Giggles with Birbiggles: An Interview with Mike Birbiglia

Posted January 8, 2014 in
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Mike Birbiglia. Photo: Kyle Ericksen

Mike Birbiglia is a virtuoso storyteller. His one-man performances can have you rolling in the aisles just as quickly as they can have you hiding a tear from your significant other. He’s romantic, he’s hilarious, he occasionally defenestrates himself (maybe you’ve heard the story), and once he lived inside Macy’s. His narrative film Sleepwalk with Me earned the NEXT audience award at Sundance. His book, Sleepwalk with Me and Other Painfully True Stories, debuted at 39 on the hardcover nonfiction New York Times Bestseller List and he’s a regular contributor on radio shows like This American Life. While Birbiglia produces work for a variety of media, his award-winning standup comedy performances are where he really shines. By continually reworking his performances, cutting a little here, adding a little there, and polishing his delivery, he creates a narrative experience that few in the comedy world can rival. Mike took some time to chat with SLUG about his new standup tour Thank God for Jokes, his approach to storytelling, and how to make men cry.

SLUG: On your last special, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, you explore relationships in a touching, but hilarious way. Did you imagine you’d make grown men cry when you were putting it together?
Birbiglia: [Laughs] I don’t think so, no. I always wanted to make a romantic standup comedy special. That was something I hadn’t seen and something I’d always been interested in. You know, in terms of movies, the stuff that really interests me are films like Annie Hall and Manhattan and James L. Brooks films like Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment, I really like that line certain filmmakers have where they blend comedy and pathos in a way that gets you invested in the story. I always thought it would be really cool to do that in stand up. It’s exciting that it’s had that effect on some people.

SLUG: It certainly works well. As I understand, you’re working on adapting that into an actual movie, what are some of the challenges that come with transferring those stories into a narrative full-length film?
Birbiglia: It’s funny because something that started out as a straight adaptation has become more of a very loose adaptation. The forms are so different. Standup comedy and film are very different. Standup comedy is essentially an audio art form and film is this mix of sound and photography and design and basically all of these simultaneous art forms taking place, so when you’re writing that, you kind of have to write all of those different dimensions on the page. It’s very challenging. I feel like making Sleepwalk with Me really opened my eyes to how many mistakes you can make in film. I think in some ways it’s harder to make your second film because you know where it can go wrong, whereas the first time you’ve got a cavalier attitude where you’re like, “Oh, we’ll figure it out on the day,” but you can’t figure out anything on the day you’re shooting.

SLUG: While you were working in the film industry, did it influence a lot of the work you’ve done off-screen or the way you write?
Birbiglia: I think so, yeah. What’s interesting is that process for My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend happened on both sides of Sleepwalk with Me the film. I did My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend off-Broadway, then shot Sleepwalk with Me, then I toured My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend to Australia and 70 cities in America, and it actually made me—I don’t know how to put it exactly—it made me more of a perfectionist. It made me understand the potential of what it could be and I feel like that’s why My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is so specific to the word, I kept re-writing it and re-writing it—it was my agent who forced me to stop doing it. I didn’t want to stop doing My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. [My agent] was like, “There are no more places I will book you, you’ve got to move on, you’ve got to let go of it.”

SLUG: Great, so to shift gears a little bit, you’ve developed a friendship with Ira Glass of the radio program This American Life. He co-wrote the screenplay for Sleepwalk with Me, he’s had you on his show a few times, and he produced your short film—it’s clear he’s a fan of your work. What’s it like to be friends with him and why do you think you get along so well?
Birbiglia: I feel like I’m a comedian who has a strong interest in journalism and he’s a journalist who has a strong interest in comedy. I feel like as a result we kind of defer to each other in the opposing matters. In other words, when we were working on Sleepwalk with Me, my ideas about what was funny or what joke would work best would generally win and his contention about story and what needed to happen with that would win out and I feel like that was a really good interplay. He’s also so much more experienced than I am just as a writer. I feel really lucky to have worked with him because every time I do I feel like I get stronger as a writer—I’m actually working on two pieces for his show right now.

