday felt contagious.
“I’m staring at everyone, everyone’s staring at me, but I’m staring at a group of people who can’t stop laughing,” he said, adding of performance, “I broke and I never break. I never break in the middle of that.”
What is everyone laughing at exactly? The absurdity of the human experience. Of life and death and all being in the same room together at the same moment, Birbiglia said.
“It’s cathartic for the people who lock into it because it’s that thing of like, Oh my God, it’s all just so absurd,” he laughed.
“The Old Man and the Pool” has been in Birbiglia’s mind in some version for about six years now. He worked it out wherever he could while touring, including at a race track in New Jersey filled with gamblers, before it landed at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center.
“I’ve been performing variations on the show for years, and so at different times I just gained inspiration from different things,” he said. “It originally had a different name. I think at the time it was called ‘The YMCA Pool.’ And then we were shut down. I started doing outdoor shows. I was doing an outdoor show at a race track in New Jersey, not kidding, and my agent goes ‘this should be on Broadway.’”
He held the attention of a crowd that ranged in age from about 12 to elderly and saw they were “all laughing their butts off.”
Birbiglia realized, he said, the set could be healing for people.
The show covers love, loss, death, struggles to say I love you, declining health and family. Birbiglia skillfully pivots from discussing our darkest fears to our greatest joys. One minute he is serious, then he makes a joke about “maybe” having a heart attack in a doctor’s office.
“I’ve had a lot of people say after the show, ‘I called my parents after the show,’ ‘I called my kids and told them I loved them after the show,’ and whatever that thing is, all of those feel positive to me,” he said. “Obviously, we’re living in the strangest of times of the last century. And so anything that you can do that’s positive for other people feels, feels like something.”
Birbiglia stressed that he’s not trying to provide any answers to life’s big questions, he’s simply bringing them up.
“There’s no answer,” he said. “There’s no answer to any of it.”
“The Old Man and The Pool” is currently playing at Lincoln Center in New York City.