For many comedians, launching a “one-man show” might just seem like a euphemism for “comedian reaching for credibility”—and turning that one-man show into a movie, even more so. But for Mike Birbiglia, it’s really more of a return to a place where he started.
Birbiglia, a successful stand-up comic who has appeared on Comedy Central and multiple late-night talk shows, visits Utah this month, killing two professional birds with one plane ticket. His first film as writer and director, Sleepwalk With Me, adapts his first hit off-Broadway show about his misadventures with sleep disorders, and premieres at the Sundance Film Festival. On Jan. 20, he brings the first tour of his follow-up one-man show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, to Kingsbury Hall. In the middle of final editing for Sleepwalk With Me, he found time for an e-mail interview.
City Weekly: As a comedian, what is the point where a group of anecdotes begins to feel like something that could work as a one-man show?
Mike Birbiglia: With [Sleepwalk With Me], the process kind of happened in reverse, where I was writing [it] as a play with multiple actors, and at a certain point I decided, “Why don’t I try to tell this story with one actor?” So I started writing it while I was on tour … and a lot of the people at the show knew the material from [the Comedy Central album Two Drink Mike]. I didn’t have any other material, really, but I needed to put something else onstage, so I started doing excerpts from [Sleepwalk]. And it went really well. So slowly, I started telling a lot of those stories onstage as stand-up.
CW: When and how did the idea arise for turning Sleepwalk With Me into a film? How integral was This American Life’s Ira Glass [who co-produced and co-wrote the screenplay] in the process?
MB: Around the time Sleepwalk With Me was mounted in New York as a play, I was asked to perform an excerpt on This American Life. And Ira and I ended up becoming friends and doing a bunch more stories together on This American Life. He had a lot of interest in doing movies based on stories that had come through his show, and I’d wanted to make a movie since college, really. In college, I shot a bunch of short films that just weren’t all that show-able to people—or maybe the word is “done.” … By the end of college, I felt really defeated by film and that it was financially prohibitive to even pursue. So stand-up comedy felt like something where I could get onstage … and they would pay me a small amount of money to do it … sometimes. Sometimes they would pay me to do it.
CW: One-man shows are so intensely personal, yet you worked with additional writers on the screenplay for Sleepwalk With Me. What contributions did you feel you needed from your co-writers to make the film better?
MB: Ira is particularly sharp in regards to story, obviously. Seth Barrish [who directed Sleepwalk in New York] is an acting teacher and the author of a book about acting; he really understands character … and the best way to give the most to actors to work with. And [Birbiglia’s brother] Joe is a great joke writer, and he wrote a lot of visual supplementations of scenes that made them stronger.
CW: As a rookie director, what was the most embarrassing thing you said or did that you now know a director shouldn’t say or do?
MB: The phrase that I found out is not good to use as a director is, “I don’t know,” because there are 50 to 70 people resting on your every word all the time. … If you say, “I don’t know,” it really halts everything.
CW: Your performance date in Salt Lake City was scheduled before the official program announcements were made for Sundance. Did a little bird whisper in your ear that you might want to be in Utah on Jan. 20?
MB: That was just wishful thinking on my booking agent’s part, because we definitely didn’t know whether we’d gotten in until everybody knew who’d gotten in. The way that my agent pitched it to me was, “If you get into the festival, it’ll be perfect timing. And if you don’t get into the festival, you can just do the show in Salt Lake City and then watch some movies. And there’s no harm in that.”
CW: In the “hyphenate” hierarchy (comedian-actor-screenwriter-director), where do you think you enjoy yourself most? How would you ideally balance those various sides of your career?
MB: I guess the hyphenate thing is often confusing, but I think the easiest way to describe me, whether I’m writing a book, a play, or a movie, or whatever, is just as a comedian. Everything I make has comedy in it. So I feel like that’s a pretty wide-reaching moniker.
MIKE BIRBIGLIA: MY GIRLFRIEND'S BOYFRIEND
1395 E. Presidents Circle
Friday, Jan. 20 , 7:30 p.m.