"He is wearing a blue button down with a red t-shirt under," was the description I received from Mike Birbiglia's publicist. Which was nice, but probably a little unnecessary considering that (A) I had seen Birbiglia's new film, "Sleepwalk With Me," twice at this point -- so I was well aware what he looked like -- and (B) I was the only non-employee sitting inside the Chelsea restaurant in which we met. I heard a voice coming from behind me: "Are you Mike?" As it turns out, Birbiglia found me first ... without the help of a description. (Again, being the only other person in the restaurant probably gave me away -- and, yes, he was wearing a blue button down shirt with a red t-shirt under.)
As a first impression, Mike Birbiglia comes across as unassuming, yet coyly sharp. A guy who, by nature, is modest and self-deprecating, yet, knows deep down just how good he is. I wasn't familiar with his standup before seeing "Sleepwalk With Me" at Sundance in January, but when meeting Birbiglia, it's easy to to understand why he's amassed such a devoted fan base. He's the kind of guy that if he were not a known comedian and just had randomly sat down at my table as a complete stranger, I probably would have just let him stay. In other words: He seemed like a nice enough guy to hang out with. (Yes, "nice enough guy" isn't exactly the kind of scandalous language that makes good copy, but it did lead to pleasant banter.)
"Sleepwalk With Me" opened to rave reviews at Sundance, then, later, South By Southwest. The movie is based on his standup and tells the technically fictional (Birbiglia goes by the name Matt Pandamiglio in the film) but mostly autobiographical story of Birbiglia's relationships and his struggle with an often dangerous sleeping disorder. Here, Birbiglia talks about, well, everything, really. From the origins of his "A-Team" and Cookie Monster jokes, to the odd experience of being approached on the street by an admirer, to his frustrations with being an independent filmmaker. Frustrations that he takes out on the new "Total Recall" movie. (But, mostly, we just felt really guilty that we received excellent restaurant service, but we didn't order any food.)
Birbiglia: How's your coffee? [Our server answers that he drinks it every day.] What does that mean? What does that slippery language mean? I was going to get a coffee, but do you recommend something like a cappuccino? [Our server suggests a latte.] Can I get a latte with skim milk? OK, that's what I'll have. [We're left with the menus.] I don't know if he realizes that we may not eat.
I feel bad. He made an entire production. I've been guilted into ordering food before. It never works out well in the end.
I've spent years of my life being guilted into ordering food for loitering.
They told me if I wanted a Diet Coke, I needed to sit down.
I think we're OK with a latte and a Diet Coke. I think we're OK. We're good-lookin' folk -- a bunch of good lookin' fellas -- we are magnets for business.
Just two guys sharing a conversation while it's openly being recorded. Because that's normal.
[Laughs] We're clearly a billboard for women walking by. "Nerds like these and more will be dining at this restaurant."
It doesn't help that this morning I grabbed the first shirt that I saw -- and I just realized it has a hole in it. I didn't know we were going to be at a nice restaurant.
[Laughs]. Oh, man. Cut to...
I remember seeing your movie at Sundance and my biggest complaint was that it was too short.
It's only as long as the story is. That's what we found in the edit. Do you know what I mean? And I always find that with my one man shows -- my one man shows tend to be about 80 minutes long. I've heard Woody Allen, he says he thinks that directors just have an amount of time that they are comfortable working in. And it's an interesting thing that my one man shows and my movie all time out around 80 minutes.
Is it weird that in the first standup session in the film I laughed really loud at the Cookie Monster joke? In the film, you bomb with this material.
No, no. That's one of the secrets, the tricks of performance movies. I watched a lot of performance movies and the movie "Once" does it really well. In "Once," at the beginning, he's actually pretty good. He's just playing covers and then every once in a while in the off hours he plays his original music. She goes [doing a Markéta Irglová impression], "You should play original...," that's one of the worst impressions ever.
It was good.
"You should play originals all of the time." So, over the course of the film, he does. It's funny, because he's always pretty good. And then he just finds his voice. And I think this is a similar thing. The Cookie Monster joke is a joke that would solidly get laughs in comedy clubs when I would do it.
And "The A-Team."
And "The A-Team" jokes. Yeah. And the stick insects would get laughs. But it was just not who I was going to become.
