Those who live in the Washington area can rightly claim Mike Birbiglia as their own. He was inspired to take up stand-up comedy while studying screenwriting at Georgetown University. He has risen to the top of his career, selling out shows all over the globe, and releasing numerous successful recordings.
Now, the feature film adaptation of his critically-acclaimed one-man show, Sleepwalk With Me, which won this year's Best of Next award at Sundance Film Festival, is coming to a limited number of big screens near us.
The movie is the true story of how Birbiglia discovers he has rapid eye movement behavior disorder—a serious and rare type of sleepwalking—how he deals with it, his romantic relationship of eight years, and the challenges of building a stand-up comedy career. Ira Glass produces the film.
Cinema Siren sat down with Mike and talked about how he has built his career, Sleepwalk With Me, why doing stand-up never stops being terrifying and what he has planned next:
CS: I've seen you at the Warner Theatre, and my favorite bit ever is "Cracker, please!"
MB: Yeah, I started here, and I wrote that bit because I was working the door at the Washington, D.C. Improv, and I would open for black comics and I would open for white comics. Whenever I opened for black comics they would do the "n-word" jokes, and so I started doing that joke… and black audiences like it much more than white audiences, because white audiences get tense sometimes. If it's all white, people start looking around.
CS: Do you do tours outside the United States?
MB: I just did actually, that's a very timely question. I was in London — I made my London premiere in May with my one-man show My Girlfriend's Boyfriend. It was in the Soho Theatre in the West End, and it went great. Played for two weeks, sold out all the shows. It was cool, like Boy George showed up!
CS: They all know you—they know you there!
MB: It was a small venue though, 200 seats. Still, 14 shows…
CS: A far cry from being the opening and being the doorman!
MB: Being the doorman and bringing chicken quesadillas to the table. Then I played Sydney Australia for the Sydney Arts Festival last January. And then I played Canada—I was at the Jazz Fest in Montreal.
CS: How did you go from doing what you're doing to being the director of Sleepwalk With Me?
MB: Well, when I was in college, I was a screenwriting major. I went to Georgetown. Believe it or not I was in class with Jonathan Nolan, who co-wrote The Dark Knight. It was so funny, I really didn't—he's such a talented writer and always was [a] nice guy. But I totally didn't get what his future would be. [He] would write these action sequences and everyone would read their work in class and his would have guns and bags of money and helicopters and I was thinking, "This guy just doesn't get it… like WHO is going to budget these movies?" I was thinking he should make a small film, a small heartfelt film…(laughs) we just all project our own things on each other!
So I was in school here and I directed some short films in college and then I discovered that I couldn't afford to do that. That wasn't a job. It was the opposite of a job because I was spending all kinds of money and not making any, so I was thinking I have to do something and I really feel passionate about writing and writing comedy so I started working the door at DC improv. Then I won a contest at Georgetown: Funniest Person on Campus.
The reason I followed the path of stand-up was I don't come from money, I don't come from entertainment, and so I needed to do something that essentially had no overhead. And stand-up is the ultimate example that I know of with no overhead. You literally don't need an overhead. You can do it in the street. …And so I did that and moved to New York, and when I couldn't get work I would just travel around the country in my mom's station wagon. And cut to: That went well. That went really well! I ended up in the Warner Theatre!
CS: How long did it take you from the time you started to when you started taking off?
MB: Well I was on the road from 2000 to 2006. Two thousand six was my first record, Two Drink Mike, which had "Cracker, Please!" on it. [My] second record was My Secret Public Journal Live, and then I did Sleepwalk With Me. So, in this weird sort of way I started out as a dramatic comedy writer, I did stand up because it was a venue that I could afford, and then when that went well, I was able to loop back to one man shows, which have a narrative, but you can still do it on the cheap—which my professor at Georgetown, John Glavin, recommended to me.
I actually called him and was asking for advice: “I want to make movies,” and he said, "You know you should consider doing a one-man play." That's what Chazz Palminteri did and it's a very successful model for people who want to do things that are big but can only afford small. So I did that, and that went well and I became known for that and then along when Sleepwalk With Me was onstage, and Nathan Lane had presented me off Broadway, a lot of people started saying this should be a movie—which is a classic off-Broadway thing. If something goes well they say it should be in a different format! Forget this format, you need to be in the majors! I said that would be great because I always wanted to make a film.
Sleepwalking is very visual action. It's very unusual. You never see it in movies, never see sleepwalking other than the cartoonish walking with the two hands in front of you. …It's crazy directing a film for the first time because you don't really know how to do it. You have the building blocks, you know a lot of things, you know what you like, but it's a little bit like going out on a field trip in seventh grade, and saying, "I'm going to drive the bus." What? "Well, I've been watching the bus driver"—(laughs)—and of course it's much harder but I want to do it again. The moment I wrapped, I said I want to go shoot the next one.
CS: How much did you have to do yourself and how much help did you have on this movie, since it was your first?
MB: I think that it was entirely a collaborative effort, there are so many people—at least 15 without whom the movie wouldn't be what it is. In some ways, when you see a film like ours that's a smaller film and it's good, it's a miracle. There are so many things going against it, the idea that it could be good is actually kind of preposterous.
CS: And yet, the movie won the "Best of Next Audience Award" at Sundance!
MB: Our cinematographer [Adam Beckman] was extraordinary. He shot the This American Life TV series. Our editor Geoffrey Richman had edited The Cove, which is a brilliant doc, Murderball, and also Michael Moore's Sicko, and he was just a fan of This American Life and my comedy, and I think because of my comedy career I was able to leverage it into hiring some people who wouldn't have done a movie of this size and scale. …And the same goes for the actors, Carol Kane, Lauren Ambrose. Carol Kane I had wanted to work with for like 10 years.
