Since 2008, Mike Birbiglia has turned comedic material about his lifelong struggle with sleepwalking into a segment on NPR, a one-man Broadway show, a CD, a book and a narrative film directed by and starring himself.
It is a rare funny man who can garner rave reviews from book, theater and movie critics, but Birbiglia appears to be one of them.
He performs his latest one-man show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, today at the Honeywell Center in Wabash.
Birbiglia is often described as straddling two worlds: theater and stand-up, eclectic and mainstream, sublime and ridiculous. But he says it’s not as if he performs different material in a different way for different audiences.
I don’t change my set depending on which room I’m in, he says. I, kind of, am who I am. Ultimately, whether it’s a mainstream comedy club audience or an alterative room audience in a Brooklyn basement, everybody wants the same thing from comedy. They want authenticity. With both audiences, if you’re inauthentic, they will call you on it.
Birbiglia says his first comedic icon was Stephen Wright, whose brainy puzzles delivered as deadpan sound bites couldn’t be more different from Birbiglia’s confessional comedy.
He tried to write jokes in the Wright vein for a while, but his efforts didn’t quite add up.
That’s the illusion of stand-up comedy, he says. The way comics phrase these thoughts, they’re very relatable. But they are fanciful, too, and thought through. If a comedian is good, he makes people say, That’s exactly what I was thinking.’ He makes it look easy.
Ten years later, Birbiglia says, anybody who was so moved by the seeming ease of comedy to try it for him- or herself is just trying to figure out how to do it correctly, Birbiglia says.
That’s the rude awakening, he says.
While he was studying dramatic writing at Georgetown University, Birbiglia got a job as a doorman and busboy at a Washington, D.C., comedy club.
I spent a lot more time there than I did in college, much to my dad’s chagrin, he says.
Birbiglia used his proximity to the stage to study the future legends on it.
It was a stand-up comedy college in a sense, he says. I asked a lot of questions like any annoying young comedian. I would ask any question. And they’d indulge me.
His aspirations for his own career were modest, he says.
I just wanted to make a living doing comedy, he says. I didn’t have any sort of wild ambitions in terms of having a sitcom or anything like that. I remember I’d see the paychecks of the comedians who’d come through town and I would go, That would be great if I could do that.’
They weren’t making fortunes, but they were making a living similar to what other middle-class salaries were,
Before Sleepwalk with Me debuted on Broadway, Birbiglia enjoyed a respectable career as a comedian of a more conventional sort, delivering observational humor in unconnected anecdotes. But colleagues who had heard some of the more stressful and, perhaps, upsetting stories of his life urged him to dig deeper.
I started telling stories that were harder for me to tell, harder for me to make funny, he says.
In his current show, Birbiglia creates a narrative from his romantic slip-ups and mix-ups, one of which involved him meeting his girlfriend’s parents and discovering that she hadn’t quite broken up with her (alleged) former boyfriend.
When I told that story for the first time, it was a revelation for me, he says, that a story like that could not only make people laugh but could really connect with people. I found that people would come up to me and tell me they’d had an experience that was exactly the same as that.
I didn’t tell that story for years because I was so embarrassed by it, Birbiglia says. I thought it could only happen to me. It was a revelation that when you tell personal stories, the deeper you go, the closer you get to the audience.
Birbiglia says there is little chance that he will run out of embarrassing material (he relates a story about a recent pratfall-filled ski trip that ended with him climbing into a therapeutic hot tub with his cellphone in his pocket).
And Birbiglia says he doesn’t think he will ever grow so successful that the stories of his life stop ringing bells with most people.
I definitely do think about that, he says. Comedy is ultimately about relatable life, and my wife and I live a very humble lifestyle. We live in a two-bedroom apartment in New York City. In a way, I think of comedy as like being a traveling salesman. But instead of selling vacuum cleaners, I am selling monologues around the country.