Mike Birbiglia is opening his new one-man show Sleepwalk With Me on November 11 at New York's Bleecker Street Theater, but this isn't the first time the 30-year-old stand-up comic has experimented with extended storytelling—or performed Sleepwalk, for that matter. His early career started quick: At 24, he was one of the youngest comics to ever perform on Late Show With David Letterman. He spent the next few years releasing two albums—Dog Years (2004) and Two Drink Mike (2006)—that contained short bursts of observational bits.
But the last few years have been spent honing longer, more narrative jokes for two buzzworthy projects. My Secret Public Journal Live, an album of tales culled from his road blog/e-newsletter of the same name, was adapted and shot as a CBS TV pilot earlier this year, though it wasn't picked up. The second is Sleepwalk, a mixture of humorous and serious recounts of sleepwalking episodes. He toured the piece in 2007 at stand-up clubs, but his shows Off-Broadway promise a more brazenly confident, painfully funny Birbiglia—who, at the end of the day, goes to bed in a sleeping bag with mittens on, to avoid any nighttime incidents. In the midst of his early fall tour of Sleepwalk With Me previews, The A.V. Club met up with Birbiglia to discuss stand-up vs. plays, the pitfalls of TV pilots, and his producer—otherwise known as the producer.
The A.V. Club: How did you get hooked up with Nathan Lane as a producer?
Mike Birbiglia: The Nathan thing is so random. Random people, celebrities of note come to your shows over the years, and I've had some really strange ones. Like the guy from Kiss. Gene Simmons has literally been in the audience at my shows like four times. I don't know if he knows me, he's just a big fan of comedy. When I did my pilot in L.A., Robbie Williams showed up. I guess he gets my e-mail or something. When the pilot got green-lit in spring, I canceled a monthlong tour. It was really painful canceling a tour; I'd never done that before. The hate mail you get is wicked. People bought tickets! If you think about buying a ticket for something, and the asshole that is—
AVC: Did they get refunds?
MB: Yeah, they got refunds. Pretty much every place I didn't go is on the tour this fall, or I did this summer. I made it all up.
AVC: What did people say?
MB: I can't think of anything specific, but it's just like… "I guess Hollywood is more important than Boise," or whatever. And they have a point. It was hard to cancel those dates. Touring is very important to me. It's the heart of what I do. My problem with being in New York City is that you really can't make a living as a comedian. You can, but you have to also take writing jobs, which means less stage time. Like you'll go to the Comedy Cellar, which is my favorite club in New York, but on the weekends, you'd do 10 minutes. For the audience, it's great. Seven of the best comedians in the country, doing 10 minutes each. For a comedian, you don't get anything done. You can't work out new jokes.
Anyway, I'm digressing. Obviously I do that joke in the show about being ADD. It's very true. The only dates I didn't cancel on that tour were at Caroline's [in New York]. Because they might have killed me, literally.
AVC: Are they high-strung club people?
MB: Well, for starters, they've been advocates of mine for a long time. They gave me a shot in New York when most people wouldn't. So they're very loyal, but they're also very serious about booking. Once you're in the books, it's not in your best interest to bail out, 'cause they're like, "We're Caroline's!" and they're right, they are. It's very fortuitous that I didn't cancel that date, though, cause Nathan Lane showed up.
AVC: Had he heard of you before?
MB: Yeah. I later found out that he had my CDs, he'd seen me on Comedy Central. I didn't know that at the time, he was just in the audience. They called ahead, so when I showed up they were like, "Nathan Lane's here." I was like, "Oh, that's crazy." He's legitimately royalty in theater. There's very few people you can say that of. So when you're doing a show at Caroline's on Broadway and the star of Broadway shows up, it kind of makes you nervous.
AVC: Did it influence your performance that night?
MB: It didn't. I will say this: There's a lot of elements that came together with that show. For starters, I was going to cancel it. Secondly, I did four different nights of shows in that run. First night, Two Drink Mike, second night, My Secret Public Journal Live, third night, Sleepwalk With Me, fourth night, requests. The night I did Sleepwalk With Me, it just so happened that he came to that show. He didn't come backstage, I later found out because it was too packed. I thought, "Oh, I guess Nathan Lane didn't like the show." The next day I showed up, and he had sent a note and a bottle of champagne saying the aspects of the show he liked. And it was very specific and detailed, and clearly—whether he liked, it I don't know, but he clearly understood what I was working on. He was like, "This is very different, and I know your other work, but this is very unique and special," something very nice. And the next day I shipped off to L.A., shot the pilot. And while I was there, I kept his note in my dressing room as kind of a reminder that no, wait, I am funny. When everyone around you is telling you you're not…
AVC: Is that a comment on the pilot-making process?
MB: Yeah, to some extent. There's a lot of ego manipulation up and down, to the point where you don't know which end is up anymore. It's easy to lose your bearing up there, because there are a lot of people with a lot of conflicting agendas.
AVC: So was it an incredibly stressful day, the actual shooting?
