Mike Birbiglia Sleepwalks to Success [Interview]

Comedian Mike Birbiglia almost died jumping out a window, but he’s laughing about the experience now. Birbiglia suffers from REM behavior disorder, making him liable to act out dreams while asleep. That’s why Birbiglia barreled through the window of his second-floor hotel room, believing a guided missile had targeted him. At the hospital, a doctor told him the broken glass nearly cut his femoral artery. The premise for his off-Broadway show, book and movie was born.

“What I find is that it’s hard to make a tragic story funny, but if you can, it’s my favorite kind of story,” Birbiglia says.

Birbiglia makes his directorial debut in “Sleepwalk with Me,” a semiautobiographical film in which he also plays the lead, Matt Pandamiglio—a comic struggling both to be funny and to maintain his relationship with his girlfriend.

There are parallels to Birbiglia’s life in Matt, but Birbiglia emphasizes the film being fictitious helped him write the screenplay: “When you’re writing the script, you want the ability to have a character punch another character in the face. I’ve never punched anyone.”

The film was tweaked through screenings promoted by NPR’s “This American Life.” These changes had Birbiglia look away from the audience while narrating and a framing device implemented.

“Every frame is informing your experience,” Birbiglia says. “Who are these people and what is happening? And so if you change one little thing, the calibration of everything changes.”

Birbiglia also says he’s refined his content through international audiences, pushing him to “humanize everything you’re doing” instead of relying on cultural jokes about Cinnabon or the Kardashians.

“All you can do is make these observations and tell stories about human situations, and it puts weights on your feet as a writer, ‘cause in some ways those cultural references are comedic crutches,” Birbiglia says.

Birbiglia recently returned for five stand-up shows at DC Improv, where he got his start. The difference between doing stand-up and doing a movie is drastic, according to Birbiglia.

“It’s so easy compared to making a film,” Birbiglia says of stand-up. “But I find making a film, making a one-man show is more gratifying. In other words, making a movie in some ways is kind of like presenting people with a meal, and doing stand-up is kind of like serving them chicken wings or mozzarella sticks, where it’s like, ‘I like chicken wings, but it would be nice to have a nice meal.’”

Birbiglia says in the future, he envisions doing stand-up and movies, and is working on a screenplay based on his new off-Broadway show, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.”

“It’s so hard to get a film off the ground and make your first film,” Birbiglia says. “But now that I’ve done it, I’m like, ‘Well, I can’t not do it again.’ It’s like going to medical school and then being like, ‘Well, I’m going to be a dog catcher.’”

A Delectable Dream

Birbiglia is a pizza aficionado, and one of his jokes involves a pizza travel pillow that he could eat until he falls asleep. The transition from stand-up to film allowed Birbiglia to bring some of his outlandish ideas and dream sequences to life, and the pizza travel pillow appears in the film.

“That was our prop master Kirsten Thorson,” Birbiglia says. “She made that with the help of this pizzeria in Brooklyn called Roberta’s, which is so good. So that pizza pillow actually tasted fantastic. No one realizes it, but there’s not a lot of acting going on there.”

Photo by Adam Beckman

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