The life of a stand-up comedian begins with grinding out anonymous, no- or low-paying showcases at clubs where people show up for comedy, not for any specific name on the bill. The experience is humbling at best, soul-crushing at worst, as Mike Birbiglia details in his new book, Sleepwalk With Me And Other Painfully True Stories. Those experiences as a new stand-up explain why Birbiglia’s stated goal as a comedian “was always to have people come see me on purpose,” as he said in a recent interview. He has since accomplished that and then some; his tour shows routinely fill theaters, and his off-Broadway one-man show, Sleepwalk With Me, had an acclaimed eight-month run in New York. He’s also been buoyed by repeat appearances on This American Life (host Ira Glass is working with Birbiglia on a film adaptation of Sleepwalk With Me) and The Moth, both of which provide an outlet for Birbiglia’s storytelling style. Although he started as an observational comedian in the late ’90s, emulating his heroes Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg, Birbiglia has moved from jokes telling a story to telling stories with jokes. As Birbiglia toured just before the book’s release, he spoke to The A.V. Club about the book, his one-man shows, and why everyone needs to turn off the comedy spigot.
The A.V. Club: Many of the stories in the book existed before in various forms, from the one-man show to your 2007 album, My Secret Public Journal Live, to This American Life to The Moth. What percentage of the book is new?
Mike Birbiglia: Let me put it this way. The one-man show, Sleepwalk With Me, material-wise, makes up probably about a quarter of the book. It’s the final essay, “Sleepwalk With Me,” of the 13 or 14 essays, and there are parts of the show that I thought were better served in different parts of the book. For example, there’s an essay called “Something In My Bladder,” and that’s from the show, but I thought it was better served in its own essay than as part of “Sleepwalk With Me.” For one thing, you have to remember that Sleepwalk With Me the show—God, this is getting into such minutiae, this is probably boring—the show was never a TV special or a CD. So in fact there’s 30,000 people who saw it in New York City, but America didn’t see it. [Laughs.] It actually is a weird and complicated media landscape that we’re in now, where you blog and then you write about something that happened that week, and then you refine it, and it becomes funnier and funnier and better and stronger, and you do it onstage, and people are like, “Yeah, but we knew that from your blog.” It’s like, “What do you want from me? I’m writing my fucking ass off.” I write like crazy. I’m putting out as much new material as I can of a caliber that people will be happy with, and then I’ve done pieces on This American Life, and some of those pieces are integrated in my forthcoming one-man show which I’m opening in New York this winter, and it’s actually what I’m touring with right now.
AVC: My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend?
MB: My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, and that has some of the stories I’ve done on This American Life. People go, “Yeah, I heard that on This American Life.” It’s like, “Okay. You heard that story on a free podcast, and I’m sorry about that.” [Laughs.]
It’s a difficult line to tread, where sometimes you go to the movies or you watch someone do publicity for movies or TV shows, and they do all the jokes that are good in the promotion of it, and you see the movie, and you’re like, “I kind of get it already. I’m not that psyched about it.” So to answer your question in the most long-winded way possible, I tried to have everything in the book be new or have a new spin or take, or kind of riff or rant so it earns its keep.
AVC: You have a lot of outlets now, from your blog to This American Life. Is there a farm system, where the germ of an idea begins in a blog or Twitter, then proceeds up the ladder until now you’re working on a screenplay version of Sleepwalk With Me?
MB: Yeah, even Twitter now is kind of insane. You have all of these comedians, as world-class as Steve Martin, for God’s sake, tweeting, and you’re just getting their day-to-day humorous reflections on things. It’s almost too much access to the comedians. [Laughs.] It’s like, “Stop it! Everybody stop the comedy spigot! Release a giant jug of water instead of these drips of water.” Which I’m completely guilty of, but I don’t know what else to do. It’s what people do.
AVC: It places the burden on you to be “on” at all times.
MB: Yeah, or at least three times a day.
AVC: Granted, you post on Twitter or your blog when you want to, but still there might be the expectation for the people who follow you that you’re supposed to deliver gold every time you post something.
