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Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Mike Birbiglia Dives Deep on ‘The Old Man and the Pool’

Mike Birbiglia Dives Deep on ‘The Old Man and the Pool’

What’s so funny about cancer, heart attacks and an impending sense of your own doom? Mike Birbiglia (COL ’00), back for his fifth Netflix special, is here to tell you.

Filmed in the Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, “The Old Man and The Pool” follows on the heels of “The New One,” Birbiglia’s 2019 special that detailed his journey to fatherhood. The two shows overlap in their personal style and darker themes, with “The Old Man and the Pool” chronicling a new phase of life for Birbiglia and his family.

Birbiglia’s style of comedy has always been more anecdotal than observational, deftly weaving startling life experiences, philosophical musings and humorous reflections into specials that are part memoir, part confessional. But while “The New One” is a slow build, “The Old Man and the Pool” throws you right into the deep end, with Birbiglia recounting a pulmonary test so disastrous it made his doctor question whether he was having a heart attack. 

To increase his lung capacity, a cardiologist recommends Birbiglia start swimming, which flashes him back to his unpleasant first encounter with a YMCA pool at five years old that was “one part water, two parts chlorine” and had a locker room with a “jungle of eye-level genitalia.” Despite thinking in that moment that he’d never return to a YMCA pool, the Birbiglia of the present begrudgingly agrees to do so. 

The past and present blend together seamlessly in “The Old Man and the Pool,” with the health scares of Birbiglia’s father and grandfather paralleling his own and his unsuccessful forays into the world of high school wrestling setting up a hilarious lack of aquatic prowess. Though physical comedy isn’t what made Birbiglia famous, his recreation of his own swimming technique, narrated as “blending the water into a chlorine smoothie” is wildly entertaining. 

The set design only adds to the effectiveness of his storytelling as the stage swells in the shape of a crashing wave behind him, serving both as a projector screen and, in one instance, a slide. Though always patterned with cool-toned pool tiles, the exact color shifts to keep up with the tone of the set and at different points is overlaid with Birbiglia’s own diary entries and a graph of his pulmonary test.

It should be noted that this is not always a special where you understand why you’re laughing. At its core, it’s hardly more than a series of increasingly concerning medical diagnoses shot through with anecdotes that force Birbiglia to reckon with his own mortality, all delivered with the sort of dry detachment reserved for a man who admittedly fills out hospital intake forms by circling every pre-existing condition and crossing out “pregnant.”

But detached isn’t quite the right word, because although Birbiglia’s delivery often favors a deadpan drawl, his tone is unfailingly earnest. Despite subject matter that would make even Eeyore blush, Birbiglia strikes you as someone who genuinely finds the human condition fascinating and worth examining through comedy, even the parts that are messy, mundane and downright depressing.

So while it might be morbid that one of the biggest laughs of the night occurs when the audience watches a graph of Birbiglia’s lung capacity plunge so far below the baseline that it borders on absurd, it’s completely in keeping with the overall tone of the show. Birbiglia is a master of delivery, easily developing his recurring gags, building suspense until the audience is hanging onto every word and bringing all his themes full circle with rumpled charisma and astonishing sincerity.

The resounding reaction among the people I watched the special with was, “How is this guy still alive?” And while Birbiglia doesn’t have an answer to that, he seems just as eager as you are to unpack it.

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