Yes, yes, Quint posted his fine interview with Mike Birbiglia first, and I don't care. I loved talking to this guy about his funny, intelligent movie, and the two interviews are quite dissimilar. Twice the Birbigli-fun for you guys, I guess!
Although Mike Birbiglia began his career as a stand-up comedian, his act has evolved to the point where he has become more of a comedic storyteller, retelling some of the most painful events of his young and adult life across comedy albums, appearances on the Public Radio series "This American Life," a book, and in theater performances, including a successful off-Broadway run.
As a film actor, Birbiglia has appeared in supporting roles in such films as GOING THE DISTANCE, CEDAR RAPIDS, and most recently in YOUR SISTER'S SISTER, in which Mark Duplass rips him a new one for pretending to know more about Mark's dead brother than Mark. It's a devastating scene. He also had an appearance in Lena Dunham's "Girls."
Birbiglia's debut as a feature director-writer-lead actor is SLEEPWALK WITH ME, based on his one-man show, which chronicles his early years as a comic suffering from a chronic sleepwalking disorder that occasionally endangers his life and the lives of those around him. The story deals with stress that comes from his condition, as well as his limp act and a fading relationship.
SLEEPWALK WITH ME is funny, charming, and front-loaded with universal, anxiety-laden truths about pitting expectations others place on you against simply following one's life ambition. I sat down to talk with Birbiglia during Chicago's Just for Laughs comedy festival a couple months back to discuss the transition his story took from stage to book to the big screen, and working with Ira Glass (credited as a co-writer) to fine tune the screenplay. Please enjoy…
Mike Birbiglia: So did you go to the fest this year?
Capone: Which fest?
MB: Like did you go to Sundance or SXSW?
Capone: I didn’t go to Sundance, but I did go to SXSW, although somehow I completely missed seeing your movie there.
MB: The festivals are such a blur. I’m only catching up now, like next week I’m going to the Nantucket Festival, and my queue is like three or four movies a day to see all of the movies that I couldn’t see at Sundance basically.
Capone: Right, well that’s kind of what happens for the rest of the year, just catching up with the Sundance stuff and then Cannes films. Basically, most of what I know about you is from what I hear on the radio and from this movie. Was the transition of your comedy career--from "joke, joke, joke" to stories from your life--really as simple as someone saying “Hey, you should talk about your life”?
MB: That’s like the movie version, for sure.
Capone: Okay, so it wasn’t a single incident, but was that how it worked for you, where you thought, “This is where it’s probably going to work best for me.”
MB: That was based on a few different people, like one person was Mark Maron, who was a disciple of that school of comedy, and I knew him a little bit. In New York, we had a love-hate relationship. Did you ever hear my podcast with him?
Capone: On his show?
Capone: I probably did, yeah.
MB: I interviewed him for the 200th episode of his show. But the "Mark Mulheren" character, played by Marc Maron, was one of those people. My first manager was the guy who was the talent scout for the comic strip in the Upper Eastside of Manhattan, and he had done it for 30 years. He booked Seinfeld and Chris Rock and early Ray Ramano. He was like on the early end of a lot of these really big comedy players and he gave me this piece of advice once where he said “If you write about yourself, no one can steal it,” and there’s a lot of truth to that.
That is one of the frustrations of being a stand-up comedian; we're all swimming in the same pond and you do get frustrated. I don’t watch many stand-up comedy specials, but I saw a clip of someone’s special the other day where almost verbatim they have a bit that is in my notebook, and I just have to go [pretends to rips the pages out of his notebook], and it’s a bit I really like.
So he said that, and then I was starting to be asked to do stories for The Moth, which is a storytelling series in New York and is now a public radio show, a podcast. There would be different storytelling shows; there’s a show up in Montreal Just For Laughs Festival called Confessing It, where we're asked to tell a story we've never told on stage. And it was things like that where the more I started talking about myself, the more I found the audience was engaged and the more I thought, “They're engaged I think because I’m engaged, and I’m giving myself to this to some extent.”
There’s something I realized in my 20s about I guess observational comedy or clever comedy where you look at someone doing it, and to some degree you just have this thought in your mind like, “Yeah, I could have written that.” And when someone tells you something personal and revealing about themselves, you’re like, “Oh thanks.” It’s a different reaction. [laughs] Do you know what I mean? I’ve never watched someone who tells a truly inspired personal story and thought, “I could have thought of that.” “No, you couldn’t have. That happened to that person.” I think something happened where I was put in these situations where I was asked to tell stories, and I realized, “Oh, I’m actually better at this, and there’s something happening that’s more exciting to me.”
