In his dreams, comedian Mike Birbiglia has fought a jackal, escaped from Brad Pitt, and feasted on a pillow made of pizza. He’s taken second place in the dust-busting championships. And he’s jumped out of a second-story hotel window in Walla Walla, Wash., to escape a guided missile intent on his destruction.
Now it gets complicated, because the last of those dreams nearly killed him. Birbiglia survived the missile—and the fall—but woke up in his underwear on the hotel lawn, shards of broken glass surrounding him. Not long after getting dozens of stitches for the gash in his leg, Birbiglia was diagnosed with REM behavior disorder, an affliction that causes him to act out his dreams in his sleep.
“When that happened, I knew, I’m going to have to talk about this someday,” says Birbiglia. “This is crazy! This is one of the most outlandish things that one could imagine in fiction, never mind in real life.” Yet while the comic is known for his disarmingly honest, self-deprecating, and hilarious monologues about his most embarrassing and awkward experiences, he hesitated to share his sleepwalking with the world. “At the time, it was something that was shameful, and I felt like if I told people, they would think I was crazy and that there was something deeply wrong with me.”
Birbiglia lowers his voice and leans in close when he says the last part, as if he’s sharing a secret. But the truth is that he launched his career by telling true personal stories onstage. And he changed his life when he started telling that story.
It became a focal point of “Sleepwalk With Me,” a one-man show that premiered Off-Broadway in late 2008 and later toured the country. The show was a hybrid of standup and storytelling that took the comic out of the club and into the theater, and it earned Birbiglia nominations for Lortel, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Awards. His ensuing memoir, “Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories,” was a 2011 Thurber Prize for American Humor finalist and a New York Times bestseller.
Now Birbiglia has written and directed the film adaptation of “Sleepwalk With Me” (in theaters in New York Aug. 24, followed by a national rollout), in which he stars as fictionalized alter ego Matt Pandamiglio, a struggling standup who has a fear of commitment and feels trapped in his long-term relationship, then discovers that pressure from his family and burgeoning career triggers increasingly alarming and sometimes violent sleepwalking episodes. But he also finds that he gets more laughs and gains confidence as a performer when he opens up about his personal problems in front of comedy club crowds.
Lauren Ambrose co-stars as his girlfriend, Abby. Birbiglia says she was the first actor attached to the film, based on his wife’s recommendation. “We wanted to cast someone who exuded strength and humor effortlessly, in a way that you would never feel bad for her character,” he says. The cast also includes James Rebhorn and Carol Kane as his parents and Tony nominee Cristin Milioti (“Once”) as his sister. Comedians Wyatt Cenac, Marc Maron, Kristen Schaal, and Jessi Klein have small supporting roles as comics Matt encounters on the road.
Birbiglia at first found articulating and dramatizing his growing fear of sleep difficult as he was writing “Sleepwalk With Me.” His condition cannot be cured and remains a source of embarrassment. But he was uplifted to find that sharing his story helped others overcome theirs.
“A lot of people would tell me after the show that they would open up to people who they were close to about things that they were ashamed of,” he says with a hint of awe in his voice. “And that’s what the one-man show was about.”
On the other hand, Birbiglia’s father had always told him, “The more people know about you, the more they can use it against you,” a warning he says he hadn’t fully understood. After opening for George Lopez one night at the DC Improv early in his career, though, Birbiglia learned a contrary lesson that changed his life.
“I had opened with a joke making fun of Oprah, and I bombed really hard,” he says. “I just walked offstage, and [Lopez] said, ‘You know, you shouldn’t make fun of other people before you make fun of yourself.’ And that’s what I did, and that’s my whole career, thanks to George Lopez. And I don’t even know George Lopez!”
Birbiglia’s early material was inspired by one-liner legends Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg, but as he got more comfortable talking about himself, he experimented with longer bits in addition to zingers. He told his first long-form monologue at The Moth in 2003, discovered that he enjoyed the format, and continued to showcase his storytelling skills on tour and in his “My Secret Public Journal Live” shows, which culled material from his public blog about private things.
