Mike Birbiglia Prays for Laughs

by Micah Haley on July 1, 2014

MBirbiglia-Hi-Res-Photo-Credit-Kyle-Ericksen-300dpi-webThis article originally ran in the July/August 2014 issue of Scene Magazine.

One of the greatest comics of his generation, Mike Birgbilia is redefining comedy. With a disarmingly relaxed delivery, Birbiglia lures in audiences, telling semibiographical tales of an average American life that bloom into hilarious but meaningful truisms.

In 2008, Birbiglia opened his one-man show Sleepwalk with Me off-Broadway. It was presented by Tony Award-winning stage and screen actor Nathan Lane. He also began regularly contributing to This American Life, a syndicated radio show hosted by Ira Glass. The two coinciding events propelled Birbiglia into the mainstream.

After three Comedy Central specials, Birbiglia wrote, directed and starred in his first feature film. Based on his one-man show of the same name, Sleepwalk with Me quickly became a festival darling after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Two years removed, the film stands as a modern comedy masterpiece comprised of surrealism and sentimentality.

We spoke over the phone before his live show in New Orleans at the Civic Theatre.

MH: Mike, what’s going on?
MB: Not much. I’m just getting ready to go to the dentist. Yeah, I’m dreading that. I’m getting a filling.

MH: Oh man! That is a nightmare.
MB: I know. I’m really not looking forward to that. And it’s like the dentist is one of those things where, like I went last week and they did a check on my teeth and then, they’re like, “You need a filling.” And because I have so little knowledge of anything to do with my teeth, all I can do is be like, “Yep whatever you say! Have your way with my teeth!” Because you don’t know. You don’t have any base of knowledge about teeth.

MH: I had a friend who went to the dentist the other day and after he left, he got a text message from the dentist that said, “Feel free to text me any time. If you have a problem.”
MB: Wow.

MH: He was really creeped out.
MB: That is really forthcoming. I had a thing with my urologist recently. Where I had a symptom. A urological symptom. I had like a pins and needles thing in my urethra. And I made an appointment but it wasn’t for like a few weeks. I was like, “Wait, but this might be serious.” And so I emailed the doctor because I had his email from going a few years ago. I was like, “Hey. This is the most graphic email I’ve ever written and the most personal thing I’ve ever written. I have this pins and needles sensation blah blah blah and then he wrote back like, “Shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll see you in a few weeks.” And then he cc’d in someone else. A third party. And I was like, “No, no you can’t do that.” That’s like the most personal info. You can’t take someone’s most personal email and then introduce another party without asking permission.

MH: Yeah, that’s like breaking the code. Can’t break the code.
MB: Exactly.

MH: Have you been to New Orleans before?
MB: No, I’m thrilled to come to New Orleans. Pretty sure I’m gonna bring my father-in law, my wife’s dad, who loves New Orleans and has been a ton of times. I’m trying to convince him to come down. I’ve never been there, and I’m very excited about it.

Mike-Birbiglia-1-Photo-Credit-Brian-Friedman-web photo by Brian Friedman

MH: It’s a cool place. The venue you are performing at, The Civic Theatre, is really beautiful. It’s an old theatre and they just renovated it last year. One of the first big things that happened there was that 12 Years a Slave premiered at the New Orleans Film Festival.
MB: Oh, really?

MH: So, in a way, you are a follow-up to 12 Years a Slave.
MB: Wow. That is some act to follow.

MH: Well, I hope you make some friends while your down here.
MB: I’m friendly with the folks who made Beasts of the Southern Wild, actually. I know Dan Janvey, and I know Benh Zeitlin. I pretty much know the producers and directors and writers. Lucy Alibar and Michael Gottwald a little bit. Sleepwalk with Me was in Sundance the year that Beasts was there. It was one of these funny things where every single article written [was about Beasts]. I was very bitter about it at the time. I was so young and every article about Sundance that year was like, “Nothing is good…except Beasts of the Southern Wild.” It was like one of those moments. You are like, “Hey, what about me! I have a movie too!” And journalists just like to be hyperbolic, you know? Like people love to say, “Sundance is terrible this year! Except for this one film.”


