Mike Birbiglia remembers when the room was a lot smaller. He’s headlining Saturday night at the Warner Theatre, where he’ll tell some stories he’s considering for inclusion in his next one-man show. But he cut his teeth at the DC Improv in the late 90s, while a student at Georgetown University. By the time he was 25, he’d done the The Late Show with David Letterman and had his first album and Comedy Central special.
Birbiglia’s act grew more distinct and involving a couple of years ago, when he began to segue from traditional stand-up into more personal storytelling. His struggle with REM behavior disorder — which manifested with him in the form of sleepwalking and worse — became the basis of Sleepwalk with Me, a one-man show that ran in New York for nearly 200 performances before closing last June. He’s now adapting the show into a nonfiction book and a movie.
Birbiglia, 31, blogs at My Secret Public Journal. I caught up with him by phone at his New York apartment in late August to discuss joke-telling versus narrative, oral storytelling’s blooming vogue, and how, after conquering late-night network TV and cable, he finally broke into the glamorous and lucrative kingdom of public radio. Check out the interview on DCist now, or stick here for the slightly longer version if you’re curious about what he did as an intern for Late Night with Conan O’ Brien and which Woody Allen movies are his favorites. (He likes the good ones, basically.)
You’ve been at this for a while, but I think you found a new audience when you started showing up a lot on This American Life about a year ago. I think the “Fear of Sleep” episode is the first one where I remember hearing you. The story you told was a piece of your show Sleepwalk with Me, but several others have followed in the last year. How did you become such a prolific contributor to the show?
I had been friendly with The Moth organization for years, and I had done their [live] show a few times. I’d done the sleep story there, and I thought it would be really good for This American Life. I was always a big fan of TAL, but I never could seem to get in touch with them. It’s just hard. They’re innundated with requests. But I knew this story was worth bugging them about, so I did.
It was sort of touch and go for a few months. They were like, “We think we’re gonna use the story.” I found out later they built an entire episode around it. The “Fear of Sleep” episode was built on my story.
Then [TAL creator and host Ira Glass] and I became friends. I pitched a few more stories, and I kind of ended up with this niche on the show where I do stories in front of a live audience, and they record them and put them on. It’s been one of the coolest experiences I’ve had. I didn’t realize before I worked with Ira — in addition to being a great radio personality — how amazing he is as a writer, editor and dramaturg of stories. He is such a meticulous, great editor.
In his lecture, he always talks about the very deliberate way they have of pacing stories for the radio. But when the New York Times reviewed your show last fall, the critic called your pacing “simply perfect.” How did you evolve from doing traditional stand-up into a storyteller where you don’t have a punchline every few seconds?
Well, there are a lot of collaborators in the mix. Ira is one. My director, Seth Barrish, worked on the piece with me for five years. My brother Joe collaborates with me on a lot of my writing.
Sleepwalk with Me was a show I had written independent of stand-up comedy. I was a dramatic writing major in Georgetown, and around age 19 I became obsessed with stand-up comedy, around the same time I got obsessed with film and plays and Woody Allen.
I wanted to make movies, but I love stand-up comedy, and I felt like I could develop a persona in stand-up comedy and then put that in movies. Sleepwalk with Me was my first real attempt with that. Now we’re actually developing it as a movie. So ten or twelve years after I had the idea, it’s starting to fall into place.
That’s what I find with show business: Everything happens about eight years after you think it will.
You talk in your show about being diagnosed with this REM behavior disorder, and that’s become a source of a lot of your material. But there must have been a time when you just thought this condition would ruin your life.
Yeah. That’s very accurate. The interesting thing is I had been writing Sleepwalk with Me as just as this kind of one-man romantic comedy about this relationship gone wrong. I had been in denial about what was wrong in this relationship, and that denial was expressed through my sleepwalking. I thought that was an interesting way to express the story.
I had seen a one-man show Seth had directed called The Tricky Part. It was the best one-man show I’d ever seen. So I approached him, and we became friends, and around that time I had this incident where I jumped out a second-story window in my sleep and was nearly killed. I mentioned that to Seth just in passing while we were having coffee one day. He said, ‘Well, there’s your show right there.”
That’s the one you told on the Fear of Sleep TAL episode, right?
Yeah, exactly. It was very uncomfortable to talk about at first. I was worried people would think I was crazy. But Seth insisted. We had this conversation for about a year, while I continued working on Sleepwalk with Me without that story. Seth was like, “Look, that story is your main event.”
Eventually I came around started talking about it onstage, and it was a big hit. From there the show evolved into — it became about talking about things you’re uncomfortable talking about.
There’s a real paradox there. It feels like there are so many things now in pop culture; reality shows, whatever, where we’re watching people at their most unflattering moments and it’s just a bloodsport. But your kind of storytelling, the This American Life model, seems to be slowly getting more popular, too, where you’re sharing intimate things, but with the sympathy of the audience. They’re laughing with you.
That definitely wasn’t always the case. The comedy that was popular when I was trying to break in was this kind of macho thing, where a guy walks on stage and says “Nice shirt, faggot!” And the audience is like, “That’s so true, his shirt does suck! This guy’s a genius from Jersey.”
I was not that at all. And I was fairly unsuccessful at first because I was telling these self-deprecating stories that have only become popular in the last couple years. The New York Times actually wrote an article about The Moth and how this has become the new stand-up comedy of the 80’s, or the sketch comedy of the 70’s.
You’ve said you were pretty sure you wanted to be a comic by the time you were in high school, and yet the ones who were popular then were so different from what you do. Were there comics from prior eras who inspired you?
