Mike Birbiglia Talks Sleepwalking (And Delicious Pizza)

The comedian on taking his show out on the road, and maybe getting some death threats while he’s there.

(Photo: Brian Friedman)

Let’s talk about My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. It’s been phenomenally successful on Netflix and will be out on DVD tomorrow. What made you go to Netflix?

You know, it was something that was presented to me by my agent and I was really gung-ho about it because my last one-hour special – which was called What I Should Have Said Was Nothing – didn’t make a lot of noise when it came out. It aired on Comedy Central to kind of OK ratings, and then it re-aired a bunch over the years, and then at a certain point it got licensed to Netflix. And then it became this weird phenomenon where I would be on tour and people kept coming up to me and saying, “I saw What I Should Have Said Was Nothing on Netflix and I loved it.” And you start hearing that over and over and over again and then finally I was like, “Wait, what’s Netflix?” And then I went on Netflix and I called my brother Joe, who works with me, and I was like, “I think a lot of people are seeing my comedy special on Netflix.” And so that is why it was really appealing to me. It feels like now is the time to be on Netflix.

You’re also turning this special into a feature film like you did with Sleepwalk with Me, which was also a book. Are there any more mediums that you want to try your hand at?

It’s funny, because the more I write the movie adaptation the more I have kind of veered away into what you would call “inspired by” the show My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. It has a different name and because one of the things I learned from Sleepwalk with Me was you have something that’s a book and then it’s a show and then it becomes a movie. After a while there is a cross-section of people who have their feet in all of those different places and are like, “Hey, will you tell a different story than that?”

You have stories you tell night after night in your shows and then you have to write them into different mediums. How do they react to being told like in your mind, do you remember them differently? Do they still seem like something that happened to you?

Yeah, it’s funny because Daniel Kitson – a really brilliant comedian – did a show recently all about memory, and he makes the point that memories, at a certain point, just become memories of the last time you remembered them. In other words, the memory of the last memory, opposed to a memory of the actual event that took place. Still, I feel like I actually do remember things. Or I think I do. I do remember the car accident in My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend – bits and pieces. Sitting on the curb after it happened, being questioned by police, being at the hospital in the examination room with the doctors. But I will often interview friends. Like, with Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, I spent so much time asking my wife what happened. I’d be like, “When we broke up what did you say? And what’d I say?” And it becomes this funny weird thing where you’re reporting like a news reporter on your own life in a certain way. But the luxury of that is that you can pick the funniest and most insightful version of your life. My wife tells me, “Here’s how I remember it: I said this, you said this…” And I’m like, let me turn down that boring bullshit and just have it be really profound. And so these people become sort of super-characters in the fictional world.

Do you ever get the urge to completely take yourself out of your own shows and just tell jokes about how flying sucks or that kind of thing?

I’m not above that! No, I’m really not. I feel like when I started out I was just an observational comedian and I was really emulating Jerry Seinfeld, Stephen Wright, and all of these observational, flat, surreal comedians who I really admired and who I still really admire. At a certain point I just realized, you know, I’m better at conveying a story and really trying to get a group of people to all be on the same page at the same time. And I think that I’m able to just kind of wrangle people and audiences in a way that works, I think because I’m just an average person, and people are like, ” Oh this guy’s an idiot like me.”  No one’s intimidated by me. That’s my strength. No one’s like, “This guy is better than me.”

What’s the worst venue you’ve ever performed in?

The worst I ever performed was, I feel like Atlantic City is always a struggle for me because when you play those casinos like half of the tickets are sold to your fans who are local, and then half of the tickets are for high rollers who are drunk. They’re not my people. So I remember I played the Trump Casino once in Atlantic City and there was this heckler in the darkness shouting a sentence that Icouldn’t understand but the word that I could hear over and over again was the word “die.” So he would be like, “Blah blah blah, DIE!” And I was like, “Oh my god, am I gonna get shot on the stage of the Trump Casino in Atlantic City?” And I said it on stage. I was like, “Is this guy shouting ‘die’ at me? What is happening?” And apparently he was really drunk and was like way over-analyzing a bit I was doing that was mildly political and he was saying that it was about George Bush. His full sentence was, “You didn’t die since 9/11,” which is kind of an insane argument. That like the administration post-9/11 would create a scenario where we all died. That would be one of the options.


