The best medicine
Mike Birbiglia turns awkward situations into awkward comedy
By Chris O'Neal 11/01/2012
For those of us who have spent many a sleepless night reminiscing about an awkward kiss or a well-intentioned but badly timed compliment, comedian Mike Birbiglia understands. Birbiglia has found a way to turn what should have become repressed memories into fodder for his shows, a trait all too human and uniquely “Birbigs.” Sleepwalk With Me, Birbiglia’s stage-show recalling both his battle with “rapid eye movement behavior disorder” (which causes him to act out his sometimes vivid dreams) and his troubled and failing relationship, was named Show of the Year by the New York Times in 2009. Excerpts were aired on NPR’s This American Life (TAL). This year, in collaboration with TAL’s Ira Glass, Sleepwalk With Me was made into a hit indie film. In his latest show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, the often unspeakable details of failed relationships become the subject of uniquely personal humor. Out there, sometimes unbelievable, but completely empathetic (and hilarious), Birbiglia’s comedy has reached a new type of fan for whom laughter often comes with a sharp edge. Mike Birbiglia corresponded with VCReporter from Chicago, where he performed seven sold-out shows.
VCReporter: For those not familiar with your stand-up, I would describe it as tragicomedy. How do you strike a balance between humor and emotion?
Mike Birbiglia: It takes a lot of trial and error. Pretty much everything in my show and in my movie, Sleepwalk With Me, are stories that I’ve done on stage in their first incarnation to no laughter, complete silence. And then I look for the one or two laughs that are happening and I gravitate toward where the laughter is coming from, and then kind of try to write in that direction. So it’s a long process, but fortunately for the people of Thousand Oaks, they will be seeing the funny, completed version.
Have there been any situations in your life that you would feel uncomfortable telling on stage?
Yes. Many, many, many, many, many times 1,000 stories. But I always have it in my mind when there’s a story like that — I’m always estimating in my mind how many years it will take before I’m comfortable talking about it.
I first heard a part of Sleepwalk With Me on This American Life, and when I heard it would become a film, I was thrilled. In the film, you play Matt Pandamiglio, a fictionalized version of yourself. The characters from the original story are represented in the film as well, only under different names. When did the decision to fictionalize parts of the story come about, and how much of the film is true?
In the draft process, we got 15 or 20 drafts into the writing process, and there were so many things that the people in real life didn’t do or say, that the characters in the film do or say, that it just became clear that the film was its own thing altogether. So Matt Pandamiglio as a character name was basically a nod to the audience, saying, we know it’s me, basically, but it’s not me, literally.
Your new stage show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, sounds a lot like my last relationship. Can one man have possibly lived through so much heart break? I’m surprised you’re still standing.
Well, my original goal was to write about your past relationship, and then in the process I decided to write about my own past relationship. Yeah, it’s hard. I always encourage people to come with their boyfriend or girlfriend or wife or husband or significant other because I think it’s good to talk about these awkward relationship quandaries that we sometimes find ourselves in, because talking about things is generally better than not. Laughing tends to make things better. Or worse? One of those. I forget which.
What’s the difference between your stand-up and a show like My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend? In a way, I picture stand-up to be more in the moment, whereas a show full of personal stories is almost timeless.
Well, it sounds like you just answered the question. That’s a better answer than I could possibly give! But I will say this: The show I’m bringing to Thousand Oaks has essentially the same amount of laughs and jokes as one of my stand-up comedy shows, but it all builds toward a single story arc. I like to think of my shows as a meal, as opposed to stand-up, which I describe as chicken wings. I like chicken wings, but I love a good meal.
Mike Birbiglia will perform My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend at the Fred Kavli Theatre at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on Friday, Nov. 2,, and at UCSB’s Campbell Hall in Santa Barbara on Nov. 4. For tickets, visit www.birbigs.com.