SLUG: Can you tell me anything about those?
Birbiglia: You know, the only reason I don’t talk about it is because I’ve done a lot of pieces for the show over the years, but I’ve also had a lot pieces cut over the years, and that’s sort of the nature of the show. They produce a lot then cut a lot—I’d had to tease something then have people be like, “Oh, well I guess that was cut.” I like to keep my defeats private [laughs].

SLUG: Totally understandable. So along the same lines of journalism and storytelling, a lot of your jokes are very personal and biographical. It seems like you draw a lot of creativity from your life, which is probably a blessing and a curse. Do you ever feel like you need to just step back and just experience life instead of looking at it for its joke potential?
Birbiglia: Yeah, but I don’t really do that, though. A lot of times I’ll visit family over the holidays or I’ll meet people and they’ll say, “Hey, are you going to use this as a joke?” or “Let me tell you this story, this could be in your act,” or that kind of thing. What I always say when people say that is “maybe,” but I won’t know for six months or a year at least because we as human beings are incapable of creating story in real-time. It takes the perspective of months and sometimes years to actually meld something into a narrative that’s worth listening to or seeing.

SLUG: So it’s important to look back on things?
Birbiglia: Yeah, absolutely. If you don’t have perspective, it’s like reciting the lines of a reality show.

SLUG: Your new show claims to be one of your best yet. Other than the obvious reason that you’re more experienced, why do you think that is?
Birbiglia: My first four albums were Two Drink Mike, My Secret Public Journal Live, Sleepwalk with Me, and the recent one, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. Two Drink Mike was all just jokes, basically jokes and stories, then I veered in the direction of telling stories on Secret Journal, then telling single narrative stories with Sleepwalk and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, and for the new one I had been jonesing to go back to Two Drink Mike and return to the idea of what’s the funniest groups of jokes and stories that I have with no uniting theme.

The title joke from Two Drink Mike is, “I don’t drink a lot because I become a different person. Two drink Mike loves dancing and knows a magic trick, zero drink Mike enjoys biographies and has serious opinions about wildlife, five drink Mike enjoys dancing with wildlife.” I always thought I’d like to make Five Drink Mike—it seems like a great album to make. Basically, take all the lessons I’ve learned from years of touring and writing all these shows then just swing away. Just have it be as funny as it can possibly be. So far, these shows have been some of the funniest, I’ve been doing testing shows, what I call “working it out,” in Nashville and Brooklyn and Cincinnati, and they’ve really been some of the funniest shows I’ve had and they’re also the loosest. I’m really going off script in a big way.

SLUG: Have you started the new tour?
Birbiglia: No, technically it starts on January 15 in Michigan, then the following week in Salt Lake. I’m actually going to spend about five days with my wife in Salt Lake, which is very exciting. It’s definitely one of my favorite states.

SLUG: Awesome, I know you’ve spent some time at Sundance in the past, have you spent much time in other parts of Utah? What’s your perception on Utah audiences and culture?
Birbiglia: It’s an interesting culture because obviously it’s got a heavy Mormon population, but it’s also got a heavy population of people who are in the other direction. I think just the combination of the two makes for a really lively group of people. It’s a really unique town, there’s nowhere like Salt Lake. I find the people to be really kind of wonderful there. I played Kingsbury Hall a few times, which is one of my favorite venues, and I always try to talk to the users because a lot of them are Mormons and I like talking to them about it because it’s just fascinating to me [laughs]. It’s amazing how intricate it is, it’s fascinating. I think they’re marvelous people and it’s just very different from what I’m used to.

SLUG: Your website says you’ll be making out with the people in the first 25 rows, are there any other surprises audiences should look forward to?
Birbiglia: I think I said that on Twitter or something—that’s the problem with Twitter—I shouldn’t have a forum that makes promises like that [laughs]. It’s a dangerous promise. That’s got the flu written all over it.

Catch Mike Birbiglia in Salt Lake at Kingsbury Hall on January 23, be sure to peruse some of his work on Netflix, and follow him on Twitter.

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