On August 14th, comedian and storyteller Mike Birbiglia embarked on his third nationwide stand-up tour, "Comedy Central Live Starring Mike Birbiglia: I'm in the Future Also." Birbiglia isn't quite old enough not to be in the future, but, despite his young age, he's been on the comedy scene for nearly a decade. At 24, he became one of the youngest comics to perform on The Late Show with David Letterman. Since then, he's released three albums (Dog Years, Two Drink Mike, and My Secret Public Journal Live - the latter an album of comedic anecdotes pulled from his popular road blog/e-newsletter of the same name) and starred in a one-man, off Broadway show produced by Nathan Lane, called Sleepwalk with Me. The show, which closed last month and was nominated for multiple awards, tells the story of his struggle to come to terms with an unusual sleepwalking disorder - one that now forces the comedian to sleep in mittens and a sleeping bag. Today, the comic is finishing a move into a new apartment, working on book and film adaptations of Sleepwalk, and logging some fuel-efficient time on the road. I managed to catch him in some rare down time, in which we discussed a little stand-up vs. theater, Smirnoff Ice, awkwardness, and string theory.
Me: Mike, you just finished performing Sleepwalk With Me, in which you pulled off almost 200 performances in an 8 month time frame, are you okay?
Mike: Just give me 200! But, it was actually 198... At a certain point, in the final weeks of the Sleepwalk, Eli -- my producer - said, we should add two more shows, so that we could reach the 200 performance mark. My response was, no, no, no, we should just lie. I mean, is there an official counter?
Me: Maybe Nathan Lane, but I'm not sure. If you'd reached 200, you might have been given a parade...
Mike: We didn't get any calls from the Ripley's or Guinness people, unfortunately...
Me: Now that it's over, what's it like looking back?
Mike: Well it's funny, I was so disoriented by the experience, in the last weeks of the show, I was like, wow, we did 6 months, and then a couple of weeks after it ended, I realized, wait, we did 8 months. I didn't even know how many months we had done...
Me: So does that mean it flew by or was just a grueling process?
Mike: Both. It was a completely transformative experience. It was like a high-octane graduate program in acting, writing, and publicity. It was my first professional theater experience in New York, where everyone is waiting to hate you -- as soon as you arrive. And they didn't, which was great. So that was nerve racking. The acting aspect was educational, because I had to find something new about the show every night, but without the ability to improvise, really. If you saw the show more than once, the performances were all different, but the words actually stayed the same. My director, Seth Barrish, and I had developed the precision of the words so that the show built towards this crescendo of the sleepwalking story.
Me: How was the experience of writing and performing this different from your experience in stand-up?
Mike: Well, I workshopped a lot of the material in the stand-up arena, at concert halls and colleges, over the course of the last five years, but there were certain things that I couldn't workshop, like the parts of the play where I'm definitively in the wrong. For example, there are parts where I talk about cheating on my girlfriend, and if you did those kind of bits in a comedy club ... well there's a certain tenor of a comedy club and it can go one of two ways: either the audience goes, we hate you, we don't like you at all, because up until now we liked you, but now you've done something that we hate, or it can go the other way, where they think you're one of these shock comedians that does all kinds of crazy shit and then brags about it. That stuff I really had to workshop in the theater environment. The theater audiences are open to the protagonist being flawed and making mistakes and seeing the show through. Stand-up comedy audiences are like, he did, what? There's definitely this baggage that went into comedy club performances where the people came to see me and knew me in a certain way, as opposed to the New York theater audience who just didn't know me, and so the majority of the audience that came out was a combination of theatergoers and This American Life listeners.
Me: You've said before that Sleepwalk is essentially about denial, can I ask, are you in denial?
Mike: The show revolves around this bout that I have with sleepwalking - that's spanned 10 years. For most of those 10 years, I knew there was a problem. For example, I'd wake up from having a dream that I was in the Olympics up on the podium, third place, for an event like dust bustering, and I'd wake up and be falling off the top of my 5 foot book case in my living room. It got dangerous. And I'd think, maybe I should see a doctor, and then I'd think, well, maybe I should eat dinner...So this went on for years, and then I had this incident that I talk about in the show that nearly killed me (Mike, while sleepwalking/dreaming, dove out of a second story window at La Quinta Inn to save his platoon from an incoming missile), so finally I saw a doctor. It parallels some other things in my life, like this relationship I was in for a long time -- a girl I was in love with from college -- I knew I didn't want to get married, and I knew she wanted to get married, but I didn't say no. And then we got engaged, I thought maybe I should break up with her, and then I was like, well, maybe I should eat dinner...so there's definitely this pattern in my life of being in denial of things that are right in front of me.
(Mike is shuffling around.) Sorry, it's one of these rare things, I'm going to the premiere of Paper Heart tonight. (A new film starring Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera.)
Me: So you're not making many appearances at premieres these days?
Mike: No, definitely not. I think I went to one last year. There was a red carpet, which they wanted me to go on, but the thing about me and red carpets is that, even when I went to the Drama Desk Awards and was nominated, even when I was there and there was a red carpet, I had to tap someone on the shoulder, in this herd of photographers, I had to be like, (whispers) I'm one of the people in the thing...I have to herd paparazzi, they don't chase me, I chase them. I have to redirect their cameras toward me.
