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Q&A: Mike Birbiglia on Directing 'Sleepwalk With Me,' 'Piloting' Standup

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You tell a joke on your CD, My Secret Public Journal Live, about doing standup at a benefit after an 11-year-old leukemia survivor has told his story. What's the trick to pivoting from heavy material back to laughs without losing the audience entirely?
There's this great Bill Cosby analogy that I always think of, and it gets quoted a lot by, like, Seinfeld. Cosby describes being a standup comedian as being the pilot of the plane. You can't get on the intercom and go, "I don't know what's going to happen. We're going through a storm. The visibility is bad." But that obviously happens. You have to just remain calm and say, you know, "We're at 10,000 feet, sit back, enjoy the ride, have a drink." In my work in the last few years, it's been the ultimate test of being a pilot, and I'm not so sure I can come through the other side. When I'm talking about cheating, the audience hates it and they hate me. I have to express my understanding that I'm aware that I was in the wrong, then continue the story. You just have to stay on course.

I bet that took some refining to get right.
There were bad, bad versions of that show. I would come home to Jen, my wife, and be like, "The audience hates me. This show's a disaster." As a comedian, you want people to like you. That's part of why you're there in the first place: You have this unquenchable need to be liked, and then when you divert from that and take a chance at doing something that has moments of fierce unlikeability, you can hit some real low points.

Jerry Seinfeld has also talked about the importance of economy and editing to comedy. Some of your jokes are so leando they start off flabbier, and you trim them down?
Yeah. My process is: I will write something, and then I will do it from memory onstage, and then record it, and then I will transcribe what I said. What I wrote was this, what came out was this. And often what comes out is funnier than what you wrote. There's the comfortable, living room writing, and then there's the onstage, gun-to-your-head, the-audience-wants-to-hear-something-funny-and-they-want-it-now kind of writing. That's how it evolves. Often what I'll do, I'll go through something that's a page in Microsoft Word and I'll cut it to, you know, a third. Get rid of prepositions and extra articles and adjectives, adverbs and things. You go, why would I be flowery here? Nobody needs flowery.

Judd Apatow is a fan of the film. Who else have you heard from?
The coolest phone call I've gotten was James L. Brooks. He said he liked the movie a lot. It was really crazy. When Judd called me, that was wildly flattering, because I love his movies. I know him, I think, through Lena. He took us to see Death of a Salesman closing night with Phil Hoffman, which was unbelievable, nothing like my life normally. And at the closing party, Judd introduced me to James L. Brooks, who is one of my favorite moviemakers of all time. He and Woody Allen are pretty much the reason that I want to make movies, because they made me feel something while I was laughing. So meeting him, I was just gushing. I told him Terms of Endearment is my favorite comedy. I had no idea he was going to call me, but he was like, "Mike, I watched the movie, it's great." I couldn't imagine a better "Yippee!" moment in my life. It was all fine after that.

Ira Glass co-wrote the movie, and you've appeared a bunch on This American Life. It's an interesting route for an aspiring standup to have taken.
I got out of school in 2000, and I always wanted to be on This American Life, since I first started telling stories. And that, I mean, that show is a little bit of a fortress. It's really hard to get stuff on that show.

What insights did you take from your years doing standup when it came to making a movie?
The movie was workshopped. This American Life would post on their site an invitation to a movie you can see in Brooklyn tonight; first 60 people to email get in. Nobody knows that there's a This American Life movie. Nobody really knows there's a Mike Birbigilia movie. So we didn't say in the post that that's what it was. We wanted people to come in clean. We screened about seven cuts, and in the early cuts, people hated the movie, and in the last cuts, they loved it. The way the movie succeeds in the way a studio film probably couldn't is that we'd see feedback and go, "Let's go shoot a scene, take a RED camera out in the car, drop it into the edit and see if it works."

The movie starts with you telling the audience it's a true story. Except you play a character named Matt, so there's a wink there. What is the relationship between truth-telling and artifice in your work, as you see it?
I always say this: The stuff in the movie and in the one-man show that you wouldn't expect to be true is true. Jumping through the window is true. The things where you're like, "Whoa, that happened?!" Then there's a lot of stuff that's just for convenient storytelling – the parents living in Long Island because we don't want to see them drive to Massachusetts where my parents live 15 times during the film. My real life ex-girlfriend is an actress, not a singer, and her name isn't Abby. The choice to have a pseudonym in the film, the character named Matt Pandamiglio, was partly out of protection of the real-life people. Like, my parents aren't my parents. When Carol Kane walks onto the set and says what she says, it's not your mom. It's Carol Kane doing this amazing thing that you couldn't imagine ever even writing. It's much better than what you could have written. So to say that's Mary-Jean Birbiglia is insane.

You're promoting the movie now, and you're also doing standup. Are you building a new special?
Just this past week I developed a new hour. I just told them a whole bunch of new stories and I'm not sure what I'm going to do with it. But I have it. It's just a matter of making it good. You know, like, I do an hour or an hour and twenty every night. I don't repeat, but if it doesn't go well, I just close with old bits. But I didn't have to use it this week! That's a good feeling.

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