What was the last thing that you had to apologize for?

I was in yoga class and I was in line and I turned around and I nearly knocked over a pregnant lady who was in the class. I was like, “I am so sorry.” To be clear for the record, and also for legal purposes or whatever: It was not my fault. I was totally going through the procedure as it is instructed, to put your stuff away and then continue. But it just so happened she was like right behind me and she was pregnant and I apologized two or three times and the apologies were never fully accepted. I feel like there’s a certain type of faux apology acceptance face that people can make, like, “Fuck you, I’m angry about this and I’m taking it to the grave.” I got that.

What is your favorite curse word or phrase?

I like the work “fucking” as an adverb, like “that’s fucking stupid.” Because it’s just an adverb that adds emphasis but reminds you of casual sex a bit. I love that it doesn’t even advocate casual sex because you could be like, “I am fucking abstinent,” and people are like, ” I believe him! This guy is not fucking fucking.”” It’s just so effective.

What’s the worst hangover you’ve ever had?

Good question. I had a really weird one cause I have this very dangerous sleepwalking disorder and like three New Year’s Eves ago I broke all the rules of sleep hygiene and I drank champagne till five in the morning and ate steak at a steakhouse with my wife and then had like chocolate cake and like drank coffee after that, which is just the recipe for a really bad sleepwalking incident. So then I had a dream that there were aliens that were invading my body through my throat so I went to the bathroom to purge myself even though there was nothing in my throat, just these imaginary aliens. And I’m purging myself in the bathtub and my wife wakes me up and says there’s no aliens in your throat and then I wake up in the morning and I feel not only the hangover from the champagne but then I feel that my throat hurts and I feel so ashamed that I can’t fix this sleepwalking problem that I have.

What was your first car?

My first car was, as depicted in Sleepwalk with Me, my mother’s ’92 Volvo station wagon that had 80,000 miles on it, and I had put 40,000 miles on it so by the time it retired it had 120,000 and I basically killed it. It served me well and my mechanic was always very angry with me because I just didn’t properly care for it.

Did it put itself into retirement or did you hang up the keys?

My mechanic had this accent – and I don’t even know what country speaks like this, but he spoke sort of like Sean Connery – and he used to go, “Mike, ya can’t treat the car like that. You gotta use the good gas. You’ve gotta change the oil.” He always said these strange things and I’m just like, “Yeah, yeah, I get it, Hank, I get it.” And then I would never give it the good gas and I would never change the oil because I couldn’t afford any of that stuff. Eventually we gave it to charity because people who are supported by charity should have really rickety, dangerous cars. That’s the America I want to live in.

Do you have a scar that tells a story?

Oh yeah. Not only do I have a scar but I have a plaque up at La Quinta Inn in Walla Walla, Washington, that says that I sleepwalked out the window. I have the scars on my leg because I had like 30 or 33 stitches in both of my thighs.

Do you have a party trick?

You know, I dream of having a party trick. I am a person who sort of worked my whole life in hopes that I could be the guitar guy at the party, which is why I wrote “Guitar Guy at the Party.” Anyway, I have no real party trick except I have a sixth sense for what the food is.

I think we have the same party trick.

The moment I walk into a room I have kind of like the Terminator’s tracking system for where the food is and I can get there immediately.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve ever put in your mouth?

I would say that I love pizza so much that sometimes I eat pizza while I’m eating pizza. Like I’m so content with myself with how it’s going that I’m like I should do this more, not realizing that the mouth is full. I’m just cramming pizza into my mouth.

What is the one thing to remember in a fist fight?

I think just run. Run and don’t look back. Just scream at the top of your lungs because no one wants to be punching the screaming guy.

Who was the last person to see you naked?

I think that my wife Jenny wins that one because we both use our naked bodies for unexpected comic relief in the house and I’m particularly egregious with that. Meanwhile, I would never be naked in a film or television show or anything like that, but around the house, that’s where you get the “A” material.

Finish this sentence: If I ruled the world for a day, I would…

I think I would put Apple in charge of the government, like I would do something where you take the smartest people we have who are billionaires – the right kind of billionaires – and figure out how to turn that into philanthropy. 

My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is out tomorrow

Also check out Mark Duplass or Rob Huebel answering our favorite 10 questions.