Me: Have you considered lighting off fireworks to get attention?
Mike: I think I need to develop an entourage.
Me: You don't seem to be much of a publicity junky...
Mike: During the process of Sleepwalk, there was a real disconnect between me and the publicist for the show. He didn't get that what I do is inherently soft-spoken. I try not to get in people's faces -- that's kind of my thing -- I do this because it's what I like in comedy. I like Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg, comedians who don't force comedy down your throat. Some people have been known to force comedy down the throats of audiences. Not me. My publicist is like 'you gotta be more aggressive, you gotta get in there.' It's not what I do. He also kept correcting me, because I didn't dress right. He was like, 'you need to dress up.' No, that's my whole thing is that I don't like to dress up, it doesn't make me comfortable. And so he changed it to, 'try to look nice.' He gave up on the idea of look nice, and then it was try to look nice. So there was always one shirt that I would wear that he was okay with, and he'd go, 'wear that one shirt.' That was my instruction. I did a series of interviews with that shirt.
Me: Have you since retired the shirt?
Mike: I haven't seen it, so that usually means its retired; that's usually how it works.
Me: I can imagine your publicist saying, 'uh, look, Mike, I don't know how to say this, but we had to put your shirt down...'
Mike: Yeah, I'm pretty sure that they covertly took that shirt out of my collection.
Me: You seem to be aware of staying true to yourself in your comedy, but comedians inherently develop a persona, a stage personality, and so it seems that it might be challenging to resolve the two, do you ever worry about becoming a caricature of Mike Birbiglia?
Mike: I have that in mind right now a lot. I'm writing a book right now for Simon and Schuster called "Sleepwalk With Me and Other Stories," which was exciting at first, until I realized that I have to write the other stories. I am writing all these personal stories, and I've been realizing that, when you're forced to write 80,000 words about yourself, you're forced to delve into different dimensions of your self. It's been very educational, going back and studying other parts of my life. To give you an example, I sometimes portray myself as a slacker, which is very true, but when I go back and look at my high school teacher comments on report cards, you see that there are recurring patterns. My teachers tended to say, 'Mike was really good out of the gate, at the beginning of the semester, but then kind of fell off. He got distracted and went in other directions.' It's a little more complicated then just 'Mike is constantly distracted.' In this example, it begins with Mike is focused and interested and then is like now Mike is distracted, it's a little more dimensional then just Mike is always distracted.
Me: Were you diagnosed with ADD as a kid?
Mike: I was not diagnosed, but I bet I would have been if I'd seen someone, because, you know, I'm not good at reading books. I do this bit on stage where I'm reading Peter Rabbit in school with other kids, and I start reading the book, but then begin thinking about this and this and this, and while I was thinking about all that...the other kids finished the book...
Me: I can relate, I frequently start reading something, don't intentionally lose interest, but naturally begin thinking about mufflers or why Kraft singles are individually wrapped and then realize I've read the same paragraph eight times.
Mike: I know, it's disheartening.
Me: You started your nationwide tour August 14 in Newport, Rhode Island at the Newport Yachting Tent...um, were you playing a boat show?
Mike: No, but I did set sail from the South Street Seaport in my yacht and took it to Newport. But that's the only part of the tour I did on a yacht.
Me: What was it like preparing for the tour?
Mike: Well, I was doing long shows, 80 or 90 minutes to prepare. It was tiring and why I always do one show at a time. But my agent has pointed out that I should be doing two shows, because, you know, they pay twice as much. And pay him twice as much. But what I'd prefer to do is, as they say in ice hockey, I'd prefer to 'leave it all out on the ice.' Just go out there and give it everything. And then go to sleep.
Me: Speaking of ice, I see that your tour is being sponsored by Smirnoff Ice...
Mike: Oh my God, yeah it is. That's my analogy now. It's complete.
Me: I'm thinking you could say on stage, "I'm leaving it all out on the ice," and then hold up a Smirnoff and wink...
Mike: "I'm leaving it all out on the Smirnoff Ice!"
Me: So what's next for Mike Birbiglia, besides the small tasks of touring and writing a book?
Mike: I'm working on the book and concurrently on a screenplay -- an adaptation of Sleepwalk, which I'm really excited about. Hopefully we'll begin shooting this year. It's not officially announced yet, but I think I can say I'm working on a screenplay of it. I can't say what company...
Me: Do you have someone in mind to play Mike Birbiglia?
Mike: Hmmm, maybe Justin Long... No, I'll be playing myself.
Me: So, you're working on a book that revolves around sleepwalking, a screenplay about sleepwalking, you just finished a play ... I'm seeing a pattern, are you worried about keeping it fresh?
Mike: I was talking to my wife the other day about this. I said, honey, we're going to spend another 2 ½ years on this, and then we'll move on. (Laughs.) My wife is a big part of the process, I talk through everything with her. And she seems okay with it, so...
Me: I imagine you telling her that you will be working on the sleepwalk theme for another two years, she agrees, and then the two of you high five with mittens on...
