Comfort food comedy with a dark side

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Mike Birbiglia in "The New One." Photo credit: Joan Marcus

The setup at the center of Mike Birbiglia's one-man show "The New One" is not particularly new.

In fact, it's familiar trope: the reluctant dad.

As dad jokes go - it's practically required. Think of the sort of happy bachelor eating pizza on the couch who suddenly is beset by a wife who wants a child. He never wanted to be a dad but ... his love for his wife gets the better of him. After a quick promise that a child won't change their life one bit, they get pregnant and, so the formula goes, dark comic hilarity ensues.

And, most of the time it does.

Mike Birbiglia's show at the Ahmanson follows this archetype. You'll recognize the story arc with the same warm familiarity you encounter your favorite comfort food. Chances are, if you think back to your youth, there was another comedian faithfully charting this course: the outsider, hapless father clueless in the face of this new foreign member of the family who suddenly invades domestic tranquility to dominate the household.

It's fertile ground, pun intended, because being a parent, especially a new one, is such a surreal and personal experience. Yet, at the same time, fundamentally generic. It's why "funny tweets from parents" works. We long to connect our unique, and sometimes dark, struggle with others.

Mike Birbiglia's particular journey starts out promisingly enough. His is that strain of one-man show done by a comic where the jokes are spun from longer narrative chunks rather than quick jokes. You might recognize him from "This American Life" or his other comedy specials. He has that quirky, underdog tone and material from the first third of the show is self-deprecating fodder focused on his foibles. Here, he's charming and witty and you get to laugh at him. He makes himself the target.

Things shift a bit once the actual pregnancy hits. We are no longer laughing at his lousy swimming sperm but instead at mother and child. Here's where things take a turn. (Like comfort food, that seemed like a really good idea - until you accidentally scarf down the whole pizza.)

There's no denying that moms do the really hard work of child-rearing, or as he puts it "she was doing the physical, I was doing the clerical." The question is where do you find the comedy that will speak to a theater of 2000 people?

Here, Mr. Birbiglia's show struggles a bit with tone. The show's being positioned, and clearly wants to be, a sort of touching emotional tale of the reluctant father. The final moment of most reluctant father tales is the redemptive reversal into grateful dad. Predictably, that's where Mr. Birbiglia ends up - but only in the very final moments.

To get there, we get a bunch of punch lines that come at mother and child's expense. Now, this darkness is part of the joke's formula. We're laughing at those dark feelings that lurk just under the surface. So a new dad admitting he understands why dads leave their children, gets a laugh but it also leaves a mark.

While the show is funny, it's never transcendently so. While it has sweet moments, it's not deeply emotional. And that final redemptive turn? You might find yourself questioning it later - just like that pint of ice cream at 3am.

"The New One" plays at the Ahmanson Theatre through November 24th.