When you get a chance to talk comedy with someone who hasn't just made a living out of it, but has based his entire life off of it, you're going to walk away with a few noteworthy pearls of wisdom. This was certainly the case in my conversation with Mike Birbiglia, whose semi-autobiographical feature film Sleepwalk with Me reaches theaters on Friday.
The standup comedian has turned an important moment in his life into a book, a one-man show, and now a movie, chronicling his ascension to the standup spotlight in three different media, and earning and achieving different things with each. The core of the story, no matter if it is being told on a stage or a cinema screen, is about the sharing of personal experience, be it funny, painful, or what have you: Birbiglia identifies this focus on the personal to be something that comedy embraces today. How did it become this way, and where will it go in the future? He has his theories on those, as well.
Mike Birbiglia: From the time I started writing the one-man show… that was, like, eight years. And it’s interfacing in the king of all media: movies. Everybody sees it. Everybody has an opinion and weighs in. It’s actually too much to take in. It’s too many outlets, and too much stimuli. What I’m finding is, I’m starting to understand when those big actors like Sean Penn or whoever are like, “I don’t read reviews.” That actually makes sense to me now. It didn’t make sense before. With my play, it got reviewed by twenty outlets, or thirty outlets. But the movie — hundreds of outlets are writing about it. It’s just strange.
Are there any other differences, creatively, between writing your story as a play and turning it into a movie?
Yeah. It’s very different. It’s very much more cinematic, obviously. The dreams are very cinematic. The sleepwalking is very cinematic. It’s a more immersive experience. That’s why I really want people to see it in a theater. One: it’s very immersive, and we spent a long time on the cinematography. Our cinematographer, Adam Beckman, is very brilliant, and did a great job with it. And two: laughter. I’ve seen people watch it alone, and I’ve seen people watch it in a group. You’ve got to watch it in a group. Laughter is a communal activity.
So you’re saying this in terms of films in general?
Yeah. That’s why I love seeing films at festivals. The rooms are packed, and you’re experiencing it like it’s the theater.
I guess that’s why you don’t have one-on-one standup comedians.
[Laughs] Although, I have done that! Or pretty close to it. When you’re starting out, sometimes the audiences are quite small.
The melding of fact and fiction. From what I understand, the play is pretty spot on in terms of the authenticity of your life.
Yes, very close.
But is the movie different? You changed the names…
The movie is like… we changed the names, because it’s not my parents, it’s not my ex-girlfirned. All the stuff that you wouldn’t think is true is true, and all the stuff that’s kind of minutia and convenience for the sake of story, is that. My parents don’t live in Long Island, they live in Massachusetts. But in a movie, it makes more sense to have them live closer. Because you don’t want to spend all your time in a car or on the phone … [Long Island] is actually where my wife’s family is from, so I stole the details from that.
How about casting and directing actors playing characters based off people in your real life?
Well, Carol [Kane] I had met in 2008 when I was casting a pilot for CBS based on my life. It didn’t work out, but that’s how I met her. We became friends and I always thought that she would be great. And James [Rebhorn] — our casting director Jennifer Euston, it was her idea. Shes’ really great. She cast Girls on HBO, Veep on HBO. She said, “What about James Rebhorn?” We looked up his reel and watched him. And oh my God. That guy is amazing!
And he’s been in, like, every movie ever made.
He’s been in every movie ever made. Working with both of those veterans is a real learning experience.
You did say that they’re not your parents. But I’m sure it’s rooted in your real relationship with your parents?
Yeah, there are facets of it. I make it bigger, because it’s a movie and you need to get across an idea quicker, essentially ... Casting Lauren [Ambrose], actually, was my wife Jenny’s idea. She had watched Six Feet Under. I couldn’t afford cable TV at that time. So I hadn’t seen it really. Jen was like, “This actress Lauren Ambrose might be really good.” She showed me clips of her, and I said, “She’s perfect.” Because what we needed from that character was someone who exuded strength and humor at the same time. Ultimately in the story, you don’t want to feel bad for the character. If you feel bad for the character after the breakup, it’s no good. It’s not satisfying. But with a person like Lauren, she just exudes that strength and humor, so that you go, “She’ll be fine.”