Mike: That's right. We actually just moved into a new place in New York, so that's another one of the things I've been doing, a lot of moving. So we'll cover sleepwalking for another couple of years, and I think the next show will come along, The Accidental Marriage, and then I will hopefully develop that as a film as well, I mean that's what I want to do, I want to make movies. I did a pilot for CBS last year, and it didn't get picked up, but I think it's probably for the best, because I came away thinking that what I really want to do is make movies. It was fun, but it wasn't precisely what I want to do.
Me: When did you know you wanted to be a comedian?
Mike: I saw Stephen Wright live at the Cape Cod Melody Tent in Hyannis, MA, which is the second stop on my tour, and I saw him and knew right then that that's what I wanted to do. I knew at age 16 that I wanted to be in comedy, but didn't gather the nerve to do it until I was 19. I loved it immediately. I won the funniest person on campus at Georgetown. Nick Kroll was in it, too, he's a very funny guy and a friend. I won the contest and that started me doing stand-up full time. But I was studying under this professor at Georgetown, who taught in the screenwriting program I was in, and it was there that I really developed this obsession with stand-up and film. I fell in love with all the Woody Allen films. I was like, I'd like to do that, that's where it's at. Making dramatic films that use comedy as a lubricant to tell the dramatic story -- that's what I admire about Woody Allen, James Brooks, Mike White -- people who tell great stories and use comedy not as an end in itself, but just as a tool for telling the story. Sleepwalk was my first stab at that, and hopefully I'll be able to take more stabs.
Me: Do you think it's possible to make it in comedy today without being part of the Judd Apatow machine?
Mike: God, I hope so.
Me: I've heard comedy writers say that when comedy becomes your profession, it can change the dynamic -- sometimes for the worse -- do you ever wrestle with not feeling funny?
Mike: When I go home, yeah. When I go to visit friends from childhood, my hometown, definitely, because I wasn't perceived as a comedian in any way growing up. I remember getting an email from someone one of the first times I was on TV, this kid goes, 'you are a comedian? You are one of the least funny people I grew up with...' That really builds the confidence. I think it's hard for people who know you so well to see you in that context. I don't know, it's almost like in the universe of my childhood, my idiosyncrasies fit into the dynamic of the people around me, there was nothing unusual. People who I grew up with were like, 'okay, I guess that's what Mike is like.' But then you go into the world, and you're a fish out of water. It's not Mike-from-Shrewsbury anymore, it's Mike-in-the-world. And then all of a sudden, the things that were small idiosyncrasies become big idiosyncrasies, and that's where a lot of my comedy comes from...
Me: Do you ever feel pressure to be "the funny guy" off stage?
Mike: I let that go years ago. Whenever people say, 'wait, how come you're not funny?' Or something like that, I'm always like, 'if I said to you casually the stuff that I say on stage, it would get really uncomfortable, and then you or I would end up leaving the conversation.' What's that worth? Why don't we just have a regular conversation? (Laughs)
Me: You touch on awkwardness frequently in your comedy, and it seems you find yourself in awkward scenarios frequently, any recently?
Mike: Well, My Secret Public Journal was devoted to awkward moments, and now that I am aware of it and observe it regularly, there's definitely the question of 'will that awkwardness go away? Will it be cured?' I recently did a show where I was talking about how I'd just been to Penn State University, and how I'd observed that the school has a serious drinking problem. When I showed up at [Penn State], the headline of their newspaper read "Drunk Driver Hits Drunk Walker." You have to start looking at yourself in the mirror at that point... There was a meet and greet after the show, and this woman came up to me and said, 'did you do that story because my son is here?' And I was like, 'uh, no? I don't think so...' Well, her son was the drunk walker. And I was like, ohhhh no...(laughs). It was so awkward. I really do not attempt to bring this stuff upon myself, I think it just follows me.
Me: That is awkward. I might have exploded. Mike, a lot of comics have begun using New Media for promotion and so on, do you think this is having a positive effect ... or is opening up comedy to people who otherwise wouldn't be seen?
Mike: Yeah, I think that's hard to avoid. More people are using Twitter than are watching TV. (Laughs.) So it's like, well, I sure as hell better be on Twitter. Social networking is kind of like a rock and roll and comedy dating service, where you plug in what kind of comedy you like, and simultaneously, comedians are like this is what kind of comedy I do, and then you pair up. It's a good way to find people with common interests.
Me: Any idea what might be next?
Mike: Well, we're open to holograms.
(Mike's doorbell rings.)
Mike: I don't know who this is at my door, hold on. Hello? I don't know what the hell...I think it's a delivery or something, I have this thing where I can see people through the peep hole.
To me: The guy said 'it's a delivery, it's okay,' and then just walked away.
Me: Wait, Mike, I don't know if I'd trust...
And that was the last we heard of Mike Birbiglia ...
Until he comes to a city near you. Buy your tickets now. And check out birbigs.com as well as Mike's appearance on Comedy Central's Friday Night Stand-up on August 28.
Mike Birbiglia plays the New York Comedy Festival November 5th at Town Hall in NYC, 8:00pm. For tickets please go to www.nycomedyfestival.com