As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.
Mike Birbiglia's stand-up career began as a server at a comedy club when he was in college. His part-time, minimum-wage job wasn't very glamorous.
"I would clean up and sell tickets at the door and run quesadillas and chicken fingers to tables," he says.
When comedians were late or didn't show up to perform, Birbiglia's manager sent him on stage to fill time.
"I would say, 'Hey, I'm Mike Birbiglia. You might recognize me from the door. I might have seated you, I might have brought you a cocktail. That was me, and here I am. So your expectations must be very low at this point,' " he says. "I was always performing by the seat of my pants."
After Birbiglia graduated college, he quit his job and took his show on the road.
"I drove my mom's station wagon around the country," he says. "I bought my mom's car. I paid $2,000 for a car with 80,000 miles on it."
He performed small venues around Ohio, West Virginia and Michigan, working his way up to gigs in New York.
In 2002, at 24 years old, Birbiglia was booked on the Late Show with David Letterman. His brother Joe was with him backstage when a producer asked if he wanted cue cards.
"I was like, 'No, I think it'll be OK,' " Birbiglia says. "And my brother Joe goes, 'Yeah, he wants that.' "
"And then I found myself on stage, and I say my first joke and it goes pretty well. And then my mind goes completely blank," he says. "Completely blank. I have no idea what I'm going to say next."
He looked over and saw the cue cards with a bullet point to his next joke, about hippos. His set was saved. His parents were watching from home.
"My parents really didn't want me to be a comedian and they thought I was going to be a complete failure," Birbiglia says. "When they saw me on the Letterman show, I think they thought, 'Oh, I guess other people think he's OK at this.' "
Birbiglia says knowing his parents accepted his career choice was his biggest break.
"In some ways, it was like a doctor's note to my parents saying, 'It's OK if Mike continues to be a comedian.' "
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we're collecting stories of people making great leaps forward in their careers. We call it My Big Break. For comedian Mike Birbiglia, his standup career began at a comedy club when he was in college, except his job wasn't onstage.
MIKE BIRBIGLIA: I would clean up and sell tickets at the door and run quesadillas to tables and chicken fingers. And sometimes the comedian wouldn't show up, like, the opening act wouldn't show up, and they would have me go up. And so I would say to people, hey, I'm Mike Birbiglia. You might recognize me from the door.
I might have seated you. I might have put you in your seats. I might have brought you a cocktail. That was me, and here I am, so your expectations must be very low at this point for how this is going to go. And mine are, too, you know? And it's always - like, I was always performing sort of by the seat of my pants.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIRBIGLIA: I tried to perform at the comedy clubs, but they didn't want me because I wasn't that good yet. And so I drove my mom's station wagon around the country. I - incidentally, I bought my mom's car. I've recently found out that sometimes when people's parents have faith in their child's dreams, they'll just give them the car. But my mom Blue Booked me on the car. I paid $2,000 for a car with 80,000 miles on it.
And I remember just driving around to comedy clubs in Ohio, in West Virginia, in Michigan and just all over the place until I sort of got better. And then I eventually was able to perform at clubs in New York. And people always ask me about what was my big break. I think that the most gratifying thing for me was when I was on "The Letterman Show."
I was booked on "The Letterman Show" when I was 24 years old. My brother Joe was there. And I remember we got on the elevators, me and Joe and this producer, and the producer goes, do you want us to make a cue card that says the bullet points of your jokes? And I was like, no, I think it'll be OK. And my brother Joe goes, yeah, he wants that.
BIRBIGLIA: And then I found myself onstage on the show and I say my first joke, and it goes pretty well. And then my mind goes completely blank, completely blank. I have no idea what I'm going to say next. And I look over, and there's a cue card and it says, marblevores, which is the name of my next joke. And I said, the thing about hippos...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")
BIRBIGLIA: I didn't even know hippos ate humans. I just thought they ate those little white marbles.
(LAUGHTER) I thought that was the point of hungry, hungry hippo, that hippos are marblevores.
My parents really didn't want me to be a comedian, and they thought I was going to be a complete failure. And when they saw me on "The Letterman Show," I think they thought, oh, I guess other people think he's OK at this. I honestly think that for a lot of people that is one's big break in life when you can, in one lucid moment, explain to your parents what the heck it is you're doing and have them sort of nod in understanding just slightly enough that you feel a moment of gratification.
And then it's gone, and then they're like, what is it that you do? You know, and then they're back to the not understanding at all. But I think in some ways, it's sort of like a doctor's note to my parents saying, you know, it's OK if Mike continues to be a comedian.
RATH: That's Mike Birbiglia. He's on his 100-city tour called Thank God for Jokes. He'll be in Atlanta and Charleston next week. We want to hear about your big break. Send an email with your story to mybigbreak - all one word - @npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.