MH: Oh there’s definitely some hyperbole in journalism.
MB: It was kinda like, “Nothing you can do about it.” But it was such a great movie and our movie did great as well. So I was all, “No harm, no foul.” And also, those guys are some of the nicest people who I’ve encountered in any film.

MH: Yeah, they really are. Scene Magazine was fortunate to be able to produce the New Orleans premiere of Beasts of the Southern Wild. And it was after they had done the majority of their press for the movie, so it was a real homecoming for them.
MB: No way! That’s awesome!

MH: Beasts is just a big, amazing success story. It’s a beautiful and powerful film. And it’s hard to believe it got made. I think it’s essentially about Hurricane Katrina. But even today, if you ever tried to sell a Katrina movie, it wouldn’t get made. No one would ever go see it. There’s a “Katrina fatigue” that still exists as a result of all the ridiculous media coverage.
MB: Wow, yeah, it’s true. It’s a tough sell. But Beasts is a great movie. I was actually recently in a movie with Quvenzhané Wallis. I’m in the remake of Annie.


MH: What role do you play in that?
MB: I just play this inspector who comes to inspect the orphanage. And Miss Hannigan, played by Cameron Diaz, flirts with me. I’m just in one scene but it was a super fun set to shoot on. It was awesome.

MH: Oh that’s awesome! Did you happen to meet her family?
MB: I’d met her family before because she and I were both nominated for breakout actors at the Gotham Awards a few years ago. I don’t think they’d remember me, but I’ve met them.

MH: They’re really nice people. I was fortunate to meet her mother and her siblings when Scene did an interview and photo shoot with Quvenzhané for our cover. I think we were the first to do that. Going into Sundance that year, we had our eye on Beasts because it was a Louisiana movie. But there was also a huge groundswell of buzz for your film, Sleepwalk with Me. There were so many people in my circle of friends just waiting for Sleepwalk with Me to come to New Orleans! It was a joyous day, Mike, when it finally did.
MB: Good, good! There’s a lot of love in that movie. There’ s a lot of love in the process of making it. It means so much to me when people have seen it. And have seen it on the big screen. That’s a huge thing.

MH: I was just telling my co-worker before you called that I consider Sleepwalk with Me to be the best feature film ever made based on a comedian’s work. And I mean that sincerely.
MB: Oh, thank you.

MH: There’s a lot of television shows — Seinfeld for instance — that are base on the comedian’s material, but I think you did it better than any other comedian on the big screen.
MB: Thank you so much! That was really the goal. The scene I’m probably most proud of — in terms of what it’s like to be a comedian – is the condo scene with me and Jessi Klein and Henry Phillips wife. After hanging out eating pizza, I have the pizza pillow dream. That’s like my favorite representation of life on the road. But it’s also the most fun to shoot. We were just laughing throughout every take. That was problematic because we only had so many pizza pillows. Which is a sentence rarely uttered. We only had so many pizza pillows.

MH: You studied screenwriting in college, is that correct?
MB: Yeah, that’s right.

Mike-Birbiglia-2-Photo-Credit-Brian-Friedman-web photo by Brian Friedman

MH: Was there ever any discussion about having someone else direct the film?
MB: There was a discussion of it up until probably the week before we shot it. The day before, even. The truth is, in film, no one wants to let you direct your film if you haven’t directed a film. And so it’s a little bit like waiting tables. You can’t get a job waiting tables unless you’ve waited tables before. It’s like the great paradox of directing movies and waiting tables. So you kinda have to fake it till you make it. I guess I sort of convinced people by saying, “No, I got this, I got this.” I’ve been basically directing my own career and my own shows and performances for many years. I am capable of this. And it was hard. Definitely a lot of people wanted me not to direct it. But now that I’ve directed it, everyone was like, “Oh yeah, of course we knew that it would be great if you directed it!”