Woody Allen. Then I got really into Richard Prior and Bill Cosby. When I was in college at Georgetown, I took a job at the DC Improv where I got to open for guys like Jake Johannsen and Kathleen Madigan and Brian Reagan. They were all people I really admired.
Did you ever try to adapt your act to the prevailing fashion, and just be more of a dick onstage?
I think so, yeah. I probably did. If I dig deep into my old notebooks, I’d probably find jokes where I made fun of Oprah for being fat or something like that. Why would I make a joke about that? It’s just mindless. But that’s what was popular.
You were lucky, it sounds like, when you walked out of that hotel room window, but have you ever really hurt yourself while sleepwalking?
I’ve had some scrapes and sore appendages, but nothing I remember.
The show Sleepwalk with Me was about denial, and one of my lines in the show was “I remember waking up in my living room on top of a book case, then falling off and landing on the floor and not knowing where I was. I thought, ‘Well, maybe I should see a doctor. But maybe I’ll eat dinner.'”
I just went with dinner for years. That was indicative of what of where I was at that time.
You say a lot of the show was about denial in a relationship, can I ask how long you’ve been married?
A little over a year. We went to City Hall last summer.
So the denial-relationship that inspired the show was not your relationship with your now-wife. Right?
No. I was in a relationship for a long time that was not working, and I couldn’t say it. I go into that deeply in the show. It got to the point where I ended up getting engaged, knowing that I was not going to get married.
That would be denial.
To echo what I was saying before, I thought, “Maybe I should break up with this girl. Or maybe I’ll eat dinner.” And I just went with dinner. Denial in all parts of my life.
So did you start to work the more personal stories into your stand-up act gradually, or was it a complete departure from what you’d been doing when you opened your one-man show?
Well, again, I’d written Sleepwalk with Me independently of stand-up. I came out with this album Two-Drink Mike, and when I went on tour, people who had bought the album came. They had seen me do the material from the album, and they were like “Well, what else do you have?” [Laughs.] That’s what happens when you develop a small fanbase.
To develop more material at a fast pace, I just started putting stuff in from Sleepwalk with Me, and it went over really well. I ended up developing the show as stand-up for a few years. I would do a lot of it, to the point where I was touring the last couple of years doing, basically, Sleepwalk with Me, but it wasn’t called that. It was just me live.
You majored in dramatic writing at Georgetown. Do you aspire to write plays or screenplays, or more material that isn’ purely comedic?
This is where the words “drama” and “comedy” get dicey and subjective. I don’t want to do something that does not have comedy in it. But realistic drama has great comedy in it. Comedy is part of life, tragedy is a part of life, and i feel like drama is a calibration of those two things. I mean, the stuff I admire most is, like, Woody Allen’s middle period of movies, like Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan, and Crimes and Misdemeanors.
The eighties, basically.
[Laughs.] Yeah, that’s right. Those are dramatic movies. They happen to be really funny, but they’re dramas. Those are the kind of movies I want to make.
So you want to star in films you write and direct yourself, like Woody Allen did?
Yeah. And we’re developing Sleepwalk with Me as a movie right now, so that’s the first step in that direction.
I keep reading that you won a Funniest Man on Campus competition while you were at Georgetown, and that you’d never performed onstage before that. If that’s apocryphal, please say so. But if it isn’t, can you remember what your act was?
I was kind of doing a character. Oh, I remember: The character’s name was Peter MacAvoy, and he was kind of this overgrown Boston teenager. It was not unlike the kind of stuff that Jimmy [Fallon] and Rachel [Dratch] did on SNL; the Boston characters. Did you ever see those?
It was before that chronlogically, so it wasn’t like i was mimicking them. But it was a character along those lines. It ended with a song, and it was nothing like what I do now. But I did well, I won. That got me an in at the DC improv, and I worked my ass off there for a lot of years.
When was that?
It was like, 1997 to 2001. It was all through college. I had to keep it a secret from my dad, because he was paying for college, for the most part. He’d be like, “How’s college?” And I’d say, “Well, I’m working at the Improv.” He was like, “That’s not your priority.” I was like, “Yeeaaaah, it kind of is.”
So you had a cliched struggle for your father’s acceptance of your choice to pursue comedy, like Tom Hanks in Punchline.
Oh, yeah, big time. And my dad is a doctor, like I think Tom Hanks’ was in that movie.
I think that’s right.
People tell me I look like Tom Hanks a lot.
So after you got comfortable performing comedy, did it feel like another leap for you to begin telling these longer, more personal stories about your relationships and your health problems? Or is it just that once you learn to relax on stage, you can do anything up there?
It takes a lot of years to feel comfortable being yourself on stage. I’ve heard Jerry Seinfeld say it takes about seven years. I started doing comedy when I was 19, and I wasn’t comfortable until I was 26 or 27, so that seems about right.
But I think every time you break a new story, you feel a little bit tentative about it. I’m writing a book now called Sleepwalk with Me and Other Stories. There are certain stories where I’m still like, “Awww, do I want to tell that story? I don’t know.” So that never goes away completely.
And you feel that even when you’re just writing prose, that you won’t necessarily be standing up in front of people and performing?
Oh, yeah. You completely do.
You interned at Late Night with Conan O’Brien in the summer of 1997. How did you get that gig, and what did you do there?
I got the interview because my sister Gina was friends with one of the producers there. It was educational. I was kind of a fly on the wall, I ran errands. I basically found out that the way people become writers on Conan is either through doing stand-up, or they’re in an improv group. So when I went back to Georgetown, I did stand-up and I joined an improv group. Along the way, I was like “Oh, well, actually this is what I want to do more than I want to write for Conan.”
Mike Birbiglia performs Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Warner Theatre. Tickets are available here.