Depending on your point of view, Mike Birbiglia is a comedy genius worthy of much adoration, or a bit too precious with his sleepy NPR delivery. And this doesn't even take into account those who have never heard of the stand-up comic.
In fact, Birbiglia, 34, has been around the comedy scene for years, building a following with a delivery that, to put it in a comedy context, recalls a young Stephen Wright and Woody Allen, with the social edge of Richard Pryor.
The New York comic has had Comedy Central specials, successful comedy albums and stage shows, is a regular contributor on This American Life, and recently directed the brilliant and loosely autobiographical Sleepwalk With Me. The film offers an honest and candid portrayal of a struggling stand-up comic, played by Birbiglia, his failing relationship with girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose), and the serious rapid-eye movement behavior disorder he chooses to ignore, and won an Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Birbiglia is currently touring the solo stage show "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend," which he is performing at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Tickets are $35 and available at the Stranahan box office, by phone at 419-381-8851, or etix.com.
The Blade recently emailed questions to Birbiglia for a Q&A.
Q: Being a comic is more than just being funny. Talk about the evolution from being, say, the class clown to having a one-man show.
A: I actually wasn't really the class clown growing up. The class clown was always the mean guy who walked up and was like, "You're fat. You're gay. I'm outta here!" I was always more kind of awkward and introspective. And then eventually I put a lot of the things I was thinking about on stage and I became a comedian. Over the years I started working with The Moth and Ira Glass on This American Life and I started to shape my jokes into stories and one-man shows.
Q: When was the moment you first truly realized, "you know, I've made it"? How did you mark the occasion?
A: I think the first time I was on Letterman, which was almost 10 years ago to the day. I was 24 and I had just moved to New York and it was a really early break that I had. I've always looked up to Letterman. So my brother, Joe, was there and my girlfriend and afterwards we went out to the restaurant called Houston's. And we couldn't get a table for like an hour. My manager, who was with us, tried to talk them into giving us a table because I had just been on the Letterman show, but they either a) didn't believe us or b) didn't care at all and we ended up waiting for an hour. In retrospect , I think it was most exciting because it was the first time where my parents realized that I was actually going to do comedy as my job.
Q: For anyone not familiar with your stand-up, explain why he/she should see your show.
A: I would say that you'll definitely laugh. That's just for starters. And it's a great show for a date. It's great to bring your wife, or girlfriend, or husband, or boyfriend. And you can bring your kids or grandparents. There's no cursing. I like to think of it as a show for ages 13 through 100.
Q: My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, just the title alone seems deprecating and painfully honest. Describe the show.
A: It's all about love, marriage, and the idea of being right. It's basically about all of the painful romantic experiences I've had in my life and how those affected my relationships as an adult -- how it led to me having a deep fear of marriage, to the point where I didn't believe in marriage AT ALL -- and how, despite that, I decided to get married.
Q: Is it easier from a comedy standpoint to write about your own life and experiences vs. riffing on observations of others?
A: Yeah, my first manager gave me this piece of advice which was, "If you write about your own life, no one can steal it from you."
Q: Talk about Sleepwalk with Me: what it's about, how it came together.
A: Sleepwalk With Me is a comedy, narrative feature film that premiered at Sundance last January and was released in theaters and on "video on demand" this fall about this character-- loosely based on myself -- who is in denial about his failing relationship with his college sweetheart, his failing career, and his sleep disorder that is becoming increasingly dangerous. And it's really about how sometimes when you don't deal with something, it might just kill you. But it's funny.
Q: What did you do to prepare for your directorial debut? Was there any one filmmaker you looked to for inspiration, especially since you were directing yourself?
MB: Well, yeah, certainly Woody Allen, Albert Brooks, and Charlie Chaplin are people who directed themselves in film. The thing about comedy is that it makes sense that comedians would want to direct because we all kind of crave control. When we do stand-up comedy, we're in charge ultimately and so I think that it is a logical progression.
Q: By the time your perform in Toledo, the election will be over, but I suspect there will be some lingering antagonism remaining from whichever side loses. Everyone talks about how divided our nation is, is that what you see as you travel the country? Is there anything comedians can do to help repair the rift?
A: Well, fortunately I don't talk about politics on stage. But I find that Americans have more in common than not. I think that that's generally true and I'd like to think I have a lot of fans on both sides of it. Comedy unites, it doesn't divide!
Q: It wasn't until I prepared for this Q&A that I learned of the seriousness of rapid eye movement behavior disorder and the danger of sleepwalking. How has it affected you? I'm curious how your fellow comics responded to your diagnosis. Was it a joking matter?
A: Yeah, it is very serious. My wife, Jenny, is very supportive of me, both artistically and personally so she's very encouraging and we talk about it, but she's also very cautious about it on a day to day basis. And I really do have to stay on the first floor in hotels, and I sleep in a sleeping bag when I go to bed at night, and I take all these precautions and see a sleep physician regularly. In terms of other comedians, I think comedians tend to not feel like anything is off limits, so there's definitely some combination of laughing at me and with me. Hopefully more often -- with me.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.