MB: Yeah. Nick Kroll came out with me this week, a great comedian and a friend of mine, he did some dates on the tour, and he tweeted something about some sports event where one of the players looked like a throwback person from the ’80s. and he tweeted a joke about it, and he had three or four people tweet him back, “Yeah, we’ve heard that one.” “That’s been done.” That’s been done? Like when, four seconds ago? “That’s been done” has gone from being “That’s been done in the last few years” to “That’s been done in the last two hours.”
AVC: That immediate feedback has to be a little rough.
MB: Oh, it’s brutal. Here’s what I’ll say just to complete that thought: Unless you’re stating a complaint right now on the telephone with me, I haven’t had any complaints about it. [Laughs.] But it’s something I was aware of, and no one seems upset about it. I think the reason is that I spent so much time and effort sculpting each essay so that it would build to have a purpose. As opposed to being like stand-up or a blog entry, where it’s kind of meandering and funny, it has laughs, but at the end of the day, it’s like, “Who gives a shit? It’s funny, it’s a story, who cares?” If there’s an essay that didn’t build toward a conclusion I thought was interesting, it didn’t go into the book.
The original draft of the book I wrote was two times as long as the book I put out. And I cut out anything that felt like a “memoir.” I know that in a lot of stores, they put that in the memoir section, but that seems so despicable to me, because it’s like, “Who’s Mike Birbiglia?” I would be so mad if I saw something called a memoir, and then it was Mike Birbiglia. It would be so infuriating. It’s like, “Who is this guy, and why does he have a memoir?” David Letterman could write a memoir. Joan Rivers could. I’m just a nobody. I’m a comedian and a writer. It should be in the comedy section.
The goal was to have nothing in the book feel like a memoir, feel like, “And then I did Family Ties, pause for applause.” [Laughs.] I didn’t want it to feel like that. You know how these people will be on Inside The Actors Studio, and they’ll go, “Then you did the show Family Ties”? I have nothing like that. I don’t view myself as having any body of work that would merit applause, so I didn’t want any implied importance of anything I’ve done in the book. I’m not Steve Martin, I’m not Bob Dylan. Those books are amazing, Born Standing Up and Chronicles. It’s a completely different genre.
AVC: You have a distinct idea of what makes a memoir. What are you picturing when you’re trying to not do a memoir?
MB: In other words—I always work on this with my director, Seth Barrish. He directed Sleepwalk With Me, and he’s directing My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. One of our rules of thumb or guiding principles is that the writing has to be about—I don’t know if this makes sense when I describe it in words, but the writing has to be about the audience. The writing can’t be about me. It has to be about everyone. With memoir, there’s almost a voyeuristic thing, where you’re reading about the Smothers Brothers, and you’re like, “Oh, wow! I didn’t know that was going on behind the scenes during The Smothers Brothers Show. I didn’t know that thing was happening in his personal life.” That’s the opposite of what I’m trying to do.
AVC: At the same time, you are telling stories that are incredible, that people aren’t going to necessarily have experienced. The sleepwalking story, you jumped out of a second-story window. That’s nothing like “While we were working on Family Ties, we were doing tons of blow behind the scenes.”
MB: Yeah, with the sleepwalking thing, it’s an extraordinary event that in writing the book and in doing the show, I’m trying to express certain themes—the theme of denial, and the degree to which people will go to not deal with something that is right in front of them. In my case, it was sleepwalking. In other people’s cases, it was alcoholism or some bad relationship that they knew was over, but they couldn’t admit it to their husbands or wives. That’s one of the things that has been really rewarding about the show, and so far, the book. The response has been really great. The response has been that when people feel like you open up, they feel like they can open up. I actually think one of the reasons I’m able to open up so much in this book is that I’m not that well-known, so I don’t have as much fear that there are going to be pull quotes from the book on the CNN crawl, on the bottom of the screen, which would certainly be the case with Steve Martin and Bob Dylan. If there’s some kind of pull quote that’s super-personal and off the wall or unexpected, it’s going to be like, “Steve Martin says of his life…” Fortunately, I don’t have that.
