Sundance | Mike Birbiglia Talks Stand-up and Sleepwalk With Me
If you’re familiar with comedian Mike Birbiglia’s 2008 Off-Broadway show Sleepwalk With Me or his 2010 book Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories, you’ve likely been looking forward to the big-screen adaptation of the popular material (especially considering that Birbiglia co-wrote the screenplay with Ira Glass of This American Life). If you’ve heard nothing about Birbiglia or his show up until this point, Sleepwalk With Me is the movie you never knew you always wanted in your life.
The hilarious and poignant story of Birbiglia’s struggle to become a comedian, and the subsequent downfall of his long-term relationship with then-fiance Abby, boasts notes of Woody Allen, Michel Gondry and Nick Hornby, while somehow carving a unique niche in the crowded corner that houses rom-dram-coms.
Birbiglia chooses to fictionalize his life, playing Matt Pandamiglio, who immediately breaks the fourth wall by addressing his audience to relay his tale, making the film something of a narrated journey through his psyche. We’re introduced to his college sweetheart Abby as the two move in together and see that Pandamiglio bartends at Brooklyn’s Union Hall (where he must endure serving drinks while stand-up comedians perform on stage).
Lauren Ambrose is radiant as Abby, who is smart and successful and patient with Matt – she clearly wants the next step in their relationship to be marriage, but she has trouble saying it. As does Matt, who shoulders the ridicule of his father (James Rebhorn) and the airy quirkiness of his mother (the always-amazing Carol Kane), along with the stress of attempting to launch his comedy career. The pressure drives him to dangerous, and often hilarious, bouts of sleepwalking, an ailment so severe that it melds his waking life with his unconscious one.
What results is an endearing and funny look at the cost of success through Birbiglia’s deadpan, self-deprecating vision – one that doesn’t focus on easy outs or vilification, but simply chronicles the mishaps, doubts and painful decisions made along the way. Birbiglia’s is an exploration of breakup and fame as more than just something that happens to you. As Matt’s father says, “At a certain point, you gotta zig or zag.” Sleepwalk With Me is the unforgettable tale of those torturous, funny, heartbreaking moments in between – it’s no wonder that the film won the Sundance Film Festival’s 2012’s Best of Next Audience Award.
After a screening of the film at Sundance, Birbiglia took the stage to regale the audience with a stand up-style introduction before settling in for a hilarious Q&A.
Birbiglia: Thanks for coming to the film after the festival is over! [laughter] Um. I think it ended yesterday, but, yeah, we’re just going to keep doing these here into April. So tell your friends! And then they’ll tell a friend and then hopefully America will have seen the film. That’s our distribution! [laughter] I can’t resist the urge to do hackey stand-up comedian things. This place is awesome – it’s an incredible state. I didn’t have a chance to do anything interesting because I’m doing interviews and stuff all week. Until yesterday, and I’m like, “Now I’m going to experience Utah!” I went to Deer Valley, and I had an accident skiing. A like yard sale-style accident where my poles and skis and mittens and sleeping bag were every 40 yards down the mountain. And then I was like, “Oh, no, this is a disaster…I gotta get in a hot tub at the nice hotel!” And I went there and my phone was in my pocket. [audience groans and laughs] And – here’s the thing – if you do that, it doesn’t work any more. Like, it doesn’t matter what plan you have. Even if you have any tub minutes. Your phone will not work after that. So my day has been kind of…frazzled. But this was such a pleasant surprise that you guys showed up here!
Your story has evolved from play to book to movie – how did that happen?
Ira Glass and I started working together around the time of the one-man show. In 2008, I was running my one-man show Sleepwalk With Me Off-Broadway in New York, and Nathan Lane presented. Around that time, Ira Glass decided he wanted to put an excerpt of it on This American Life, the radio show that you guys might know because you have fancy glasses. [audience laughs] There’s enough Ira clones in the audience to know that! So he and I started working on a bunch of stories for his show – I’ve done like six or seven stories on his show. And he’s absolutely brilliant … the thing I didn’t understand about Ira before I met him is that he IS This American Life. I always thought, “Oh – he’s just got a neat voice.” That’s not the whole thing. He’s an incredible producer, and really is kind of a story Jedi. And so we started working on this because we thought, not only is it kind of like a just an interesting story that you would tell, it’s cinematic, it has dreams it has sleepwalking. And I’d always wanted to direct a film. I made a bunch of shorts in college and lost all my money, and I was like, “I can’t do this anymore ’cause this is the opposite of a job!” [audience laughs] When you have to pay the other person to do it, that’s not a job. So I did stand-up comedy because there’s no overhead to stand-up comedy. You just go on the stage – this is stand-up comedy right now, and it doesn’t cost anybody anything. And eventually I circled back to making this film.