Capone: For a lot of people, the more observational storytelling comedy has opened up stand-up for them. I’m old enough to have lived through the last wave when stand-up was really big, but it was just joke, joke, joke, and after a while, that got old. When I hear people like you or Louis C.K. or Patton Oswalt tell stories about their lives, it’s identifiable. More than likely somewhere in that show, you're going to find something like “I’ve been through that.”
MB: I agree. On the heels of what you are saying, there’s something special about being in an audience and having one person on stage say something that in a different context would be off the wall. If someone had said it as work, you would be like “Oh my God!” But instead you're in a room where everyone is laughing, and there’s something deeply cathartic about that, I think.
Capone: The version of you in this movie, I think it’s safe to say there might be some people in the audience that might not ever like him, and I don’t mean that’s because you are unlikable, it’s because he does some unlikable things. Is it more important to you that we like him or that we understand him?
MB: Of course, he does unlikable things. No, I don’t think you have to like him. I think that hopefully… No, not “hopefully.” That’s the word that we are banishing from all articles from now on, right? That was this week.
Capone: What is that? I missed that.
MB: The word “hopefully,” I think they are banishing from some style sheets, because…
Capone: …we live in a world without hope?
MB: Because people use it incorrectly. I’m always afraid of the word “likable” when writing anything. I try to use the word “relatable” and I think that the character is relatable, because the character is misunderstood. No one in his life thinks that he can do what he wants to do and no one really believes in him, and I feel like that’s relatable. I feel like that all of the time.
Capone: I think his girlfriend seems upportive.
MB: I think that’s the paradox if the film. She is the one person he is closest to in his life and he can’t tell the truth to her anymore, because of his changing feelings. That was painful about my life in real life, and I think that’s what's painful about the film.
I think for most people when they watch the film, the moment where it makes you cringe is when he starts talking about her on stage, because you are just going, “Oh no. We like her. Why is he doing this?” Like he’s double crossing her in some ways.
Capone: It’s very clear he doesn’t want her to ever see him perform, and if I’m remembering it right, we don’t ever see her in the audience of one of his shows. So is that really what happened? Did the girlfriend who was sort of the model for this never see that material?
MB: The reality of it was, she knew that I had jokes about her, but I feel like the more I went on the road, the more specific the jokes got and the less she saw them. For film construction, we had to assemble it that way storywise.
Capone: And of course I realize this isn’t a documentary or anything.
MB: Which is why it’s “Matt Pandamiglio” and not Mike Birbiglia.
Capone: Tying the sleepwalking issue with the relationships--with the girlfriend and the parents with one almost sort of fueling the other--reminds me of what Spalding Gray did in his monologue GRAY’S ANATOMY, which [Steven] Soderbergh directed.
MB: Oh that sounds great.
Capone: I hadn’t really seen anyone attempt that in a while and I’ve certainly never seen anyone attempt it around this variation of sleepwalking. What is it called?
MB: REM Behavior Disorder.
Capone: It feels like a thing that's made up.
MB: I think it was in the news a couple of weeks ago. If you Google News "sleepwalking," I think like 60 percent of Americans sleepwalk; it was a really high number. I was shocked by it. But it’s interesting, I think that book ["The Promise of Sleep: A Pioneer in Sleep Medicine Explores the Vital Connection Between Health, Happiness, and a Good Night's Sleep" by William Dement], and that is the real Dr. Dement in the movie by the way.
Capone: I saw that in the credits.
MB: He wrote that wonderful book on sleep and sleep habits, and it’s a big problem. People are sleep deprived in our country. It’s a really common thing and it’s dangerous.
Capone: I knew someone who was a night snacker. That’s a pretty common thing, I think, but they would literally wake up and there would be a Cheerio in the bathroom sink and she'd be like, “How the hell did that get there?” [Both laugh] You took this story through the process of individual stories and some of them made it to the radio and there was a book too and a live show. In addition to co-writing this screenplay and being the star of film, why did you decide to add directing on top of all of the other things?
MB: Well I always wanted to direct films, since I was about 19 or 20 years old and what I discovered was that I couldn’t afford to.
MB: Afford to financially, yeah. I mean it’s so expensive. I was making shorts in college and just burning through money, and I realized that making movies is the opposite of having a job. You're spending money, so it’s the opposite of taking in money.
Capone: You’re giving someone money for you to work.
MB: That’s right. So it was a little bit like a suppressed dream all through my 20s, and so finally when push came to shove with this movie, I wasn’t going to direct it. It was with a company that makes a lot of films and it was going to be a larger-budget film like maybe a $7 million film, and then they decided that they didn’t think the script was ready, and Ira [Glass] and I felt like the script was ready. So we just kind of parted ways amicably, and we said, “Well, let’s try to make it for $1 million.” I’m friends with Lena [Dunham], and she had made TINY FURNITURE; and I’m friends with like Jeff Garlin, who had made SOMEONE TO EAT CHEESE WITH. There were a lot of people who I was friends with, like Craig Zobel who did COMPLIANCE this year.
