Nothing is a constant when it comes to the world of comedian Mike Birbiglia. Since the release of the specials Sleepwalk With Me (2011) and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend (2013), he continues to impress audiences worldwide with his distinct brand of performance. At its core, the foundation is comedy. Yet what sets Birbiglia apart is his ability to display a particular transparency and wit that is unlike anyone else.
Nothing is a constant when it comes to the world of comedian Mike Birbiglia. Since the release of the specials Sleepwalk With Me (2011) and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend (2013), he continues to impress audiences worldwide with his distinct brand of performance. At its core, the foundation is comedy. Yet what sets Birbiglia apart is his ability to display a particular transparency and wit that is unlike anyone else. Currently, he is close to halfway done with his current run performing Thank God For Jokes to 100 cities across the globe, which will bring him to Richmond’s Carpenter Theatre on Friday, May 30. He is still figuring everything out as he travels with this new show.
“Most things I work on naturally take three or four more years than I originally anticipated,” Birbiglia jokes when pondering the time between his specials. His early forays in comedy can be best seen in his initial specials Two Drink Mike (2006) and My Secret Public Journal (2007), both of which have received critical acclaim as well as recognition for the age in which Birbiglia was developing those two sets. Soon afterwards, Birbiglia began working on what many consider his magnum opus, Sleepwalk With Me. This story follows his experiences with growing as a comedian, a long-term relationship with his then-girlfriend Abby, and dealing with a rare sleep disorder called rapid eye movement behavior disorder. What began as a part of his stand-up routine and a story that appeared on This American Life would soon become a one-man show on Broadway and eventually garner a cinematic adaptation to accompany that performance. The film, which Birbiglia co-wrote and directed, focused on the story told in the original one-man show, while the book, written by Birbiglia and subtitled …& Other Painfully True Stories, shared this tale as well as several others that he’d used for previous stand-up specials, along with a heartfelt tribute to the late Mitch Hedberg.
One fascinating and distinctive aspect of Birbiglia’s standup work is the frequent use of callbacks. These can be as simple as Birbiglia informing the audience that he knows how awful an incident from his past was because he is in the future also. “I love doing callbacks. A good and well planted one is such a cool way of developing a common language,” Birbiglia says. “I never want to get to the point where they are expected to the point of, like, ‘Oh, there’s the bit about the walnuts, he’s about to reference something he said from earlier.’” He adds, “If the audience gets to the punchline before I do, I am not doing it right, and I need to work on it more.” Despite being the center of attention in his performances, Birbiglia is quite self-effacing. It’s this sense of humility that drives him to continue to break past common expectation.
For the cinematic adaptation of Sleepwalk With Me, Birbiglia took on the directing for the first time. Being a director helped him realize the true importance of the director’s role in film production. “As an actor, I might have thought I contributed a large part into this thing, but that’s not really the case. If there isn’t a competent director that can manage nine things at once, you will probably see everything fall apart.” This was a challenging experience for the comedian, but something he continues to educate himself about.
Even beyond the experiences he had on that set, his later acting opportunities with the likes of Judd Apatow, Lena Dunham, and Josh Boone would provide even more lessons. “I have just started doing table reads with Apatow for Trainwreck, and to watch someone of that caliber at work is just rewarding in so many ways,” Birbiglia says. He recently got to see the finished product of the film The Fault In Our Stars, in which he worked with director Josh Boone. “The thing I like about that movie is that I think it touches on a little of what I do,” he says. “It’s really a movie about two kids falling in love, and it just so happens they both have cancer. It’s heartfelt and genuinely funny and it just works.” In Sleepwalk With Me as well as My Secret Public Journal, Birbiglia has written bits revolving around his own experiences overcoming cancer, which he finds often resonate with audiences. “I’ve been approached by a lot of people after shows that have shared personal details about their experiences with cancer and how what I do on stage has helped them laugh at this really awful thing. It’s really astounding to me.”
While working on the book and film adaptations of Sleepwalk With Me, Birbiglia was fine-tuning and performing My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. “Sleepwalk With Me might have taken about seven years, whereas My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend took about four,” Birbiglia says. This performance focuses on the comedian’s thoughts regarding marriage, and how he opposed the notion. This conflict spans a lifetime of romantic follies, and intertwines with a car accident he was involved in during a trip to Los Angeles. The story is also about the way Birbiglia met Jen Stein, the woman that would eventually become his wife. As he puts it, “I still don’t believe in marriage, but I believe in Jenny.”