She did an excellent job. The thing I remembered her from most was Can't Hardly Wait. I think she has grown a lot.
In the beginning of the movie, in terms of your character’s standup, you have the Cookie Monster jokes. And then it shows the evolution to more honest relationship humor. What exactly makes that work?
I actually modeled the comedy career progression after the movie Once. The movie Once did a really good job of showing a character who goes from doing covers to doing originals. That was an interesting progression. He never was bad. Even Matt Pandamiglio. He’s funny in the beginning, but it’s just kind of worthless. It’s like, “Ehh… this guy? Who cares?” As he progresses, he starts being more personal. Essentially going from more generic to less generic, and more personal. That’s why it works. I hate it when in movies, someone goes from being terrible at something to just being great at it. And you don’t quite follow how other than through a montage. But with our movie, I feel like, you kind of get it. You go, “That’s is the same guy, he just kind of clicked with something.”
Most of the comedy is relationship-based in the later acts of the film. I know a lot of your standup comedy, and not all of it is. The thing that got me into your standup was the mattress bit.
Oh yeah. “What I should have said was ‘nothing’.”
Did you feel like the story didn’t do a service to that kind of comedy? It’s still anecdotal, and it’s still real, but it’s not as emotional.
I really love all types of comedy. It’s just kind of where my personal journey has gone. Two Drink Mike is very different from My Secret Public Journal Live, which is very different from Sleepwalk with Me Live. My three albums are very much in evolution. And I’ve been lucky. My fans have come with me in that evolution. I’ll see if they come with me on the film evolution. I love Two Drink Mike. I still think it’s a good album. I like the jokes on it. I feel like you, as an artist, one thing you try to do is avoid doing the same things over and over again. Unless you want to make money. In which case, you keep doing it over and over and over again.
I think standup is bigger than it’s ever been.
What does your movie and its story say about contemporary standup, and becoming a comedian?
It’s funny. I do feel like we’re in something of a comedy boom right now, and it’s completely coincidental that I made this movie in this period. I think that the period we’re in right now is interesting because it’s post-Seinfeld. I love Jerry Seinfeld, but he marked this period of observational comedy, and I feel like it seeped into popular culture. Every commercial was observational. Every poster ad was observational. I think it was oversaturation of that type of humor.
What me and — all separately on our own journeys — me and Louis C.K. and Marc Maron, Doug Stanhope, Maria Bamford… a whole lot of comedians have kind of gone against that. We’ve gone in this direction of, “What’s our personal story to tell?” I think there’s a certain way in which, when you do that, when you’re saying something vulnerable about yourself, you’re actually giving a gift to the audience. Because you’re letting yourself be judged in a way that people can just go, “You suck!” And you’re just like “I know! I’m telling you that! I’ve already told you that! I’ve fallen down, and you’re just kicking me!”
The great possibility, if you do it well, is if you tell stories about yourself that are vulnerable, people feel more comfortable opening up about their vulnerable stories. I think that that’s an important thing for people to experience. We see the character do that in this film. It seems like people have, so far, been taking to that aspect of it.
Absolutely. And with the popularity of Louis, and everything you said — why do you think this is happening now?
Partly, because it’s post-Seinfeld. It’s like the opposite of Seinfeld. I think the pendulum will swing again. I’m sure it’ll go somewhere else. It’ll go to absurdist comedy. Or physical comedy. It’ll go somewhere else. Right now it’s here. I’m not sure why. But I think it has to do with — if I were to guess, and I might be completely wrong — but I would say, it has to do with the fact that these days, with technology as it is, you can manufacture almost anything. You can make anything seem like anything. In other words, you can put a series of clips together on the news, and all of a sudden it’s like, “That’s crazy that that person said that!” But they didn’t even say that! It’s just edited in that way.
And there’s CGI, and that changes the game. You see movies, and you’re like, “I don’t even know if that was animated, or if that is real. I literally don’t know!” And I feel like there’s something about confessional comedy that is refreshing in light of that being the cultural norm. There’s something about one person telling a group of people, “Listen to this thing that happened to me.” And you taking them at their word. Somehow, that’s special.
[Photo Credit: IFC Films]