Capone: I love that movie.
MB: God, it was incredible. That movie is brilliant. Jeff Garlin, Craig Zobel, Lena Dunham all said to me, “You should direct it, because you’re the closest to the material,” and Jeff literally said to me, “If you hire a director, you’re just going to fight with him the whole time.” It was other filmmakers who gave me the confidence to direct.
Capone: I just saw you not that long ago getting your ass chewed out by Mark Duplass in YOUR SISTER’S SISTER.
MB: Yeah, I can’t even watch that scene.
Capone: Oh my god, it’s so awful.
MB: It’s so painful, that scene. It is a screechingly awkward scene. I loved doing it. I loved shooting it and then I saw it and I was like, “Oh my god, I can never watch that again.”
Capone: Is it the beard that throws you off?
MB: It’s just the subject matter is so intense.
Capone: He just lays you out, too.
MB: He's great. I love working with him. I loved working with Lynn [Shelton, director].
Capone: You mentioned Ira. What were his contributions to the screenplay? You’ve pretty much had this story in hand for a while, but what did he actually add to the screenplay?
MB: It’s a really complex crediting, but it’s a screenplay by Mike Birbiglia & Ira Glass & Seth Barish & Joe Birbiglia, and the Writers Guild made us write “&”.
Capone: Which implies you wrote it together, right? Because if you use the word “and,” it means somebody came in after somebody else, right?
MB: Yes, so it’s a very confusing title block, but all three of those people are people who I have collaborated with intensely over many years. Ira I've worked with over the last four or five years. Seth I worked with for eight years. My brother, I had been working with since I was 19 years old. Even in high school, we would work on parody issues of the school newspaper
I think Ira’s biggest contributions had to do with…I always held the master document, but we would have sessions of “just me and Ira; just me and Seth; me, Ira, Seth, and Joe…”--all different types of sessions, which is why it was hard to classify. I’ve always felt that the thing about Ira is that he’s a real story jedi. He's a real stickler for perfection in telling stories and I think in a lot of ways, that’s the reason the film works, because there were scenes that I really liked ,and he would just go, “We're not feeling anything from this character,” and I would be, “No, but it’s funny, because of this, and it moves the story.” He would just go, “No, we need something that is more along the lines of this.” In a lot of ways, he did a lot of dramaturgical work on it. His standards, I have to say, in his radio show and his TV show and with this movie, are absurdly high.
Capone: I can believe it. When you make a movie like this that is so personal, and then you do all of these interviews, and those that interview you seem to have been given a green light to ask really personal questions.
MB: And make it more personal. [laughs]
Capone: The idea that this relationship with the girlfriend and almost equally the relationship you have with your parents in the film are fueling these dreams.
Capone: And not in a very healthy way. How did it feel actually coming to that realization that these outside forces were controlling your dreams?
MB: The realization that those people were connected to the dreams.=?
Capone: Yeah, that they were sort of fueling this sometimes dangerious behavior.
MB: I feel like realizations occur over time. It’s very rare that we have “ah-ha” moments that exist in fiction and film. Much like you were saying about the Mark Maron moment of, “Oh, I should talk about my self on stage.” In film, you have to have that moment. That moment has to exist, because an audience can’t compute a passage-of-time realization. There has to be a realization, and so in terms of having a realization that my family and all of these pressures were affecting my dreams, I would say I’m still kind of getting that now, [laughs] like I’m not even fully there yet
It’s tricky, because it’s a combination of a biological disorder that I have, which is similar to behaviors where people have dopamine deficiency, and also that I have extreme anxiety about things that I’m repressing. I think it’s mostly my fault; I feel like I’m a people pleasure in some sense and I want to make people happy, and sometimes when you have a problem, when you have a duel goal. One is, you want to do this very unorthodox thing with your life, in this case being a comedian, and then the other thing which is to make everyone else in your life happy, when no one really understands what the other goal is.
Capone: Yeah. I do want to say before they throw me out here, the Mitch Hedberg moments that you have when they're watching him on TV, I don’t know if a lot of people are going to get that, but that’s a really nice tribute. You don’t really do the same style of humor as him, so what’s your connection there?
MB: I love Mitch. I wrote a chapter about him in my book. I opened for him a bunch of times. You can probably find the chapter online, this chapter, it’s called “My Hero” and it’s about Mitch Hedberg and that joke is [in the movie] my favorite joke of his: “Quit trying to act like I'm a steamboat operator.” Yeah, he’s incredible.