Opinion: Be a good neighbor: a lesson from Mike Birbiglia

Nicholas Hunter

Nicholas Hunter

Comedian Mike Birbiglia released his latest standup comedy special, “Thank God for Jokes,” on Netflix over the weekend.

Birbiglia talked about everything from his brother parodying church hymns in Catholic school to accidentally cursing during a Muppets special at which he was invited to perform.

However, his overall story was about a risky joke he told during a Hollywood event he was hosting.

Birbiglia decided to tell a joke that he knew would offend one of his favorite movie directors because, as his wife told him, “If you want to have a future in show business, you probably shouldn’t tell the joke. If you want to be true to yourself as a comedian, then tell the joke.” And he told it.

He knew that someone he admired would not laugh at, and would probably be offended by, his joke. But he told it anyway because he wanted to stay honest to his comedy and himself. From his perspective, he chose how his words would be used.

As Birbiglia’s show came to a close, he said, “You can transmit jokes and cartoons and videos across the earth in seconds,” and that with the world being so interconnected, everyone is our neighbor, whether they’re in Russia, China or Texas.

“What does it mean to be a decent neighbor?” Birbiglia asked. “I think part of it is just listening to people in the context in which they intend their words.”

And I believe he is right.

Birbiglia continued by naming off every offensive thing he said during the show, which were almost all instances of him quoting other people from the view of someone who wanted to tear him down.

It made Birbiglia sound vile and offensive, but if you watch the show you know he is anything but; he’s quiet and weary, almost aggressively inoffensive.

What Birbiglia demonstrated seemed so simple: Of course you can make anyone look terrible if you get to choose what represents them. It’s extremely easy to cut bits and pieces from anybody’s monologue to make them say something hateful and mean. It’s the entire basis of reality TV.

Currently, the idea of “alternative facts” and “fake news” hinges on this concept of using partial quotes and information out of context. It is a dangerous game to play — especially as the use of misinformation is being used by the most powerful people in the country — and some people are buying into it.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned from “Thank God for Jokes,” as well as Birbiglia’s other work. But it is hard to find one more important and timely as his last point.

We all need to become better neighbors, for the sake of the nation and the sake of each other. And that starts with affording people their words in context.

Nicholas Hunter is a columnist, contact him at [email protected].