At one point during Mike Birbiglia’s new Broadway show, “The Old Man and The Pool,” he jokingly scolds the audience for laughing at a story about a man dying in a YMCA pool. He stares, admonishes, reminds the crowd what, exactly, they’re laughing at. And then he pauses. The audience can’t stop laughing. One after another, someone’s howl becomes contagious, and the laughter continues for several minutes as Birbiglia watches.
Last Thursday, it was too much, and he broke down on stage. He laughed so hard he had to pull away from the crowd.
It’s a great part of the show, when Birbiglia becomes something of a director of that laughter. It’s also his favorite part of the show.
“It started from improvisation [that part of the show.] I was setting up the show, at the Cherry Lane Theater, and thematically, I talked about a lot of the same thing early on, but I was talking about the man who died holding his breath in a YMCA pool. And people kind of laughed. They were laughing like a little too much,” Birbiglia told CNN in a recent interview. “And then I said, ‘Oh, actually that’s a little too much.’ And then I started playing with the idea of how much is too much laughter. And how, and if, and 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 Thursday’s laughter was contagious.
“I’m looking at everybody, everybody’s looking at me, but I’m looking at a group of people who can’t stop laughing,” he said, adding of the performance: “I broke down and I never break down. I never break down in the middle of that.”
What exactly is everyone laughing at? The absurdity of human experience. About life and death and being all together in the same room at the same time, Birbiglia said.
“It’s cathartic for people who get locked into it because it’s like, oh my God, it’s all so absurd,” he laughed.
“The Old Man and the Pool” has been on Birbiglia’s mind in some form for about six years. He worked it in wherever he could while on tour, including at a New Jersey racetrack packed with players, before landing at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater.
“I’ve been performing variations on the show for years, and so at different times I was just inspired by different things,” he said. “Originally it had a different name. I think it was called ‘The YMCA Pool’ at the time. And then we got shut down. I started doing outdoor shows. I was doing an outdoor show at a rink in New Jersey races, no joke, and my agent says, “This should be on Broadway.”
It caught the attention of a crowd of ages from around 12 to seniors and saw “everyone laughing their asses off”.
Birbiglia realized, he said, that the ensemble could be healing for people.
The show covers love, loss, death, struggles to say I love you, health and family in decline. Birbiglia deftly pivots from talking about our darkest fears to our greatest joys. One minute he’s serious, then he jokes 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 whatever, they all feel. positive for me,” he said. “Obviously, we’re living in the weirdest time of the last century. And so anything you can do that’s positive for other people feels like something.”
Birbiglia emphasized that he is not trying to provide any answers to life’s big questions, he is simply raising them.
“No answer,” he said. “There is no answer for anything.”
“The Old Man and The Pool” is currently playing at Lincoln Center in New York City.