AVC: Are there any stories you really wanted to get in but couldn’t?
MB: There are certain stories that actually I did blown-out versions of, like “Celebrity Golf” in Secret Public Journal: Live, and “MVP Awards Story” from the Secret Public Journal CD. But I couldn’t fit them in, because I blew them out into big stories, which I thought were really funny and had nuances and twists and details, but ultimately I didn’t think they were compelling enough to be in this format.
AVC: So the stories couldn’t be funny anecdotes on their own. They needed to build to something else?
MB: Yeah, that was kind of the goal. I think I’ve learned a lot in the past couple years working with Ira Glass on This American Life. There’s something in that show where they don’t really put on stories, produce stories, that don’t have a larger point and a larger purpose, and that’s been really instructive for me as well. That’s helped me shape certain things. One of the stories I was really happy with was one of the stories I developed with Ira for the “Somewhere Out There” episode, where I talk about my first girlfriend, Amanda, and meeting her parents, and sort of about the lengths we’ll go to lie to ourselves when we’re in love.
AVC: Is that the story My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is based on?
MB: Yeah. That’s one of the stories in the show, and one of my favorite stories in the book. To me, that’s when the book is working best, when it’s in passages like that. But I think with all of my writing right now—I don’t know if it’s a phase or whatever, this period I’m working in. I’m trying to have everything be funny, but simultaneously work in a larger construct, to tell a larger story.
The same goes with the screen adaptation I’m doing of Sleepwalk With Me, the same goes with my new one-man show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, and the same goes for the last show and this book. That’s the stuff that interests me. In writing the book, a lot of people have asked me, “Who are your literary influences? What books do you read?” The truth is, I don’t read a lot of books. [Laughs.] Honestly, I’m a slow reader. I don’t have time, so I feel my time is better spent on films. I don’t watch TV really.
But I take in a lot of film. I see almost everything. I’m looking to make films in the near future. In terms of influences, I think of everything I take in as influences. So it’s like, I like David Sedaris a lot, I love Me Talk Pretty One Day, I love Naked, and I love David Foster Wallace. But I’m equally influenced by the films of James L. Brooks, Cameron Crowe, those middle films of Woody Allen, which I watch over and over again—the Crimes And Misdemeanors, Manhattan, Annie Hall period. I’ll watch those movies over and over again. I’ll watch Broadcast News the 14th or 15th time. The same thing with Miguel Arteta and Mike White, they made a few films together. I’ve probably seen The Good Girl 11 times. I will watch these things obsessively, and I see that as an influence of my overall comedic voice. These are people who are making things where there’s comedy, but the comedy is a means to an end, not the end in itself. I’m so incredibly bored by comedy as an end in itself. You get to the end of something, you’re laughing, you’re like, “That’s funny, and that’s funny,” and then you get to the end, and the credits come down, and you’re like, “That’s it?! That’s the whole thing?! You had me here for that?!” I just don’t want to do that.
AVC: The storytelling comedy you’ve adopted, though, requires the audience to trust you going into it. It takes time to develop that. Do you think it would have been possible to start your career with this style?
MB: I think in a lot of ways, it is though my career is starting out, because most people didn’t know who I was until a year and a half ago. [Laughs.] So for whatever reason, in the last couple years, people started figuring out who I was, and so in a sense, yeah, people do think of me as this person. People who know me on This American Life, they don’t know Two Drink Mike or Comedy Central Presents. So you, sir, are wrong! Your meandering questions have come to a halt! [Laughs.] I’m kidding. You know what I mean. I’ve been doing comedy for 13 years, and I’m described constantly as “up and coming.” I’m like, “Okay sure, I’ll be up and coming forever.” I don’t care.
AVC: What do you think is the key to turning something that’s the least funny, most uncomfortable thing you can talk about into something that’s funny and relatable?