CS: Is she anything like your mom?
MB: She really channels aspects of my mom in ways that are scary! It's funny because she also is doing her own thing. She is so creative and unique that she can't help but be something you could never predict. She's really great. Carol has the most improvised lines in the movie.
CS: What inspires you? Do you have comedians that are your favorites or is it writers or both?
MB: It's both. Woody Allen was obviously a big influence. Annie Hall will always be one of my favorites. In terms of comedians, I think Doug Stanhope is excellent. Also, there is a great storytelling comedian in Britain named Daniel Kitson.
CS: And from the time you were little you were writing? What kinds of books were you inspired by? What kind of stories were you writing?
MB: That's funny. I was always reading the Roald Dahl books. It was always—I was obsessively reading those. That's an interesting question. I've never been asked that. What I was interested in as a kid?…it's such an influential period. I actually read like crazy. …Poetry books! Children's poetry books. It's possible that that's what influenced my short form joke writing. Because as a kid I was mimicking those books by writing—like Light in the Attic, and Shel Silverstein's books. I read all of his books. And I would mimic those in my own personal experience. I would mimic those poems except it would be about … my Thanksgiving experience with my family, or it would be about soccer practice.
CS: I think stand-up comedy is the most terrifying thing imaginable. Do you not have that fear?
MB: No! It is always terrifying! …It's completely nerve wracking. After years and years and years there's a certain amount of knowing it will be fine, but also there's a certain degree of knowing the judgment is out there waiting for me.
CS: Do you still get hecklers?
MB: They don't really come anymore, because they'd have to get a ticket in advance (laughs). You get hecklers more at the beginning of your career when they are papering the room, giving away tickets at the local hotels and that kind of thing, and they wander in and they are drinking and there's someone talking onstage. They're just trying to stop that person talking. I find that actually less than hecklers, I more often get people who are so tricked into thinking we're having a conversation, because my tone is so conversational that they just start responding.
CS: So the fear is different than it was early on?
CS: What is it now?
MB: I'm touring the world with My Girlfriend's Boyfriend which is my one-man show from off Broadway a year ago. This year I'm finishing a tour of 60 cities. And in my off time I'm doing stand-up, where I just do all new material, all new stories. Whenever a comedian is doing new material it's scary, because you're putting out there stuff you're saying, preemptively or at least implying that's its funny, because you're on a comedy stage. If it's not funny, you have failed.
CS: How often do you change the style of what you're talking about?
MB: The style is completely dictated by the content, which is to say that the only thing that I'm doing stylistically is I'm just trying to convey what's in my mind. And if I'm not getting that across I can try something more physical, or try making the wording more specific, or try making it looser or more regimented or written… but I don't change the style because that's dictated by what I'm telling.
CS: Why is it do you think that comedians always do more than just comedy?
MB: Right! There's only a few who eke out a living by doing stand-up alone. Like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, but even him, he became a really big actor. And some write for other people.
I think the reason they do more—I think it's the life. The life of stand-up is hard. You have to be a traveling salesman, because you can only do—it takes years, 3 years or 4 years, to develop an hour of material. You can't do that in the same city forever. You have to go elsewhere, and that breaks up families, it breaks up marriages… it's not a good-for-the-life business.
CS: What's your next venture?
MB: I'm working on an adaptation of the show My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, which is the show I'm touring with. It's looking really good. I wrote a draft this summer. I'm hoping to be able to shoot that in 2013.
CS: Will you continue to work with Ira Glass?
MB: I hope so! I feel like whenever I work with Ira, I'm a better writer. I learn more, I challenge myself more. Ira is definitely the king of never saying something's good enough, and that's what makes the show This American Life so good every week. Up until the very last minute, he's changing things and making it better.
CS: Doing what you do, how does it affect your self esteem, how do you keep it intact to be talking about such personal things and depending on the audience to go with you on it—to be that traveling salesman, how do you keep yourself together?
MB: Part of it is my relationship with my wife, she's very supportive, and my family. I'm very close with my family. They keep me grounded in both directions, if I'm too up they bring me down, if I'm too down they bring me up …I think at a certain point when you've done live performance for 14 years, there's some part of you saying, "Well, this isn't me, this is just stuff that I wrote. And if you don't like it, it's just the stuff I wrote, it's not me." But there's also a huge part of you that knows that it's you.
CS: How do you keep them separate?
MB: I think it's I haven't kept it separate, that's the answer. (laughs)
CS: Although you do seem to be a happy joyful person. That's what attracts your fans, I think. Even when you're self deprecating, it always seems like things are never that bad…
MB: Yeah, but it's a struggle to get there … and the struggle is not witnessed onstage.
CS: Right! That's what art is!
MB: Exactly. So I would say like be glad that what you're witnessing is the 90 minutes of me onstage or in the movie, and you're not witnessing the sausage factory behind the making of the comedy part. Because there's pain behind the comedy. (laughs)
CS: That's the way it's born?
MB: Yeah, I think that's what comedians are. You feel the pain, even once you talk to comedians enough you realize comedians are people who observe sadness in a very elegant way, and that's why we're drawn to comedians is that's what we wish we could all do all the time. It's an illusion—we are doing it for an hour or an hour and a half—that we're doing it all the time but we're not. No one is, no one can.
CS: You're putting it into words and then being fearless for everybody. I feel like that's what you guys do, you're fearless for me.
MB: I think that's a great way of putting it—we're fearless on behalf of the audience.
CS: Well, thanks for that, and for the interview! Good luck with the movie release.
MB: Thank you.
Sleepwalk With Me opens at Landmark E Street Theater on Friday, Aug. 31.