An excerpt of “Sleepwalk With Me” caught the ear of “This American Life” host Ira Glass, and Birbiglia has become a regular contributor to the public radio show. Glass is also a co-writer and producer of the film, along with Birbiglia’s brother Joe (affectionately known as “Joe Bags”). Seth Barrish, who has collaborated with Birbiglia for several years as the director of the stage version of “Sleepwalk With Me” and his second solo show, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” is co-writer and co-director.
“My experience with Mike is he’s constantly evolving, and he really is interested in what he can do with his voice,” Barrish says. He says that Birbiglia once saw standup comedy as a step on the way to a career as a writer or filmmaker. “He was very interested in writing, and he took note that a lot of people that got their footing as writers were comedians. So he started to figure out how to get into improv and then ultimately do standup.”
Although Birbiglia says he only went to college because he feared his parents would disown him otherwise, he also wanted to follow his idol Conan O’Brien and write for the Harvard Lampoon, the humor magazine that spawned the National Lampoon films and that boasts alumni who have written for “Saturday Night Live,” “The Simpsons,” “30 Rock,” and more.
“First of all, I was completely unqualified to get into Harvard,” he says. “But then I went to my interview for Harvard and the woman asked, ‘Why do you want to go here?’ And I took out all of my comedy writing samples that I had done. I couldn’t have been more delusional in terms of what I thought they wanted in a candidate for college. So she was like, ‘OK, um, well, why else would you want to go to Harvard?’ And I go, ‘That’s it.’ I literally said, ‘That’s it.’ I’m sure if the evidence for why to reject me weren’t abundant enough already, that would have been absolutely the icing on the cake.”
Birbiglia went to Georgetown to study screenwriting and immediately auditioned to join the Georgetown Players Improv Troupe, of which he was a member for four years. He was also developing his standup act and in his sophomore year won the school’s “Funniest Person on Campus” contest. The prize was a one-time performance slot at the DC Improv. He took a job as the club’s doorman in a bid for more stage time. In addition to mopping the floors and cleaning the bathrooms, he would occasionally get onstage as an emcee or to fill open spots.
“I feel like being a door person was like college in a sense,” he says. “I could watch comedy on a professional level seven nights a week without paying, and they would pay me a nominal amount of money to be there. And that meant I could watch, and sometimes open for, comics like Brian Regan, Margaret Cho, Dave Chappelle, Dave Attell, Pablo Francisco, Jim Gaffigan, Kathleen Madigan, Larry the Cable Guy—people who had this really wide range of talent and styles. I couldn’t recommend more that people put themselves in a situation where they can see a lot of work that they admire, and for free.”
A little more than a decade later, Birbiglia is a headliner who sells out theaters across the country, has performed standup on all the major late-night shows, and has recorded comedy albums and TV specials. He was seen in a guest role on an episode of the first season of HBO’s “Girls” this year and had bit parts in films including “Your Sister’s Sister,” “Cedar Rapids,” and “Going the Distance.”
Birbiglia finished the first draft of a screenplay for “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” this summer and hopes to shoot the film in 2013. There is also potential that the stage show, which ran for four months Off-Broadway and is currently touring nationally and internationally, will go to Broadway. On top of that, the comic is writing a solo show that may constitute the final third of a trilogy of sorts and says he’s worked out about an hour of new standup material as well.
He says Hedberg once told him that rather than make detailed plans, “you have to follow your career as it happens, as opposed to making it exactly what you want it.” Birbiglia says his improv training has been particularly important throughout this journey, whether in coming up with material onstage or in his role as feature film director.
“Whether I’m working with another actor or I’m working with a cinematographer for a Comedy Central interstitial commercial,” Birbiglia says, “I love working with people who have the shorthand of ‘Yes, and…,’ who have a general acceptance that we’re going to go where this takes us, and we’re going to embrace the spontaneity as opposed to rejecting the imperfection.”