MB: It’s funny because when I started writing the book, it was just Sleepwalk With Me And Other Stories. But as I was writing it, it became clear that it was not only other stories, but the through-line was that they were painfully true stories. The closer I went to the pain, the funnier things got, and the more pathos they had. I think that for comedians, turning something painful into something funny is actually the easy part, because most comedians have used comedy as a coping mechanism their whole life to resolve things that are unresolved. I think the hard part is giving yourself over to complete strangers and saying “Here are some things that are painful for me.”
AVC: That’s not necessarily what a lot of people would associate with stand-up comedy.
MB: Yeah, there are comedians who don’t do that. There are comedians who focus on everything that is external. They focus on politics and the news, what’s going on in that city and that night. Then there are comedians whose subject is themselves. But I still think that the feeling of being conflicted is there in both kinds of comedians. The things that, in principle, are at play when Sarah Silverman makes a joke about Ethiopian babies, in a way that’s coming from the same place as me talking about having a tumor in my bladder when I was 19 years old.
She’s coping with her feelings about a really devastating inequity in the world, and I’m dealing with something that is uncomfortable and painful for me. In both cases, I venture to say—I don’t want to speak for Sarah, but I think it is a coping mechanism.
AVC: You’re doing a live CD version of Sleepwalk With Me too, right?
MB: I recorded it in September. I don’t know when it’s going to be released, but it will be released. Right now, the biggest priority is, I’m working on the film adaptation with Ira, and I’m putting up this new one-man show. Eventually the CD will be released.
AVC: Do you feel like this is part of you still trying to get it “right,” still constantly editing?
MB: Yeah, I did still make changes on the show, leading into recording it. I think the only danger in all of this is that I don’t want to be known as “the sleepwalking guy”—which very easily can be construed as one of these terrible ’80s stand-up comedians. You know, Jackie “Takes No Prisoners” Poseidon. His whole thing is that he doesn’t take prisoners! I don’t want to be some kind of medical gimmick, which is why I think it was so important for me to write this whole new show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, so fast.
AVC: Is My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend going to follow the same template as Sleepwalk With Me, in that it’s something that you sort of talked about before, but it’s going to be bigger and incorporate more sub-anecdotes?
MB: Yeah, what my director and I call “the main event,” the same way that the Walla Walla story is the main event of the Sleepwalk book and show, the main event of this next show is actually the car-accident story I told on the This American Life episode “Return To The Scene Of The Crime.” The show kind of builds to that. Without giving away too much, that story is, on a literal level, about coming to grips with a car accident, but on a larger level, is about letting go of things that you can’t always be “right” about. I feel like I have this obsession with being right, and if something’s wrong, that’s infuriating to me. It’s a contradiction, and I think that’s actually what makes people comedians. You look at things and you see all this hypocrisy and you go onstage and are like, “Well what about this! Well what about this!” [Laughs.] You do it in a way that’s probably, for most comedians, in the initial incarnation was not funny at all, but then eventually you figure out a way to make it funny.
So what people love telling you about comedians is that these hilariously conflicted personalities who you enjoy onstage, are just conflicted offstage. [Laughs.] Leo Allen reminded me the other day, I forgot this even happened, but one time, Marc Maron and I were back-to-back at Union Hall in Brooklyn on Eugene Mirman’s show. I think Marc Maron is a genius, for the record, up front, make sure you print that, because I don’t want him to be any angrier at me than he already is, and we’re friends. [Laughs.] I’m sitting in the back of the room, and he made some remarks about me. So I was trying to think of something to say when I walked up, because I was on next. So I go up there and go, “Thanks a lot. That was Marc Maron. A lot of people ask me, ‘What is Marc Maron like offstage?’ And I say, ‘He’s exactly like he is onstage, except not funny.’” [Laughs.] That’s not specific to Marc, and there are some other comedians I think that’s true of, because we are conflicted people. Being a conflicted person is not specific to being a comedian. There are many, many, many conflicted people, and that’s what the show is about. I take apart some of the great hypocrisies of love and marriage, and it’s in the show. That’s what it’s about.