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

'I think of my one-man shows as giving the audience a full meal as opposed to giving them chicken wings'

Mike Birbiglia
Taylor Hill/FilmMagic
Mike Birbiglia
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This weekend, comedian Mike Birbiglia's feature-film debut, Sleepwalk With Me, opens in theaters. Rolling Stone interviewed Birbiglia at his home in Brooklyn about the film, blending drama with comedy and the craft that goes into making people laugh.

At the climax of Sleepwalk With Me, which you directed and star in, your character jumps through the second-story window of a La Quinta Inn while he's asleepsomething you actually did in real life because you suffer from REM Behavior Disorder. Do you really go to bed now in mittens and a sleeping bag to restrain yourself?
My sleeping bag is in my suitcase because I just got back from a trip. The mittens are here, too, but I don't use them because they feel restrictive and warm and not comfy.

Your bedroom is on the second floor of this building. Isn't that dangerous?
We just moved in a couple weeks ago and we ordered shutters for our windows, which are essentially a wall when they're closed. They haven't come yet, so in the meantime we've put, like, pillows and furniture in the window frames, all the couch pillows from downstairs. It's absurd. Sometimes when I'm on tour on the wrong floor of a hotel, my wife and I take a couch and tilt it up against the window. If housekeeping comes, they think we're Johnny Depp, like we're on drugs and we trashed the room.

Before this movie, there was a Sleepwalk With Me one-man show, a Sleepwalk With Me book and a Sleepwalk With Me performance CD. You've been living with this material for a while.
I actually conceived of the one-man show before I'd even jumped through the window, which is strange to think about. I started writing Sleepwalk With Me in 2002, because sleepwalking had been part of my life since about college. I always knew that it was something interesting – like, "This is odd, this is an interesting thing for a character to do." It's an interesting metaphor, but I actually do it. But in 2002, I broke up with my girlfriend of six, seven years, and I've been working on Sleepwalk in some form since then. I didn't jump through the window until 2005.

What did you study at college?
I was a screenwriting major at Georgetown, and I was in class with some really strong writers like Jonathan Nolan, who co-wrote The Dark Knight with Chris, his brother. He wrote The Prestige, the story for Memento. Anyway, I directed short films in college. Sad comedies, humorous but about sad people, and they were a complete financial disaster: lost all my money. And I was like, this just is not sustainable. There's no way this is gonna work. So I used comedy. I started working the door at the Washington, D.C. Improv. I moved to New York, did Letterman young, when I was 24. But I still wanted to make films and write plays, so I started on Sleepwalk With Me, workshopping it at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, and it had its premiere Off Broadway in 2008.

So you stuck with it for six years.
I've become good friends with Lena Dunham, and the thing I had in common with Lena when I was 24 is I was as ambitious as she was. What we don't have in common is that I was not as talented. My voice was not as clearly defined. But I had ambitions of making stuff in the vein of Woody Allen and James L. Brooks and these people I admired, even if I couldn't do it yet.

What's the difference, as you see it, between stand-up and theater?
I talk about this all the time. It's so complicated. There's a lot of stuff that's completely unique to different projects, but I'm a comedian. There's something that I'm doing where there's some kind of combination of comedy and earnestness and optimism and drama that's kind of evolved over the years.

Maybe part of the difference has to do with that sense of earnestnessin Sleepwalk With Me Live, you talk about finding a malignant tumor in your bladder and cheating on your girlfriend. You go into buzzkill territory, which a standup who wants to keep people laughing wouldn't necessarily risk doing. Moments like that don't happen in your standup specials.
It's partly that, and it's partly that Sleepwalk builds towards an arc the way a play does. It builds toward a main event. Seth Barrish, who directed the one-man show, helped me whittle it down from two hours to an hour and 12 minutes, taking out bits that were really funny. A ton of really strong stuff went on the cutting-room floor. But that was in the service of having everything build towards the ending – that's the difference between a comedy special and a show. I think of my one-man shows as giving the audience a full meal as opposed to giving them chicken wings. It's like, I love chicken wings, but there's something about giving an audience a meal that feels like something.

One thing that's striking about your material is how conversational and off-the-cuff it seems, even though that atmosphere is actually the result of endless tinkering and crafting.
It's all tricks. It's luring the audience into a feeling of comfort and relaxation where they don't really realize that something's coming. They're just laughing and they're having a good time, and then all of the sudden – oh this is actually about something. And it sneaks up on you. That's the goal of the one-man show, certainly.

It happens in your standup, too. You'll introduce a topic, then nest in a digression, then nest a digression into that digression, and so on, then you finally loop back. Listening to your specials, I wondered if you diagram all those twists and turns and subcategories.
I do! The digressions are carefully considered. In our old apartment, I had a cork board, and it was all three-by-five notecards, like, this, this, this, this: I'll have a show here, a movie here, another show here, a standup set for Letterman here, my book here – that was a whole area. I haven't put the corkboard up here yet.

How hard is it for you to tell unflattering, personal stories onstage?
When I was workshopping Sleepwalk With Me, and it has the scene where I end up in the back of the car with the waitress, cheating on my ex-girlfriend and all that stuff – which was horrible – I did that onstage at that club. Typically, I'm able to disconnect from the material just enough. But that is the hardest story I've ever told live onstage. Especially in comedy clubs, because I workshopped that in comedy clubs to make sure the laughs were there. But man, is a comedy club audience not ready for that kind of a dramatic turn!

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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