I see that there’s a ring on your finger …
Whoa, easy! That’s such a sassy tone for a Q&A. “I can see from the ring on your finger that you have gotten married!” What was the question? “How’s that goin’ for ya?” Well, it’s great. I’ve been married for about three years or so. People might know that story on This American Life on an episode called Return to the Scene of the Crime. And that’s actually what my one-man show that I’m touring with right now – My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend – is about. Yeah, I got married to my wife Jenny, and without her I wouldn’t have been able to make this film as well. She’s great.
Does your dad recognize that you have a profession now?
Ehhhhh. [audience laughs] Ira and I have this thing in common. Ira was saying to me about a year ago … his parents never believed that he could be a radio personality – they thought it wasn’t a real profession, they wanted him to go to medical school. And he invited them when he was receiving the Peabody Award … it’s like the most prestigious award you can possibly get in journalism. And they’re at the event and they were saying to all of his producers at the table, “So what is this? What do you guys do exactly?” You can never please your parents. Unless you have like hippie parents.
There’s this great quote from Joan Didion that writers are always selling somebody out – somebody in their life. Is that even more important in stand-up comedy?
It’s a funny quote because I think there’s some truth to that. My friend, who’s a filmmaker, she created the show Hung – Colette Burson – she once said to me, “You have to pick your few friends, and then everybody else is fair game.” And I think there’s some truth to that. I’m lucky in the sense like with my book and my film – I don’t really make fun of other people so much as I make fun of myself. I try to take myself down pretty hard, and be really critical. So if someone says something to me – which they rarely do – you know, like my ex-girlfriend who is depicted in the film, she loves the film and read the script and read the book and everything and is really supportive. And I try to take myself down harder so that it doesn’t feel so bad when I’m taking other people down. ‘Cause somebody’s gotta go down! Or else it ain’t funny.
So is that really true – somebody has to go down, somebody has to take a hit or it’s not funny?
I mean, maybe – I don’t know. In comedy I think there has to be a target of some kind, and it can be a person or it can be an organization or it can be a country. But yeah, somebody I think has to go down in comedy – or at least the comedy I’m familiar with.
So, the situation with the agent where you approached the agent and started getting gigs and went from level 0 to level whatever you are now …
Uh, 1,000. [audience laughs] Everybody write that down.
… What advice do you have for other comedians who are at level 0 at the moment?
Um, it’s hard, I mean … I have a friend who’s a comedian named Eugene Mirman, who I think is an extraordinary comedian. If you’re a fan of his you’ll notice that he has a walk-on for like one second in the movie. A lot of comedians approach him because he hosts a show in New York that’s really experimental, at Union Hall, actually – where this film was shot, where I’m a bartender. And he always says about stand-up comedy … when people ask him for advice, he always goes, “Well, start doing it and then keep doing it, and then call me in 10 years and tell me how it’s going.” Because it’s an endurance game. I think filmmaking is a similar thing, I think there’s no path. If there was a path, everyone would do it. Or a lot more people would do it. And so I feel like you kind of have to figure out how to get on stage.
What was the casting process like?
Well, the casting director was a woman named Jen Euston, who is an extraordinary casting director in New York City. She cast, like, Cristin Milioti as my sister, which I think is great. She cast Wyatt Cenac – I thought that was a great idea. Like, Marc Maron as Marc Mulheren. Oh, Loudon Wainwright, who was my Uncle Max. Mary Louise Burke, who I love as my aunt. And then the people who I just wanted were Carol Kane, who I’d met a few years before, and I was always like, “I want you to be my mom!” And she was like [imitates Carol’s voice], “What???” “In a movie!” [audience laughs] And then Lauren Ambrose – my wife Jenny had been a fan of Six Feet Under, and I didn’t have a television at the time that was out, but … we wanted someone for the part of Abby who was a really strong woman and who exuded strength and confidence in a way that you couldn’t possibly feel sorry for her when inevitably the characters break up. I think one of the worst things that can happen in a film or a play is where you just feel bad for the people … and in this case particularly because you know the protagonist is breaking up with her and you can’t really feel sorry for Lauren … she’s a badass, you know? And so … I asked her to do the film probably a year before, and she was always very supportive.
This movie is essentially your true story, so what went into the decision to fictionalize your life – why is it Matt Pandamiglio as opposed to Mike Birbiglia?
Well – as Carol Kane put it … ”He did it to mess me up.” Because she kept, in scenes, she would be like, “Oh, Michael!” And I’d be like, “No, cut. All right – my character’s name is Matt.” That happened a lot. Lauren did it a lot, too. I’m totally comfortable discussing my own life and vulnerabilities, I feel weird about talking about my parents – putting my parents on the screen, my ex-girlfriend, all these people – especially when Carol Kane shows up on the set. You give her a script and you say, “These are the words that the character says.” What you get is this kind of magical Carol Kane-hilarious interesting version of that, and it’s its own thing, and it is a character. So for me to say it’s my mom, it’s Mary Jean Birbiglia, is just weird.
Since this started as a one-man show, what was the hardest part about developing other characters?
Um. I think the same as other movies. Because you just have to write ‘em. [audience laughs] Yeah. You gotta write ‘em, for sure. Like, you totally gotta work on that. Spend time on it and shit.