Refreshingly open — a character assessment from one of Mike Birbiglia’s fans online. It’s not a trait you typically associate with comedians, but Birbiglia isn’t your typical comic. He’s narrative in his delivery and expresses himself with a mix of frustration and wide-eyed guilelessness that infuses his jokes with relatable charm — not at all like the horn-rim snarkaholics, blustery blowhards and misanthropic mensches who settle into cookie-cutter stereotypes — though he did confess in past gigs that he wanted to grow up to be a short angry Jewish man.
Good thing Birbiglia is perfectly fine being a 34-year-old guy from Massachusetts, an “Olive Garden Italian” with an unwieldy last name, who was the funniest guy on campus at Georgetown and inched toward the bigtime late last decade by sharing excerpts from his “Secret Public Journal” on national radio. Birbiglia went on to tell stories on NPR about mishaps incurred by his nocturnal behavioral disorder, which parlayed into the 2012 Sundance Audience Award-winner, Sleepwalk With Me, co-written with “This American Life” host Ira Glass. He’s in Tampa Bay next Thursday, Jan. 24, at the Straz’s Ferguson Hall to perform his latest one-man show, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.” CL caught up with Birbiglia for an e-mail chat between tour stops.
CL: Will this be your first time in Tampa?
MB: It actually won’t. I’ve played the Improv there a few years ago, which I loved, and I have family there. My aunts Kathy and Ann both live there, and I’ll get to see them so I’m really looking forward to it!
Tampa has been the butt of so many jokes: Ours is the land of strippers, old people, hot weather, giant roaches, etc. If we could count on a celeb to have something just a tiny bit un-sucky or less predictable to say, it might just be you.
First of all, I didn’t know any of those clichés, except for old people, which I think goes without saying in Florida. But giant roaches? Now I’m not so sure I should come! Kidding. When I was there last, I thought that you guys had great restaurants and it’s a lively town. People go out a lot; they seem to have a great time. And there’s obviously some pretty scenery as well. Feels like a win-win city.
Where are you now compared to when you first started contending with your sleep disorder?
I don’t sleepwalk nearly as much. I’m diagnosed with what’s called REM behavior disorder. So when I go to sleep at night I take medication and I — I’m not making this up — I sleep in a sleeping bag up to my neck and wear mittens so I can’t open the sleeping bag. You can see that in my movie, Sleepwalk With Me, but it’s real.
What did you get out of your experience on “The Moth” — one of my favorite radio shows — and is that when you met Ira Glass?
Yeah, well I first got involved with “The Moth” in 2003 at HBO’s US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo. I was asked to perform this at this show that The Moth was presenting and I ended up telling this embarrassing story about my first girlfriend in high school having me as her kind-of backup boyfriend and that story ended up being the title story of “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.” Anyway, I was completely terrified. It was one of the most exposed feelings I’ve ever had in my life, but after it was done it was wildly invigorating. So I kept working with “The Moth” and I told my sleepwalking story on their live show in New York and I thought it would be a really good fit for “This American Life” so I asked Catherine Burns, the artistic director of “The Moth,” if she would be willing to put me in touch with “This American Life.” And she said no. And then I asked her again, and she said no again. And then I asked her a third time and she finally put me in touch with them and they ended up broadcasting the recording from “The Moth.” And then Ira and I got together for drinks and we became friends and have been working together pretty consistently ever since.
Another favorite: Six Feet Under, and, I love Lauren Ambrose on the show. Were you a fan before getting to costar with her in Sleepwalk With Me? Was it just as cool to get to be in a movie with Carol Kane?
Actually casting Lauren was my wife Jenny’s idea because we wanted to make sure that the actress playing Abby was funny and strong and powerful so that at the end when they break up you don’t feel bad for her — you don’t feel bad for either of them because they’re both going to be fine. Lauren really exudes that naturally. And with Carol, honestly it was a dream working with her and she never made me feel small or inexperienced. She’s a really special actress and person. … But in terms of working with them, with both of them what’s exciting when you work with great actors is that you don’t have to do much, you just have to get out of the way because they bring so much to it and heighten the script that you’ve written.
A coworker said you and he exchange e-mails about parasomnia. Your act/movie must have gotten people from all walks of life sharing experiences.
I will say that there have been an extraordinary amount of people at the Q&As that I’ve done for Sleepwalk With Me that want to talk about their sleepwalking issues, their breakups, their marriages. Whenever you traffic in personal stories, I feel like you encounter people who want to talk about theirs, too, which is generally really good. This show that I’m coming to town with is a very optimistic take on marriage that is also somewhat comedically cynical, so in some ways it kind of rides the line. I was trying to make a romantic comedy that is realistic and doesn’t gloss over how complicated romance can be. And so, one of the things that has been really cool is that a few people have actually proposed at the shows. We did a show in Bloomington in December where a guy proposed to his girlfriend after the show and everyone applauded. I think we’re going to put it up on YouTube soon.
Does “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” pick up at all where the Sleepwalk With Me left off and was Abby at all like your real-life girlfriend?
Well I have to say, I think tonally they’re very similar. The “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” live show is in some ways the perfect follow up to Sleepwalk With Me because in some ways it’s the autobiographical — or semi-autobiographical — sequel to the movie. The movie is about why I didn’t get married, and this new stage show is about why I did get married. And both of them are kind of dramatic, but also full of jokes and punchlines, and both are ultimately very optimistic — the second one wildly optimistic. Actually I should point out that it’s a really good show to bring a date to — a girlfriend, or a boyfriend, or a husband, or a wife, or a life partner because it is, I dare say, a little romantic. ... The show is basically about all of the painful romantic experiences I’ve had in my life and how those affected my relationships as an adult — how it led to me having a deep fear of marriage, to the point where I didn’t believe in marriage AT ALL — and how, despite that, I decided to get married.
Do you work in new realizations about relationships into your act?
Yes, I’m actually writing a screenplay adaptation of the show in tandem with touring and so a lot of times I’ve written scenes and then gone back and thought, “Oh, that could be in the show, too.” So the show has actually gotten better and better. And these shows are some of the final shows of the tour — we’ve been to 70 U.S. cities, Canada, London, and Australia —and in a lot of ways, this is the best version of it that I’ve ever done. So it’s a particularly exciting show to see right now.
How do you reconcile your successful self with the more awkward, self-deprecating parts of your personality that have inspired some of your best jokes?
Well, I think because there’s tragedy, there will always be comedy because comedy equals tragedy plus time. And I don’t really think that there is any lack of suffering and pain in the world, so I don’t think there will be a real lack of comedy. For instance, not too long ago I tripped and fell down the steps as I was rushing to catch the subway in New York. I flew in the air, landed on my left shoulder, fractured the ball of my shoulder. And I think there’s a lesson in that, which is that every time when you think you’re life is going great, you’ll fall down the stairs of the subway.