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 Thursday at 8 p.m.
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.
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 one-sixth or one-fifth 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 … 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.
You're also in the process of making a My Girlfriend's Boyfriend movie. What are 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.