CHICAGO – The issue of gender identity, especially for those who are born with a vagueness as to what to call themselves between/beyond boy and girl, has come front and center in the U.S., both with the legalization of gay marriage and the callous repudiation of identity by trying to pass laws dismissing it (the North Carolina “bathroom” laws). The performance companies of The Living Canvas and Nothing Without a Company is currently staging “[Trans]formation,” which presents gender identity art by six performers, who perform most of the play in the nude.
Interview: An Invitation from Mike Birbiglia to ‘Sleepwalk with Me’
CHICAGO – The comedian with the tough-to-pronounce name, Mike Birbiglia, hits the next stage with a new film based on his one man show, “Sleepwalk with Me.” Produced and co-written by Ira Glass of “This American Life,” the story of the serious subject of a sleepwalking disorder creates both mordant laughs and poignant moments.
Birbiglia is essentially channeling his life through the comic filter, and while the film is fictional it contains elements of his own truth. He did struggle through a sleepwalking disorder in real life, and all the horrible – and fascinatingly funny – stages of it are showcased in the film. Birbiglia was born in Massachusetts, and during college joined an improvisation troupe at Georgetown University. His stand-up is hugely popular, with the comedy album release of “Sleepwalk with Me” debuting at number one on the Billboard Comedy Charts in 2011. The Onion AV Club declared his previous comedy album, “My Secret Public Journal Live” (2007), one of the best comedy albums of the decade. Broadway icon Nathan Lane presented the one-man show of “Sleepwalk with Me” Off Broadway, which the New York Times called “simply perfect.”
Photo credit: IFC Films
HollywoodChicago.com interviewed Birbiglia during the “Just for Laughs” comedy festival in June of 2012, and he talked about the life of the comedian and how his truth became a film version.
HollywoodChicago.com: One of the best elements of your film is the realization that being honest about your life creates the best laughs in your stand-up. Did the incident in the film where the older comic gave you that advice true, and what observations gave you the snowball effect in your act where you felt like it was going in the right direction?
Mike Birbiglia The mentor stuff is true. That part of the film is really close to life, in the sense that there were a few people – like Marc Marron, who plays Marc Mulheren – who were there in my early days. My first manager was a guy who ran the Comic Strip comedy club on the upper east side of Manhattan, his name was Lucien Hold, and he’d been the talent booker there for 30 years. He had booked for the first time guys like Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano and Chris Rock. He gave me a piece of advice early in my career – if you do material about your own life, nobody can steal it. It’s a really simple piece of advice, but so true. And also, it’s more interesting, because it comes from your own experiences.
HollywoodChicago.com: Another great part of the film was a glimpse into the life of comedians on the road. The contrast between the normal wedding preparations and that road life was particularly stark. What, in your opinion, is the main advantages of being outside the mainstream in a gypsy’s life?
Birbiglia: That’s what that scene is all about. The group is eating pizza, and just hanging out and laughing. The other actors are my friends and fellow comedians, and pretty much telling their real stories. Those are people that make me laugh. The thing is about comedians hanging out together, we have a club with no organization. [laughs] We don’t a union, we don’t have a building, we don’t have anything that actually organizes us in any productive way – other than when we run into each other on the road.
Photo credit: IFC Films
HollywoodChicago.com: As described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, there are five stages of death – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Using a similar model, how do your friends and family go through their stages when you announce you’re going to be a working stand-up comedian?
Birbiglia: [Laughs] That’s a good question. I think denial is most of it. I have a joke in the one-man show that my Dad didn’t work hard his whole life to send me to college, only to have me make fun of him on stage in front of total strangers. [HC laughs] I really sympathize with my family, they had to have this delinquent child. Fortunately I was lucky enough at 24 years old to be on the Letterman show, and it got my family to quiet down for awhile.
HollywoodChicago.com: You co-directed the film. What kind of aesthetic did you and Seth Barrish want to establish as far as how you were going to approach the style of filmmaking? Was there any other director that you used as a template?
Birbiglia: Oh yeah, in terms of what I watched, it was James Brooks – ‘Terms of Endearment’ and ‘Broadcast News,’ plus the Woody Allen middle period films like ‘Manhattan’ and ‘Annie Hall.’ Also director Alexander Payne, my cinematographer and I watched ‘Sideways’ together. He was more experienced in the actual shooting process, so I just asked him how they did particular things on a certain budget. That is what I wanted to crack, and I think we did it.
That’s a huge credit to my cinematographer Adam Beckman, our production designer Tania Bijlani and our producer Jacob Jaffke. Jacob delivered the production value of the film in a lot of ways, he was able to produce many miracles that became the singular miracle of the final product.
HollywoodChicago.com: Because it seemed so straightforward and appropriate for the film, how did you come up with driving while narrating bit?
Birbiglia: We actually had those original narrations shot and embedded into the scenes, as if I was breaking the ‘fourth wall.’ When we got into the editing stage, we found that it was somehow too cutesy and unreal, and took us out of what dramatically we were trying to achieve. So I took out a friend who had a ‘Red’ camera, and started shooting the narration again, and dropped them in the edit.
We found by placing them outside the main scenes, the audience had the comfort of seeing that ‘he’s okay,’ even though in his life his relationship and health is deteriorating, in the car he seems all right. [laughs]
HollywoodChicago.com: Who discovers a stand-up comedian these days, is it primarily the audience – with the proliferation of internet possibilities – the show business communities or other comedians themselves?
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for HollywoodChicago.com
Birbiglia: Oddly, it’s the audience these days, because that relationship has become more direct. Rob Delaney, who has a half a million Twitter followers, I’d never heard his stand-up, I just heard of his following. I started following him, and now he’s playing bigger venues around the country. That wasn’t a possibility, obviously, before. Dane Cook was the pioneer of that. He just wanted to harness an audience through any means, and not go through the traditional route. Whoever liked him, he invited them to come with him. It just went from there.
I just think the people who have been successful in the last few years simply engage with the audience. Louis C.K. is a perfect example of that type of comedian. There was a sense in comedy before this era, that if you didn’t get the right connection or network, you couldn’t succeed. That just isn’t the case anymore.
HollywoodChicago.com: Since you are essentially portraying a hyper-realized version of yourself in the film, what was the most surreal moment on the set in re-enacting what is essentially your life?
Birbiglia: The sleepwalking stuff for sure, and the relationship stuff as well. We shot it in Brooklyn, where the original relationship broke down, in an apartment very similar to where all those events took place. The wardrobe artist was also trying to recreate that feeling and time in our lives. It was hard, because it did bring me back. The college stuff was weird, I was so stupid. [laughs]
HollywoodChicago.com: Finally, since this is Just for Laughs week in Chicago, what do you prepared to tell potential stand-up comedians about what they have to give up to participate in the life?
Birbiglia: Everything? [laughs] I don’t know what to say. My comedian friend Eugene Mirman, he has a variety show in Brooklyn that is just great. Since he has his own show, fellow comedians are always asking him for advice. Whenever they ask, he tells them ‘do stand-up for the next ten years, and then call me.’