MH: Everybody loves to crown a king after you’ve already won the war.
MB: Yes, the revisionist history is incredible. It’s stunning.

MH: It’s a really difficult thing, even for a veteran director or veteran actor, to do both. Was there ever any consideration on your part of maybe casting an actor to play you?
MB: I considered it. I enjoy acting so much that I really didn’t want to give that performance of mine up. I mean, no one – no one – is casting me as the lead in anything. And so the idea that I would also not cast myself as the lead was discouraging somehow psychologically. I was like, “At least I should give myself a vote of confidence that I could be the lead in the film.” It’s funny cause it’s actually led to a lot of acting opportunities now. Like I just got cast in Judd Apatow’s new film he’s directing with Bill Hader and Amy Schumer. I got cast in Amy Schumer’s new season. I do a sketch in it. I’m in The Fault in Our Stars with Shailene Woodley. And I’m doing a film with Joe Swanberg right now, a couple weeks of filming. And all of it’s from Sleepwalk With Me. So it’s like I gave myself my big break!

MH: That’s really funny. I love Amy Schumer, too.
MB: Amy Schumer is brilliant. And she’s doing really edgy, challenging comedy right now, which is rare.

MH: What kind of learning curve was there for you as a director? What was some of the first day, or the first week things you had to figure out about the logistics of directing yourself?
MB: I feel like every day was a learning day. I think one of the biggest things you have to learn to not do as a director is this: you can never say “I don’t know.” People ask you questions all the time. They’re like, “What color should this shirt be? What color should this wall be? What lens should we use for this shot?” In theatre, you say “I don’t know” all the time. There’s more of a process because there is an unlimited amount of time and self-indulgence in theatre. You just say, “Oh, I don’t know” and then you’re like, “eventually we’ll find it.” In film, there’s no “eventually we’ll find it.” It’s like, “We need to know now because time is money.” And so, if I didn’t know the answer to something, eventually I learned to say “I will tell you in five minutes.” That was the biggest thing.

MH: Oh that’s actually really brilliant! I’ve never heard someone recommend that before.
MB: It’s a good trick. I’ll tell you in five minutes. The moment you say “I don’t know” is when everyone on the crew is smoking a cigarette down the street. Know what I mean? Everyone goes on break.

Mike-Birbiglia-5-Photo-Credit-Brian-Friedman-web photo by Brian Friedman

MH: I think you’re right. There’s one of the things I love about the film industry, Mike. Nobody forces a kid to go into it.
MB: Yeah, you’re right about that.

MH: There are so many lawyers who are lawyers because their parents wanted them to be lawyers. Or doctors. But in film, even when you meet some grizzled, jaded old grip or camera guy, at some point that person wanted to work in the industry. And everybody has that enthusiasm at the beginning of a film. But there’s a breaking point where they lose confidence in the director.
MB: Yeah.

MH: Did they lose confidence in you, Mike?
MB: I think a couple of them did. But not most of them. We’re not gonna name names. And I think that a couple people definitely did. But overall, the majority of the people really believed in it. I would say a lot of it comes down to the script. When you have a good script, the people believe in it. I feel like a group of people are willing to buy into that all the way through the process. The problem is sometimes every now and then, I think some people skim the script. Then, they get on set and they’re like, “What the hell is this!”

MH: I think you’re right about that. A lot of people read coverage — and it could be terribly inaccurate coverage by some hungover assistant — or they just get someone else who’s read it to summarize it for them.
MB: Yeah, it’s an interesting phenomenon.

MH: How do you feel like your training in screenwriting has helped you write for standup comedy?
MB: I think it helped me tremendously. When I was in college, I studied screenwriting and I was doing improv like all the time. Just constantly. I was captain of the improv group my freshman year. In my sophomore year, I was in the improv group with Nick Kroll, who has done so well with his show on Comedy Central and everything. So I was surrounded by people who were living, eating and breathing comedy and writing all the time. I feel like that was really formative.