This wasn’t the first time Stein would find herself mentioned during one of his sets. In the closing bit from Sleepwalk With Me, entitled “The Missile,” Birbiglia mentions Stein as the woman he ended up with after his relationship with Abby had ended. Soon after they’d gotten together, Birbiglia endured the biggest incident yet with his sleep disorder, in which he jumped out of a second story window in his sleep. However, in the cinematic adaptation of Sleepwalk With Me, there is no mention of Stein. Birbiglia reveals that he had a reason for leaving her out. “I felt like the story needed to show this person getting broken up with. It was the story of Matt and Abby. If he had ended up with Jenny at the end, it would almost have the audience going like, ‘Oh, they should have been together all along,’ and that wasn’t what I was going for.”
As with Sleepwalk With Me, Birbiglia’s 70-city run for My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend inspired a lot of intense reactions from audiences. “There is this one story that the title stems from, where I talk about having a girl who had another boyfriend, and she didn’t want me to talk about it,” Birbiglia says. “I reflected on that as this really unique experience I had, and was shocked to have so many people come up to me in different cities and tell me that they went through the exact same thing.” It’s these sometimes-unwitting shared experiences that help Birbiglia excel as a performer and forge a strong connection with his audience. It’s easy to see why My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend was nominated for comedy special of the year at the 2013 American Comedy Awards.
Birbiglia is currently working on a cinematic adaptation of My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend as well. “When Ira Glass and I were premiering [the film version of] Sleepwalk With Me in different cities, I would constantly get asked what I was working on next. Eventually, I decided that I wanted to take [My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend] and build a film around it. I would say it’s going to be more or less inspired by My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, as opposed to being a direct adaptation of the one-man show,” Birbiglia says. There is no projected start time for production as Birbiglia has other tasks to accomplish first. “I am working on two scripts, one of which is for that. It’s more a matter of which one is finished first,” he says. “That will probably be what I end up working on in 2015, amongst other things.”
For the better part of 2014, Birbiglia has been touring on Thank God For Jokes. This is an amalgamation of his first two comedy specials as well as his most recent one-man shows. “I wanted to go back to my roots and just start writing jokes again,” Birbiglia explains. “I just wanted to get to the root of what I love about jokes. The way that jokes can connect an audience through laughter.” Many of these jokes will continue to involve people in his life, but the comedian is wary about continuing to use such personal subjects. “I think with the more attention I receive… I wouldn’t say it’s me becoming more reserved, as it is me needing to be careful about what I write in some regards.” At the same time, he does subscribe to one well known bit of logic shared by many in his craft. “The truth behind ‘time plus tragedy equals comedy’ is pretty much why so much time exists between the stories I tell. I need that time and distance to even begin feeling comfortable sharing these stories with an audience. It’s like being at a bar at 2am with a friend and telling them these stories, and finding the way to have that sort of intimacy with an audience,” Birbiglia explains.
Despite being less than halfway through his tour for Thank God For Jokes, Birbiglia has already begun to notice a thread developing. “I initially wanted to just write the best jokes I possibly could, while also examining how jokes can connect people and jokes can get you in trouble. That’s the beauty of it,” he says. ”With the initial run of shows, I like seeing a theme develop organically through the performances, and it allows me to keep writing and writing while on the road.” By the time he has completed the run, Birbiglia has fairly big plans for how he’d like to present Thank God For Jokes. “I know I want to take it and run it on Broadway, because there is nothing quite like it. We are probably going to shoot it next year, but there is a little talk about maybe having it shot in such a way that it could be released theatrically. We aren’t there yet though, so I guess you’ll have to ask me next year,” Birbiglia jokes.
Outside of the two screenplays, the 50-plus cities ahead of him on his Thank God For Jokes tour, his frequent acting, the eventual cinematic adaptation of My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, and everything else he could possibly work on, the future is still ever-expanding for Birbiglia. “I don’t know if I am outside of under the radar in terms of getting projects going. It might be easier to get scripts read. As far as directing, I really have no idea. Then again I don’t think making movies is supposed to be an easy experience. That’s kind of the magic and the chaos of it,” he explains. The comedian also expressed a few thoughts about where he could see his material heading post-Thank God For Jokes. “I would never want to be an artist that repeats themselves. It’s like when a director attempts to recreate something they did when they were younger, and it’s not natural. As far as the future of what I write, it all depends. If I end up having kids, that will certainly be a focus on how I write. Once I get to 60, I’ll probably think about death and mortality a little bit more. It’s just when I get there that will definitely influence my writing. It’s inevitable,” Birbiglia says.
There is a triumph in seeing comedians like Birbiglia achieve the level of success that he has. Since 2008, his career has steadily been on the rise, and he has begun to receive the acclaim that he rightfully deserves. Thank God For Jokes could easily reach the level that he has been striving for since the release of Two Drink Mike in 2006. One thing is for sure though–there will be no forced callbacks. We won’t make it to the comedic finish line until Birbiglia guides us there.
Mike Birbiglia will perform at Richmond CenterStage’s Carpenter Theatre, located at 600 E. Grace St, on Friday, May 30. Doors open at 7 PM. Tickets are $35 in advance, and can be ordered HERE.