Over on his website, my pal Mark Evanier was pondering who might replace James Corden when he quit his Late, Late Show in a year. And Mark’s conclusion is that while we can sometimes guess who’ll be hosting a new talk show in the “early” late night spot, the later “after-show” tends to go to someone lesser known – or unknown here – who maybe the network is trying to develop. So, the answer is “Who knows? Make a guess.”
Okay, I’ll make a guess. And it’s nothing more than just a guess.
I first became aware of Mike Birbiglia about 6-7 years ago from the inveterate Chris Dunn who had been a big fan of him for years. He convinced me to see one of Birbiglia’s stage shows – at maybe the Amundsen Theatre of the Los Angeles Music Center, I think – and he was wonderful. And I’ve enjoyed his work since. I don’t seek him out as does Chris (who, as I said has been a big fan for years, but I wanted to repeat that because he’s a really big fan and deserves big points for his taste and prescience), but I’ve always enjoyed it when I watch.
On Sunday, I sent Chris a Media Alert heads-up because I saw that Birbiglia was scheduled to be a guest on Tuesday on Jimmy Kimmel Live! And then the news broke that Kimmel had tested positive for COVID. And then the show said that guest Mike Birbiglia – who probably many of the show’s fans didn’t know (even though he’s been a guest several times) – would be hosting. And not just hosting that night he was scheduled to be on…but the whole week.
I’ve tuned in, and think he’s been wonderful. And from his humorous, self-effacing monologues, it seems the TV audience has been liking him, albeit in a bewildered. (The tweets that Birbiglia has been showing have been begrudgingly semi-positive, but unsure what he’s doing there. Like, “He’s not horrible and better than I thought.” And “He’s okay, but I’ll have to Google him tomorrow to find out who he is.” And “He isn’t terrible, but why didn’t they get The Rock?”) The even better bit was the first night when they showed clips of local TV news anchors announcing the Kimmel COVID story and mangling how to pronounce “Birbiglia.”
What I think has worked well for him is that he has a very low-key, charming, wistful, ingratiating, personable style. And as a stand-up, he’s used to talking to a live audience. And being quick on his feet. That doesn’t mean, though, that a stand-up would be good at interviewing someone or show real curiosity, that’s a separate skill. And thus far, Birbiglia has seemed very comfortable interviewing others. (On Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee streaming series, several of his comedian guests have pointed out that he should get a talk show because he’s so good at interviewing them. And Seinfeld always responds that NO, he loves talking to comedians but would be bored talking to other celebrities and guests. Birbiglia seems at ease.)
If you don’t know Mike Birbiglia’s work – by the way, it’s pronounced “Burr-big-lee-uh”), it’s sort of in the vein of John Mulaney (who’s hosted SNL quite a few times) or Seth Meyers or perhaps Ellen Degeneres.
Earlier yesterday, before reading Mark’s piece and deciding to write this, I wrote to Chris about how good his fave comedian was doing and how pleased he must be, having him hosting all week. And I added that I suspected his agent's phone has been ringing. After all, as I noted, this is a major platform for a guy who was quite a bit under the wire -- hosting a major talk show all week. And coming across SO funny and likeable. And I thought (especially since they’ve been addressing all week that he was only supposed to be a guest) that audiences also recognized that it was done with zero preparation. Yet he comes across like this is his regular job and has been for years.
I think it helped, too, last night when Ewan McGregor was the first guest, there to talk about his new Disney+ series, recreating his Star Wars portrayal of Obi Wan Kenobe – and almost the first thing McGregor wanted to talk about was what a huge fan his oldest daughter is of Birbiglia and that she has all his albums, and that when he and his daughter were driving on a road trip, they were listening to him, and McGregor said he was laughing so hard he had to pull off to the side of the road and stop. Birbiglia seemed truly flabbergasted and touched.
My point to Chris was not that Birbiglia would become a major superstar from this – but it’s very high profile for a full week, not an eight-minute standalone guest spot that most lesser-know comedians have, and he’s succeeded wonderfully. So, maybe he’ll get to host SNL next year. Or perhaps a director or producer thought, gee, this guy would be perfect in a particular role in their upcoming movie. Or Netflix would want him to do yet another comedy special for them. That sort of thing, that pushes one’s career forward. I thought he’d be terrific hosting a talk show, but there weren’t any openings.
And then when I read Mark’s discussion about James Corden leaving in a year. And man, if I was CBS, I’d at the very least have Mike Birbiglia name on my “To discuss” list at the next staff meeting for Who Do We Get to Replace James?
I’m not saying they will hire him. Or that Birbiglia even wants to host a talk show. (Though he certainly alluded to how much a good time he’s having, suggesting to Jimmy that he wasn’t looking great and might have long COVID because “I like long hosting.”) I’m just saying that if the answer to who will replace James Corden is, “Who knows? Make a guess” – that’s the only guess I can make right now.
Here's his first night monologue, so you can get a sense of what I mean. It’s just the first part, since they then go into a long bit with the sidekick Guillermo, but it’s still 10 minutes. (And yes, the show began with Birbiglia's selfie video, that's not an add-on.)
And what the heck, as a bonus, just to show how he handled interviewing, here’s his interview with Ewan McGregor. Keep in mind that he’s not a professional interview, and he was just thrown into this the night before. At the very least, watch the first 90 seconds. You’ll understand why –
By the way I have a theory here. Notice that at around the 1:30 mark, Ewan McGregor sort of looks up quickly, slightly to his left, and says, “Oh, the albums…” and then tells Birbiglia about how his daughter “told me to tell you” that she has all his albums. My theory is that his daughter is right there with her dad, just off camera, because she’s a Big Fan of Mike Birbiglia. And when he looks up and says, “Oh, the albums…” it’s because his daughter realizes her dad forgot to tell her favorite comedian that she has all his albums and so she said, “His albums.” Which is why he raises his head and says, “Oh, the albums…” and makes clear, “She told me to tell you…” I could be wrong, it’s possible that he simply remembered he was supposed to tell Birbiglia. But it would be odd phrasing, “Oh, the albums…” if he wasn’t prompted, so that’s my theory. Go watch it again, and I think I make a good case.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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