MB: Yeah. And frankly, there was only a few people in the process who I really truly trusted. Like my brother Joe, was there, my friend Andy Secunda, who was co-creator and writer, and other than that, these are people who I've just met, really. So they're like, "That's funny. Do that," and I'm like, "I'm not sure that's funny, but I know that you want to have a job tomorrow. So maybe it's funny in a way that going to let you keep your job, but I don't know if it's actually funny." It's a lot of that.
AVC: Do you remember anything specific? Any notes that had you raising an eyebrow?
MB: Well, with me it was always, "Be bigger." Even in my act, the quintessential note is, "Be bigger. Have more energy. Why don't you have more energy? Dot, dot, dot." Energy really sells. One of the reasons our show didn't get picked up, or at least so they say, is because it didn't test well. I don't know that I want to be that guy that "tests well."
AVC: When all was said and done, was the pilot your brand of humor?
MB: Yes and no. It was to an extent, but ultimately we had written a single-camera comedy and they said they wanted to shoot it as what is called a hybrid, like How I Met Your Mother. It's like a multi-cam, but with no audience and with some close-ups and single-camera elements. So, anyway, that's what we did, but to get back to the Nathan Lane thing… I had this note in my dressing room that kind of gave me confidence, "Well, Nathan Lane thinks I'm funny. That's something." And when I got back to New York, when all was said and done, I sent him a note because my now-wife and I were going to see November [a play he was in], and I wanted to see if he wanted to get a drink afterward. And he called me, which was shocking.
AVC: Because it's Nathan Lane.
MB: Yeah, it's a restricted number, and I thought it was my manager. I go, "Hello." He goes like, "Uh, Mike?" "Yeah." "It's Nathan Lane." And I go, "Oh, hey. [Pause] Uh, that's a neat trick you got there. You get to call people and say you're Nathan Lane, and they stop breathing for a second, and then the conversation continues." So Jenny and I went to his show, and then we went out for drinks and dinner and ended up staying out for probably four hours or something. We just hit it off like old friends. And I cover this in the show, this idea that I'm a bit delusional in terms that… I really think to become a stand-up comedian, you have to be delusional. If you weren't, then you wouldn't continue, because there's so much failure at the outset that you have to tell yourself that it's going well when it's not.
So he said, "Why don't we have 'Nathan Lane presenting Sleepwalk With Me'?" I think it was a joke, but me being the delusional person that I am, I was like, "I might actually hold you to that." And then the next day I called and was like, "Would you consider that? I know it was a far-fetched idea, but…" Nathan's like, "Sure? Do you think it'll help?" "Well, considering that I have no legitimacy in the theater and you're a legend, uh, yeah. The short answer is 'yeah.' The long answer is pretty close to that." So he's presenting the show, and I guess officially he's the producer. He's given me a lot of counsel and kind of mentored the project. So yeah, we have this strange coup that Nathan Lane is presenting his first show. That's not like something he does. He's not in the business of presenting.
AVC: So Nathan Lane turned you on to the idea of presenting Sleepwalk With Me in a theatre?
MB: Oh no. I was already planning on doing the show. I had been talking about doing a show Off-Broadway for a couple of years. I wrote it four years ago, but I could never find the right time and the right situation. Then when I got back from L.A., I saw that Hollywood is very good at putting bells and whistles on things, and is very bad—no, I shouldn't say very bad, but is sometimes bad at letting artists be creative. So I had a surge of energy when I got back that was "If I could put the bells and whistles on what I do already, then I could be much happier than doing a network sitcom that isn't quite my voice."
AVC: Your early material contains mostly short, two-minute bits. What was the evolution like from shorter to longer jokes?
MB: It's so strange. After Two Drink Mike came out, people were like, "Well, where's your other material?" I didn't have any other material, so I would start telling some of the stories from Sleepwalk With Me with me onstage. They were going really well. So I started telling more and more, and kind of over time I was able to tour with Sleepwalk With Me as though it were my stand-up set. It was a one-person show, but no one knew. But I didn't really care that no one knew, because it was connecting with people. That's all that matters anyway. Even today when I'll do the show, some people will come up to me and say, "That's a play," I'm like, "Okay." And some people are like, "That's not a play," like, adamantly. It's like, "I don't care. I don't want to fight about it." So that's the debate some people have about my show. Is it a play? I don't know.
AVC: People have different expectations about seeing a play vs. a stand-up set.
MB: Very true. Big time. Even last night in Milwaukee, I felt like… I was at the Pabst Theater, and there were distinctive people, many of them drunk, who were a little…
AVC: People rarely get fucked-up to go to the theater.
MB: I know. There was somewhat of a confused expectation with some of the audience. They were like, "Wait, I didn't know he was going to say anything serious." There's only, like, 3 percent of the show that doesn't have jokes in it that's actually like, "Here's what I was thinking. Here are my thoughts on things." So little, but even then, they were like… [Mumbles.] "I don't know about that."
AVC: Did you feel that up there?