To be fair, I'm a sucker for any popular culture reference. Did you watch "The A-Team"?
Yeah, when I was a kid I watched the Cookie Monster and "The A-Team."
I'm guessing not in the same time period.
[Laughing] No, right. Not, then, Cookie Monster.
"Man, Cookie Monster is over. Time to turn on 'The A-Team.'"
Also, the way I'm saying it in conversation now as though Cookie Monster has a spinoff. He's like Joey from "Friends" -- and "Cookie Monster" is the spinoff. And it never worked. They ran three episodes [laughing]... the Cookie Monster pilot was incredible, but after three episodes they just didn't know what else to do with him. What is it? Different types of cookies? Is it truffles? Is it ice cream? Where do we go with this? Does he get a throat? Does he develop a throat?
[Our server returns asking for our food orders.]
You know, we're not going to eat. I apologize. And I've been here a lot. I've eaten quite a bit here. We will tip very well on these drinks.
[The server assures us it's not a problem and that we should enjoy our stay.]
I feel like the authorities are being called right this second.
The restaurant authorities are on their way. The Better Business Bureau is in their Ford Taurus on their way here to escort us out.
So, I've now seen this movie twice. So, in my mind, you're a movie star. So when you show up in a bit role on "Girls," I get confused because I expect it to be bigger.
Yeah, "What's this guy doing on TV?"
Or more like when Tom Hanks used to appear on "Family Ties" as Uncle Ned, he had his own storyline and arc.
[Laughs] Well, Lena is just my friend. Lena is just my friend and she was really supportive of the film. And, then, honestly, I would just do anything that she would ask me to do. There are certain people I feel that way about. I feel that way about Miguel Arteta -- that's why I'm in "Cedar Rapids." He's brilliant; he was really helpful. He gave me a ton of really helpful advice.
"Youth in Revolt" is a very underrated movie.
"Youth in Revolt" is great. He is a fountain of movie directing wisdom. One thing is that's really funny is that he told me I had to read "The Total Film-Maker" by Jerry Lewis, which is out of print. Literally, it's a collection of Jerry Lewis' lectures at NYU from the late '60s and early '70s transcribed and put into a book. It's a quick read, but it's really lovely. I know he's known for his acting, but he actually created a lot of conventions of filmmaking. Like "playback" is Jerry Lewis. When they do playback on the set, that's because he was directing himself and he was like, "I want to see it." So, that's him, which is crazy.
Did you ever think you were in over your head directing this, too?
Yeah. And that's why Seth Barrish was there, who directed my one man show and I brought on to be a co-director. Which isn't a thing, it's not in the DGA. And we're not in the DGA. Like, Pixar does it, but they're not in the DGA. There's a lot of quirky rules with the DGA and one of them is there's no co-directors. There's directing teams, but you have to be inducted together. So, I'm a big fan of Pixar and I told this story there when we screened the film -- because Brad Bird saw it at Sundance and liked it and invited us to come to Pixar and show it.
Well, that's a nice invite.
Isn't that wild? It's outrageous.
Is this whole thing weird to you?
Yes! Yes! Emphatically shouting "yes"! If I could shout louder in this restaurant, I would. It's completely surreal and it's a very unrelatable thing to tell people. The only thing I would say is that it's like all of a sudden the thing that you exactly wanted to happen -- it's like that, but it's the Bizarro World version of that.
What's that mean?
In other words: Nothing that you want ever is what you think it is.
What's an example of that?
When I was starting out, all I wanted was fans who liked my comedy just the way I do it: A little different, a little more soft-spoken, a little more narrative based. Because, typically, I was performing at Comedy Night at like a Best Western, or wherever. And people would come, but be like, "This sucks." Like, "Who's this guy?" And that's what the movie depicts, in a certain way.
They want easier one liners.
