Mike Birbiglia talks 'My Girlfriend's Boyfriend,' 'Sleepwalk with Me,' mixing humor with pathos and more
When Mike Birbiglia answers the phone, he's worried about an upcoming root canal the next day.
"Have you ever had one?" he asks. "I don't know what to expect."
Yet the comedian is no stranger to painful stories. His one-man show Sleepwalk with Me dealt with bladder cancer, a breakup and a series of increasingly serious sleepwalking episodes — culminating with him jumping out of the second-story window of a La Quinta Inn. Last year, he directed, wrote and starred in a film adaptation.
He's also been performing his new show My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, which recounts the romantic mishaps leading up to his marriage, an institution he had serious doubts about. One of the tour's last stops is a Straz Center show next Thursday at 8 p.m. (click here for details).
In an interview, Birbiglia talks about the show, the Sleepwalk with Me and upcoming My Girlfriend's Boyfriend movies and the power of pain in comedy. Here are excerpts.
When did you first come up with the idea for My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and think it might be an interesting idea for another one-man show?
I always wanted to write a one-man romantic comedy. And Sleepwalk with Me was actually oddly intended to be that way initially, and then it ended up kind of centering around a breakup and sleepwalking issues. This one is basically about how I decided to get married despite not really believing in the idea of marriage. It’s sort of this cynical but optimistic take on marriage and romance. I just thought it was something that I haven’t seen people do, and it’s something I’d want to see.
When you’re writing material for your one-man shows, how you differentiate it from your stand-up, which is already based on personal long stories?
What it comes down to is a lot of the stuff I develop as stand-up. So in other words, I’ll develop the pieces in comedy clubs. Then I’ll start to piece some stories together and then show my director Seth Barrish what I’ve been working on. Then he’ll sort of say, ‘Well, what if we tried it where you told this story here and told this story here, and then maybe cut off part of this story, maybe added connective tissue here.” Basically the goal with the one-man show is not that it’s less funny than stand-up comedy. I feel like that’s sort of the stereotype about one-man shows, is that they’re not as funny as stand-up. I’d like to think the show’s just as funny as anything I would ever do in stand-up, but that in addition to being funny, it’s telling a single story. That’s the process: How do you take a whole bunch of funny stories and turn them into a single story that builds so that at the end of the show, it’s a crescendo of all these stories and it doesn’t feel like a series of disjointed thoughts?
Your shows are definitely funny, but there’s also a lot of pathos in them as well. Can you talk about the use of that in your comedy?
What I would try to do is find in the stories I’m going to tell, I try to dig into the more painful things that have happened in my life. There’s a story on the Sleepwalk with Me CD where I talk about having a tumor in my bladder. It was probably one of the most traumatic things that happened in my life, but I thought, ‘If I can make this funny, then it’ll really pay off.’ And I always find that to be true, that if you take something that’s inherently unfunny and make it funny, then you’re really tapping into something special. You’re basically giving the audience that has maybe that difficult experience or an analogous difficult experience permission to laugh about their own experience. I feel like you want people to feel something or some catharsis from seeing a comedy show. Certainly that’s the way I feel when I watch a Bill Cosby or Richard Pryor special — “This person is opening up about the thing I never would’ve thought to open up about.”
Sleepwalk with Me started off as a one-man show, then a book, then a movie. What was the process of adapting it and making it three unique works?
It’s funny because it started off as a show, then I was asked to write a book around that time and I thought, ‘Well, it seems logical to have (the same name.)” And the book, very little of it is the sleepwalking story — it’s probably 1/6th or 1/5th of it — the majority of the book is different stories separate from the show. Each form, you try to make different. I feel like if I could go back in time, I wish they all didn’t have the same title because in some ways, they are so different from each other. That’s sort of how it just went down — there were various things in development and all of the projects came together at different times with different people in charge. But I’m actually very proud of all the components of the Sleepwalk with Me franchise. Ira Glass always makes the joke that we’re working on the Sleepwalk with Me artisanal cheese plate, that’s the next item. But I think this is it for Sleepwalk with Me.
The movie is also more about stand-up than the other Sleepwalk with Me pieces.
That is very true. Yeah, the movie ended up being very much about stand-up and being a comedian, being an artist, opening up about your life. It’s very much about this character’s journey, and it’s funny because that's not really how we went into it but that’s sort of what it evolved into. Sometimes projects have a way of evolving into what they are along the way.
You’re also in the process of making a My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend movie. What’re you envisioning for that?
Yeah, we’re working on that right now. It’s similarly a sort of romantic comedy that has a very realistic feel, has the true real struggle of modern relationships. We’re kind of in this moment in time where marriage is very different from what it used to be. People used to get married because otherwise they couldn’t live together, because their parents wouldn’t let them. Sometimes people would get married so they could move out of their parents’ house.
We’re just in a very different period where people are questioning why people even do get married at all. I say in my show that sometimes it feels like marriage is just an archaic institution invented in the Middle Ages based on exchanging property. Why would I want to be a part of that? I have a lot of people who come to my shows who are asking the same question and are like, ‘Oh, that’s how that I feel.’ I feel like haven’t seen that in a lot of romantic comedies, so I’m trying to ‘go there,’ as it were.
Is there anything else you’re working on beyond the My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend tour and movie?
I have a bunch of things in the works. I’m writing a new live show under the radar and I continue to make changes on this show. As I’m writing the movie, I’m having these moments of ‘Oh, I could put that scene in the show!’ and it has an interconnectedness that’s kind of nice. So yeah, I’m writing a new show, I’m writing this movie, I’m attached to a few other projects, but I’m also trying to keep it all in perspective about how much has happened in the last year. It’s been a very strange but exciting year. With My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, I went to like 51 American cities, I did a week in London, I did a week in Chicago. Then I toured the movie in 10 or 20 cities, so I’m a little bit spinning from it all and just trying to focus on these final six or seven shows of My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. But what’s cool about the tour is these final 10 or 15 shows, by far, they’re the best shows on the entire tour. Of all the hundreds and hundreds of performances I’ve done of this show, these are the best by far. They’re the most interesting, they’re the most developed, the characters are the most real and I have to say, I’m the most in it that I’ve ever been. So if people are on the fence about coming, they should come because it’s a good time to see it — probably the best time.
-- Jimmy Geurts, tbt*