MB: Oh yeah! Definitely! But what's interesting is, one of my managers was very smart. A year and a half ago, I was deciding whether to put out Secret Public Journal Live or Sleepwalk With Me. She was like, "Put out Secret Public Journal Live. It'll have jokes in it so people will know that you're still a comedian, but they'll hopefully develop a little bit of an attention span for your comedy. So then when you come out with Sleepwalk With Me, they won't be shocked." And she was right. After shows now, a few people come up to me and say, "That was really moving," or, "I appreciated that you opened up." You would have hoped that it was everyone, but it's just a few people. Most are like, "I love the new material." They don't even notice that it's a show, which is fine as long as they like it. You're absolutely right when you say from Two Drink Mike to Sleepwalk With Me there's been a huge change in what I do, and if you dig deeper into Premium Blend and my first Letterman set, that's a whole different realm altogether. I can't even watch that stuff.
AVC: Why's that?
MB: Because when I started out, I was like a caricature of myself. In some ways, it's so shameful when I look back on it. I'm like, "Why couldn't I just be me?" Now I'm so transparent it's a joke. I don't know where I'm going to go from here.
AVC: You've put out multiple CDs and DVDs in a relatively short amount of time, plus your Comedy Central specials and shooting a TV pilot. Was your impulse to hustle yourself as much as possible?
MB: Yeah, though in retrospect, I wish I were more patient with releasing stuff. And I feel like Sleepwalk With Me is my response to that. It's basically the most honed, overanalyzed piece I've ever worked on. I mean, every word is thought through, whereas Two Drink Mike is just like, "This is all the jokes I have. This is every joke I've ever thought of." It's funny, I listened to it maybe two months ago because I noticed that it was ranking very highly on iTunes. I think it's good, but in retrospect, I would have taken out everything topical. There's a Missy Elliott joke that's just ridiculous. What the hell was I thinking? I thought that the song "Work It" was going to live forever?
AVC: Why continue to sell T-shirts with your jokes on them at theatre shows? It seems counterproductive.
MB: In what sense? It's like overly commercial? I don't think so, because the shirts are really good.
AVC: When theatre gets commercial, though, it often gets criticized. Do you see becoming commercial an inevitability?
MB: That's a good question. As artists, we'd all love to not be commercial—to not sell out to the full extent that we are able. But you do what you have to do to pay New York rent and continue to do what you feel strongly about.
AVC: Your recent appearance on This American Life garnered a lot of new fans. Have you had any creepy run-ins since then?
MB: No, but over the years I've had some. One time—I'm not going to say the city, because I guess with stalkers you are not supposed to get specific… I don't know what the rules are exactly, but I'll tell you this. I was doing a show and this girl had driven to the town I was in from very far away. She put herself up in a hotel for the whole weekend of the shows at the club. She sat in the front row at every show and just, like, stared at me and took photos of me while I was performing. After the show, when I was doing a signing, she would come up and take photos of me… after every show! I was like, "Don't you have this one?" Eventually, she was just lingering so much that the bouncers at the club picked up on it and they were like, "You have to go. There is a line of people." She had, and I'm not making this up, a split-personality disorder. I had a message board at the time; I've since taken it down mostly because of this. She had two aliases on the message board—one that loved me and one that hated me—and they would fight each other. So she would come to all these shows and by the end of the weekend, because of the bouncers, she had turned on me. This person came up to me after one of the shows and said, "The girl in front of us had this on her table." He handed me a local flyer with my face on it, scratched out. She had scribbled it out in pen so darkly that it ripped through the page, and it said "Fuck you, Mike Birbiglia. Fuck you, motherfucker. Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!" I just went in the dressing room and locked the door and I was like, "Don't let anyone near here." I haven't heard from her since, but it was terrifying.
AVC: Given the fact that your recent material is personal, and you mention other people by name, what kind of pressure do you have to paint them in a positive light?
MB: There is some. I've thought about that a lot, actually. That it may be the reason I eventually go to film and do fictional pieces. If you look at Woody Allen's stuff, it is so personal. He doesn't have to be liable to the people he loosely based these characters on. I also think the moment you go into the realm of fictional characters, you get a freedom you can't achieve with monologuing about personal stories. So yeah, you hit it right on the head. There is a cap for that. I'm contemplating my next album after Sleepwalk, and it might be Five Drink Mike—a joke album the way I feel like, in retrospect, I would have done Two Drink Mike. Nothing topical, just hard-hitting jokes for an hour, and put that out. After this show, I have to take some time off, because it is getting so close to the bone.
AVC: Has the show helped with your sleepwalking?
MB: Yeah. The show is so much about denial, and given the degree of denial I have in my life, it has forced me, by saying it every night, to examine things I'm doing and go, "Am I a little bit in denial about this?" You can't help but face that when you are saying it every night.
AVC: Is your brother Joe critical of your interpretation of him?
MB: No. Joe helps me write the Joe stuff a lot, because he is very self-aware. That's what he's like. It is caricatured a little bit, but some of the stuff is hilarious. He told me last week that his wife is pregnant with their second child; their first child is named Henry, and they just found out they are going to have another boy. I go, "Is Caroline disappointed? Did she want to have a girl?" He goes, "Yeah, I think a little bit, but we are going to save so much on clothes." He wasn't joking at all. I go, "You know I'm going to talk about this onstage." He's like, "Yeah, I can see you doing that… but still, it's a lot of money."