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 Girlfriends 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 its not as if he performs different material in a different way for different audiences.
I dont change my set depending on which room Im in, he says. I, kind of, am who I am. Ultimately, whether its 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 youre inauthentic, they will call you on it.
Birbiglia says his first comedic icon was Stephen Wright, whose brainy puzzles delivered as deadpan sound bites couldnt be more different from Birbiglias confessional comedy.
He tried to write jokes in the Wright vein for a while, but his efforts didnt quite add up.
Thats the illusion of stand-up comedy, he says. The way comics phrase these thoughts, theyre very relatable. But they are fanciful, too, and thought through. If a comedian is good, he makes people say, Thats 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.
Thats 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 dads 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 theyd indulge me.
His aspirations for his own career were modest, he says.
I just wanted to make a living doing comedy, he says. I didnt have any sort of wild ambitions in terms of having a sitcom or anything like that. I remember Id see the paychecks of the comedians whod come through town and I would go, That would be great if I could do that.
They werent 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 girlfriends parents and discovering that she hadnt 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 theyd had an experience that was exactly the same as that.
I didnt 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 doesnt 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.