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John Mulaney and Friends at the Bell House

June 7, 2013

This is “What’s Making Me Happy This Week,” a weekly feature inspired by the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. It’s pretty self-explanatory.

What’s Making Me Happy This Week are actually two things: First is the National concert at Barclays Center on Wednesday night, which was the best large show I’ve been to in as long as I can remember. So many people will be writing traditional reviews of this event online (like here, and here, and here) that I’d like to take my time with it and come up with a fresh angle, so you’ll see my “review” of the show next week. Think You Can Wait?

The second thing that’s making me happy this week is fantastic comedy set I saw last night featuring John Mulaney, Aziz Ansari, Mike Birbiglia and Paul F. Tompkins, and my unexpected role in the show. The night was a benefit for the Innocence Project, which is “a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people.” While I was happy to help out an important cause, my excitement mainly stemmed from having the chance to see two of my three favorite current comedians (Mulaney and Birbiglia, the other being Louis CK) and two other top-notch performers all on one night in an intimate setting. After the amazing but exhausting National show, a night of comedy was the natural pick-me-up that I needed.

Seating was general admission, but because of some people’s fear of sitting in the front row for a comic (and some general good luck) I was able to park myself right in the front row. Normally I’d be afraid as well, but not tonight. One person seated behind me even called me brave. In fact I wasn’t being brave, just confident that four experienced professional comedians would come ready to perform prepared material or, as often happens in these smaller settings, to try out new material to see what works. This wasn’t amateur hour at Rascals Comedy Club; there would be no “So where are you from? Pittsburgh? Ha ha ha” with Mulaney & co. (Let’s be honest here for a moment too – this show was at the Bell House in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Every single person in the room was from Brooklyn. If you don’t live in Brooklyn, I’m pretty sure the only time you’ll ever see Gowanus is on HBO’s Girls.) As expected, Mulaney, our host for the evening, came out and had the audience on the floor laughing  before bringing out the night’s first performer, Tompkins.

Before Mulaney left the stage, I noticed the woman seated two seats to my right – she was absolute dead center, front row – recording the show on her phone. I hadn’t thought of that before, but it seemed like a fun idea. I don’t mind occasionally listening to comics on my commute, I’m sure I’d like to listen to these guys’ sets again (I already wished I had Mulaney’s first 15 minutes) and I had a friend or two that I thought might like to hear it too. I waited until he walked off stage so as not to disturb the show, and as Tompkins came on I hit record.

Tompkins’ set was funny, especially once he hit his groove talking about his adventures on Sullivan’s Island, attempting to propose to his now-wife. I snapped a few photos, smiled throughout, and sat in that front row beaming. This was exactly what I needed to recharge my batteries – funny, loose, relaxed. Mulaney came back out and did another 10-15 minutes or so, killing it the whole time. (Aside: If you don’t know about John Mulaney, he’s the Saturday Night Live writer behind about 50% of the funny bits on that show, including Stefon. The New York Times had a feature on Mulaney stating, “It’s not out of the realm of possibility to imagine that Mr. Mulaney could one day be his generation’s Jerry Seinfeld.” High praise, and of course it’s only a remote possibility, but I’d bet on Mulaney over anyone else in comedy, despite his reportedly hilarious pilot not being picked up by NBC. Oh, stupid NBC.)

Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia

Next up was last minute addition to the show, the man I was on the edge of my seat to see, Mike Birbiglia. I am probably as huge a fan of Birbiglia as one could be of a comedian. I’ve seen him perform live three times including last night. I’ve both read and seen his book/movie, Sleepwalk With Me. I own two of his CDs and have recommended him to friends. And now he would likely be performing material I’d never heard/seen/read, having just done a new one man show at Carnegie Hall, “My Best Friend’s Girlfriend”, which I did not attend. Birbiglia didn’t do material from “My Best Friend’s Girlfriend”, instead trying out new material, some of it incomplete. It didn’t matter; as one tweeter (twitterer?) put it “All there is to sayis Birbiglia MURDERED. Holy stage presence.” Unlike the previous comics, he walked around the stage, often staying close to the edge and leaning over, using his entire body to communicate and get closer to the audience. On more than one occasion, it felt like Birbiglia was a giant hovering over me, casting this huge shadow. I could not stop laughing for even a brief moment. Just as he began to indicate that he’d be wrapping things up,I wanted to get a photo of the man up close. And that’s when things went a little awry.

Birbiglia picked up an index card from his stool and began his joke: “On this card I wrote down two ends of a phone conversation, literally verbatim.”

He started walking forward and in my direction: “My wife and I have a land line. Are you guys familiar with this?”

Huge laugh from the audience, and at this moment I take out my iPhone for the photo. Birbiglia, looking right at me says, “No, not that. That’s a cell phone.” And then … “Hey wait a minute – are you recording this?”

Busted. I am 2bitMonkey’s shameful nod.

“That’s not cool man. Give me that.” I hand over my cell phone. I apologize. I am prepared for the worst. “What’s your password man?” I give it up. Birbiglia is disappointed in me. And now he decides to shame me.

“Hey Mulaney, get out here.” John comes out. “This guy was recording my set. Look at this. 26 minutes.”

Now both Birbiglia and Mulaney are talking about me, talking about my phone, and somehow this goes on for two freaking hours! (OK, not two hours. It only felt that way. But it did go on for about 10 minutes. Which is an eternity to be in the spotlight like that. And about 9 minutes longer than I expected.)

Mulaney pleaded with Birbiglia to give me back my phone. Mike wouldn’t oblige. He mocked my apps. My emails. My very being. And of course he deleted the recordings. This went on for so long that I went from being initially humiliated to becoming quite amused. I had become Birbiglia’s prop. I had acquired an unlikely ally in John Mulaney. And, in an era when 25% of the audience is recording the show, I probably had at least half the crowd on my side.

Eventually, after pressure from Mulaney to move on, Birbiglia gave me back my phone. He went back into his joke while Mulaney waited, somewhat impatiently, on stage. “So my wife and I have a land line …”

Because of the delay, Mulaney quickly brought out Ansari without performing any more material. The Parks & Rec star began by giving me a little sh*t for the recording fiasco, but then he was was his usual funny self, riffing about relationships in the age of social media, relating to the twenty-something hip and single part of the crowd as he always does. It took a few minutes for me to come down, but once Ansari started bouncing around the stage, acting out a conversation with a girl via text message, I was relaxed and laughing again.

When all was said and done, I felt bad about upsetting Birbiglia, though I knew that I had no intention of doing anything wrong. I was recording for my own future enjoyment. (I have never posted any copyrighted material on this site.) Two of my favorite comics got laughs at my expense, and I rolled with it. That was more than OK by me. I’d rather have the memory than the recording anyway. It will also last a lifetime.

As much as I love music – and if you’re on this site, you know how I love music – there may be nothing I enjoy more than a great comedian on the top of his or her game. Last night I managed to see four of them. I couldn’t possibly recommend them more. Listen to Tompkins’ podcastWatch or read Sleepwalk With Me. Stream Ansari’s and Mulaney’s stand-up specials, “Dangerously Delicious” and “New in Town.” I promise you’ll laugh. If only I had a recording to prove it to you …

And that’s What’s Making Me Happy This Week.

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