Exactly. And they want harsher comedy. Like, I think meaner comedy. They want to be made fun of. Especially when I was starting out in Jersey. We did a lot of gigs in Jersey and what they want is people to be like, "You're fat! You're gay! I'm outta here!" And I don't do that. That's not my forte. So, cut to, here we are ten years later and I literally have that. I have fans now and they come out to the shows on purpose, which was always my goal. And the thing that's funny is people will come up to me on the street and will be like, "Hey! You're Mike Birbiglia! I can't believe you're here!" And I'm fully appreciative that that happens, but the thing that I never expected was that when that happens, it will be a thoroughly disappointing experience for both of us. Because I'm not entertaining off stage. They think I am the person I am in my movies or in my plays for that 80 minute span of time -- where I'm at my best in the world in my life.
You can't be "on" all of the time.
I'm certainly friendly. And, like, "Thanks so much. I really appreciate it." But I'm not like, "Let me tell you this joke about Cookie Monster."
"Can I tell you about 'The A-Team'?"
[Laughing] Yeah, "Remember 'The A-Team'?" I'm literally spitting out cultural references and like striking up a conversation about, "Let me tell you about my ex-girlfriend. Here's what happened."
"Do you have some time? I have some stories for you. We can go into that pub."
"Just give me 40 minutes of your time. I'll tell you a really sad story that has funny beats."
When was the first time you were recognized by name?
It was pretty much when I became a headliner. The first club that I headlined was... oh, man, I'm going to fuck this up. I want to say it was Joker's Comedy Club in Dayton, Ohio. I think that was the first time people could see the full hour of what I'm doing. And they can see like, "Oh, the fact he's talking kind of slow and deliberately and that he has a bunch of stories, it's not a mistake." Before, if I were opening for someone, it would be 10 or 20 minutes and it would be, "Oh, this guy is not good." When it's an hour, people go, "This is on purpose. He meant to do this."
I've heard people say it's hard for them to tell if something is good or not when they are so close to it. When you finally finished this movie, were you thinking, people are going to love this?
No. Every stage, [co-writer and producer] Ira [Glass] will look at me -- at least 20 times in the course of a couple of weeks -- and go, "What's going to happen?" He said it again this week 10 or 20 times. Ever since the festivals I know that people will like it. And I know that some critics will like it -- and, so far, a lot. The question is "Will it reach enough people?" Like the Joss Whedon videos that come in. I don't know if you saw us showing what it would take for our movie to make $1.5 billion on 125 screens. Like, it's a joke ... but it's also not a joke. It sheds light in a certain way on what an uphill battle it is for independent film. It's not like independent films are superior to studio films, not by a long shot ... I love a good studio film. But I think independent filmmakers get frustrated when there's so much crap from studios, also. It's like, "You're not just on one screen. You're on four!" It's like if somebody showed up here at the booth with us and they're like, "I'm going to put my bag over here; I'm going to put my hat right here where someone could sit; then I'm going to put my dog, Harry, right there."
"But if you want to pull up a stool...'
Yeah! "If you want to pull up a stool," exactly. I think that's what it feels like for a lot of independent filmmakers.
But then "Total Recall" is playing on multiple screens.
I made a joke about it on Twitter, so you don't have to feel bad trashing it. That's the only movie I'm comfortable trashing. I didn't see it, but I like the first one. I did a Tweet two weeks ago that said, "Nobody asked, and Hollywood answered. 'Total Recall,' the remake."
But that's a good example.
Four screens. I know.
And all you want is one.
And we won't get it. [We're told it's time to wrap things up.] I'd keep in all of the restaurant stuff. Because I think that's the money right there.
You're doing a lot of interviews, but I have the scoop on the restaurant banter.
Yeah! You get the restaurant scoop -- of us not ordering anything. Like they totally spent like hundreds of thousands of dollars on the wall hangings and those fancy bottles of whatever that is ... and we're just sitting here spending four dollars. And recording an interview. Watch this though! This is for your article. "This is for your little article," that's like what your parents would say.
My mom lives in 1992 and still doesn't have the Internet. She has no idea what I do for a living. So, sadly, she wouldn't say that.
I was going to throw down $20, but I don't have one. So I'm going to throw down $10. So that's a nice ending to the article, right? "Then Mike threw down ten singles, like the biggest man in the room."
It is. And I have six dollars.
Oh, that's a fortune. Though, we should give it to him in advance so we erase some of the dirty looks.
Mike Ryan is senior entertainment writer for The Huffington Post. You can contact him directly on Twitter.
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