Ira Glass has this saying that he says. Not a saying but in his videos on YouTube, he talks to the camera about telling a story and being a storyteller of any kind, whether it’s in film or radio or whatever it is. And sort of how it starts with taste. You just have to have good taste and know what’s good and what’s interesting. That’s first, that’s the start and then you can try to do that and you’ll fail. You’ll try to sort of make things that are like the things you like and admire. And you’ll fail. But inevitably practice makes perfect with art. You know it’s never perfect because nothing is perfect. But it takes practice. It takes years of failing at something to get better at it. And it just takes years and years and years to get to the point where you’re at the level of the things you admire. I feel like my screenwriting background has placed me in situations where I was thinking about what I like and why at a very young age, like when I was nineteen years old. And I think it’s really important to start that young. I feel like the sooner, the better with that part of the process.

swm-mike-2-web Mike Birbiglia in ‘Sleepwalk With Me’ courtesy of IFC Films

MH: I absolutely agree.
MB: Because like in the movie world, there’s going to be so much failure and so much disappointment in general. Whether it’s in screenwriting or on stage. But you just gotta get out there and take the plunge.

MH: You mentioned Ira Glass. How do you feel like your life has changed after appearing on This American Life?
MB: A few things changed my life tremendously. One is Nathan Lane presented the stage version of Sleepwalk With Me in 2008 and then right around that time, Ira put me on This American Life. Those two things kind of colliding at the same time, happening in tandem, really led to me going from someone who was extremely niche in terms of popularity (or not existent perhaps in terms of popularity) to someone who is kind of somewhat legitimized. It gave me two luminaries in their fields: one in storytelling and storytelling journalism, and the other in acting and theater. It really made a lot of people go, “Oh I get it. This guy’s for real. I get that what he’s doing isn’t an accident.” Cause I feel like a lot of what I do is kind of conversational. Like, “Oh this guy is just talking.” And then by the end of it, you realize, “Oh, this adds up to a larger story.” And I feel like there was a period of time in my career where I was doing that and people were just going, “It’s just a guy talking. It’s not anything kind of dazzling. There’s no bells and whistles.” And I feel like it was those two people endorsing me that basically said to theater and radio audiences, “No, that is the bells and whistles.” Not having bells and whistles is the bells and whistles, so to speak.

MH: Exactly. I love your comedy for that reason. My experience with your comedy is that it makes me very anxious. There’s a dialectic between that anxiety that I feel sympathizing with you, but then there are little payoffs on the way. And then, there’s an ultimate, “life lesson” payoff at the end in the form of a punch line.
MB: That’s the goal, yeah!

MH: It’s very satisfying. It almost harkens back to ancient Greece where as an audience, you want to go on a roller coaster. You want to feel afraid or feel anxious and then feel relieved. You’re great at creating an experience that’s universal.
MB: Thank you so much! Last week, my wife and I were re-watching all these Cameron Crowe films. Cameron Crowe and James L. Brooks are like two of my all-time favorites. With James L. Brooks, you have Broadcast News, Terms of Endearment. With Cameron Crowe you have Say Anything, Almost Famous and Jerry Maguire. And those are movies where they’re really packed with jokes but they’re also packed with bits and truisms. Then, they add up to something that’s much larger and you realize halfway through that you’re very invested with the characters. And yeah that’s, that’s sort of the goal and those are always things I gravitated towards. But I actually have to run. Cause I have to run to my dentist appointment. Believe it or not.

Mike Birbiglia can next be seen in the remake of Annie starring Quvenzhane Wallis, Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz. For more from Mike Birbiglia, visit his official website at birbigs.com.

photos by Kyle Ericksen (First) and Brian Friedman (Second-Fifth)