Hurts So Good

Mike Birbiglia mines life's embarrassments for laughs

Mike Birbiglia
Mike Birbiglia (by Gary Miller)

Mike Birbiglia is rumpled and groggy, having just been roused from a midmorning nap on a sofa in the lobby of the Driskill Hotel. It's tough to be a comedian on the road, especially when said comedian is working two projects concurrently: Birbiglia is on tour with his newest one-man show, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, as well as making stops at Sundance and South by Southwest Film to screen Sleepwalk With Me, based on his 2008 solo off-Broadway show.

Co-written with This American Life host and producer Ira Glass, Sleepwalk With Me is equal parts sleep-disorder memoir, ambivalent love story (featuring a luminous Lauren Ambrose), and stand-up comedian's Künstlerroman. It is sweet and charming, if a bit lacking in narrative cohesion, but is a testament to Birbiglia's particular talent for teasing genuine laughs out of life's most painful moments.

Birbiglia is not your typical comedian. Rather than lob punch line after punch line at an increasingly lubricated audience, he constructs a narrative that builds gradually so that by the time the story comes to an end, his interlocutors have encountered some larger truth or profound realization. It's the comedy version of eating a satisfying and nourishing home-cooked meal rather than gorging on a box of Twinkies. One will leave you content, the other sick and tweaking on sugar.

"I started out as a joke-joke comedian, emulating the comedians I admire, like Mitch Hedberg, Steven Wright," explains Birbiglia. "Over time, I was asked by the storytelling series the Moth to tell stories. The first time I did that, I told this really embarrassing story about my first girlfriend in high school." In the story, which Birbiglia had been too ashamed to share with anyone, ever, he recounts his discovery that his girlfriend has a second boyfriend, and finds himself having dinner at the girlfriend's house with her parents and the other boyfriend. "And I'm realizing I'm hanging out with my girlfriend's boyfriend. That was a really hard story to tell because I was so embarrassed about it. Every story is like that; I find that the more painful it is to get it out, if you can find the laughs in it, you can connect with an audience."

For Birbiglia, the goal of connecting with an audience informed the development of the celluloid adaptation of Sleepwalk With Me and led him to reject the Hollywood methodology. "We were developing this for a while with a larger company, and I'd written like 12 drafts of it and made so many changes," he says. "The Hollywood model is to develop scripts for 10 years, sell them, transfer them, attach this actor, then attach a director. This isn't what I'm about. I'm much more of a creator and a doer. I'd much rather try and fail than talk about trying." With the help of co-producers Glass and Jake Jaffke, Birbiglia, who also directed, was able to take control of the project, and so far, it looks like the risk is paying off: Sleepwalk With Me was snapped up by IFC Films, which will distribute the film both here and abroad in the near future.

Meanwhile, Birbiglia must still put one foot in front of the other. Today, SXSW. Tomorrow, Boise, Idaho. Then Indianapolis. Then Cleveland. And on and on and on, even though the storyteller is exhausted, laughing and posing with adoring fans night after night, affixing his autograph to everything from boxes of cereal to Dustbusters. (Interested parties can view the gallery of crazy things he's signed on his Twitter page: But Birbiglia doesn't mind: He encourages it. "My relationship with audiences is much more special than my relationship with Hollywood. You're out on tour, the economy's bad, and people are so nice to buy a ticket and come to your show. So I try to encourage people to bring anything to the show, like, "Thanks for coming." There'll be time for sleeping later.

Sleepwalk With Me, Festival Favorites, Friday, March 16, 10pm, SXSatellite: Alamo Village

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Mike Birbiglia, Sleepwalk With Me

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