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Friend Nate Keller points out Birkeland has never lost his faith. Even when he was deep into partying and drugs, Birkeland never said such a lifestyle was the right thing to do, Keller says. “He’s really looking for a real deep jolt that can just help him to become back as he was.”
Birkeland says he found that “jolt” leaning over the edge of a Mount Timpanogos cliff face. Something extraordinary happened, he says. “This unbelievable wind, this pressure,” blew him back. “I went slam, backward, down on the ground.” He lay there, stunned, even as memories played out before him.
He was 6, lying on a dock by a lake in Tennessee, “the trees and the grass greener than all, the water clear, the sun perfect. It’s my first memory of peace.”
Then he was on his mission, being told by the spirit that possessed a woman he was exorcising, “If you do not stand firm, we’ll have you.” That was replaced by a Scottish elder at the LDS missionary school reducing Birkeland and other young missionaries to tears with his passionate teaching. Birkeland witnessed again the birth of his children, and with it, “the most peaceful feeling.”
GO WEST YOUNG MAN
As Birkeland climbed down the mountainside, he wanted a new life. He moved to Sandy, changed his e-mail, temporarily closed his Facebook page and changed his phone number—the latter a not- uncommon occurrence, say friends. “I went off the grid,” he says.
But even after disconnecting himself from the world, his trials continued.
In 2008, Birkeland was charged with theft for allegedly stealing a professor’s laptop. Angie Larsen was anchoring Channel 4 news when she did the story on her friend’s arrest. “It was shocking. It was hard for me to get the words out.”
After years of breaking the law, Birkeland admits, he went to court for a crime he insists he did not commit. He nevertheless pleaded no-contest and was sentenced to 12 days of work diversion and put on probation. “It’s one of the best things that happened,” he says now. “I didn’t get away with something I didn’t do.”
Along with producing and hosting local TV shows, Birkeland also went into mortgage refinancing with a friend of 17 years. But after two years, that business relationship ended abruptly, along with a stormy four-year personal relationship with a Brazilian fashion store owner. Despite these setbacks, he remains upbeat about the future, focusing in part on his own life story. He intends to make a documentary—What Makes Me B—about his journey back to his church. Very few of those excommunicated, he says, return to the church. “They feel like there’s no hope, that they will be judged for the rest of their lives.”
Dutcher argues Birkeland’s comedic talents “are for a bigger audience, better movies. His time is better spent, and his talent better appreciated, elsewhere.” That’s a route that Birkeland’s fellow Singles Ward stars Swenson and Heyborne have profitably taken. Will Swenson was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in a Broadway production of Hair, while now-Los Angeles-based Kirby Heyborne, despite criticism in Utah of his appearance in a Miller Lite commercial, was picked by directors The Farrelly Brothers (There’s Something About Mary, Dumb & Dumber) to act in their upcoming comedy The Three Stooges.
NO MORE MICHAEL B?
The main prize for Birkeland—at least for now—is returning to the LDS Church. “Got to get that Holy Ghost back, man,” he says. “But coming back, it’s the hardest thing.”
He met with a church authority, who instructed him to make a list of 10 things to give up and 10 things to take up. He chose to give up coffee and take up praying.
While Birkeland wants to bear his testimony at the Midvale singles ward he attends, his excommunication forbids him from bearing his testimony and taking the sacrament. Twice, church authorities have told him he is not ready to be re-baptized. But in early December, however, he writes in an e-mail that the LDS Church has decided he can be re-baptized. “April 2012, baby. I’m back.”
But some of his friends wonder how deep the change has really been. Tim Treadway has been friends with him for 22 years. “I care about him,” he says. But he worries Birkeland is running out of options. While “deep down he wants to get to a better place, he doesn’t have any idea how to get there.” Treadway fears Birkeland may not “have the humility to accept what it’s going to take to truly get there. I think he’s still lost.”
Angie Larsen disagrees. She characterizes Birkeland as an “unstoppable force. He has been kicked down, beaten and broken, much of it his own doing. But he has this undeniable strength, this spirit, and he continues to fight back. His goal in life is to help people laugh, find humor and joy. I think that’s his life’s calling.”
However, as with so many famous comedians with dark sides, Birkeland finds his own funny-man persona irksome. He says, “I became the court jester” to friends who were interested only in him making them laugh, not in hearing about his ongoing struggles. “No more Michael B, no more funny, crazy guy,” he says. He is tired of “everyone putting quarters in this monkey,” he says, violently clapping. “Everyone wants me to be the funny guy. What do I want?”
His American dream, he says, “is to entertain people, then go home to a life that I find beautiful, to a wife and children.”
Despite the ups and downs, the angst and the anger, he says he is at peace. “I am a good man,” he says, paraphrasing advice from his father. “Now it’s time to become a great man.”