Interview with comedian Mike Birbiglia

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

When Mike Birgbiglia makes a stop in Columbus Wednesday, March 19, we'll be treated to one of the most talented and funniest comedians working right now. Birbiglia has been on one hell of a creative tear the last few years, producing two widely-acclaimed one-man shows in "Sleepwalk With Me"- the inspiration for the award-winning film he wrote, directed and starred in - and "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend," which Birbiglia is in the process of turning into his second theatrical release. Both "Sleepwalk With Me" film and "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" special are streaming on Netflix.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Birbiglia is presenting new material for his current "Thank God for Jokes" tour, a hybrid of his one-man shows and stellar earlier standup material (like comedy albums Two Drink Mike and My Secret Public Journal). Speaking of Birbiglia's work ethic - and straight-up nice guy nature - he was kind enough to speak with me over the phone from his New York City home while recovering from a nasty illness (that he got from doing five shows in five nights, in five different cities).

During our conversation, Birbiglia and I discussed his most recent projects and current tour, some of his favorite movies, and how those influenced his filmmaking. Birbiglia also talked about how much he enjoys performing in Columbus, especially the Capitol Theatre (even if the building that houses it is like a designed with "Inception"-level architecture that makes finding the theater strenuous). It's why he recorded a comedy album here and almost did the same for the "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" live special. Here's hoping Birbiglia chooses Columbus again as a showcase setting, but let's face it, it's just great to have him coming through with some excellent comedy.

Hi Mike, how are you doing?

I'm sort of sick in bed recovering, but I will do my best to project energy.

I heard you were under the weather.

Yeah, I just came off a pretty hectic trip. I was in five cities in five days; St. Louis to Chicago to tape "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." And then I drove to Madison to do two shows, then two shows in Milwaukee Saturday, and then Grand Rapids on Sunday night. I just flew home and toward the end I was starting to feel a cold. So I'm just kind of resting up.

Well, I really appreciate you speaking with me today.

No, I feel good. And I'm laughing because I just tweeted out [that] I recorded an audiobook for children, I voiced "Bear Has a Story to Tell." It's about a bear with a story to tell. I haven't heard the whole thing yet, just a two-minute sample [which] I tweeted out. It makes me laugh so hard because I'm the last person who, in my mind, you'd expect to voice a children's book. We'll find out if other people see it as amusing as I did. It's a good book … it's a short, cute book with beautiful pictures.

Well, besides the illness, is the tour going well?

Oh man, the tour has been phenomenal. It has been by far the most people that have come out in my whole career. Last time I was in Milwaukee, this is part of why the whole thing is so overwhelming, I played for like 1,000 people. That was two years ago. This weekend I played two shows for 1,000 people. And it was the same thing in Madison.

It's just the one-two punch of "Sleepwalk with Me" in 2012 and "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend," my recent special [one-man show], in 2013. So now 2014 I have this new show, and it seems like after all these years - a lot of entertainers say this - you never know what is going to be the thing that ultimately provokes a lot of people to come see you. This is completely the case of that. It wasn't a master plan; it's just that lately people are just showing up. It's really exciting.

Is this tour different from the recent one-man shows?

It's interesting because the intention was when I wrote the show, I've been writing it for the last two years, that it was going to be a return to the Two Drink Mike, My Secret Public Journal form. At this point I have four albums; Two Drink Mike, My Secret Public Journal, Sleepwalk with Me and My Girlfriend's Boyfriend. This will be my fifth album, Thank God for Jokes, and I thought I'd love to return to that storytelling, but really dense-with-jokes-storytelling. I really do have an affinity for jokes and when I hear a great joke it really gets me. So I started thinking I'm just going into this show with the writing process of, what are the funniest observations, stories, and jokes I can tell.

What's interesting is along the way it evolved into a hybrid between the one-man shows and my standup shows where it's a series of jokes and stories. But the theme that's emerged is jokes itself, and what they mean - how [jokes] are meaningful to me. They make me feel closer to people; the people I feel closest to in my life, my parents [and] my wife, are people I share inside jokes with. And when I perform live shows, playing for 1,000 people, it's almost a religious experience. I feel extremely close to everyone in the room because we're all laughing at the same thing.

Also the show is sort of about how jokes can get you in trouble, actually most of the time they get you in trouble. And I give a lot of examples of that. That's sort of the theme that's evolved and … I think it'll evolve even more before I end up releasing it as a special. It'll end up having more of an arc.

But it's been great. A lot of people come up to me after the shows and say, "I've been a fan since Two Drink Mike and this is my favorite of all the shows." It's very exciting because you do have a worry after releasing two very [personal] pieces back-to-back in "Sleepwalk with Me" and "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend." What do I have left to say? What could I possibly have? So it's been a pleasant surprise this show has gone so well.

Is merging standup and building in personal stories rewarding for you? Are you on to something here, a direction for the future?

I feel like the discovery is that the best I have to offer an audience is comedy. Recently I've been offered movie parts and things like that. I'm in this movie coming out in June called "The Fault in Our Stars." It's just great and based on this really great young-adult novel by John Green about two kids who have cancer that fall in love. It's a big phenomenon. In the first three days it had like 12.6 million views [of the trailer].

And I've recently done parts in other movies and things, and I've turned some parts down. Since "Sleepwalk with Me," the phone rings a bit more. But it always comes down to, do I have something to contribute to the role? And usually, I think, "Do I have something to contribute comedically to it?" That's what I feel like this discovery is - a return to comedy and making sure that, [even though] I'm telling a series of stories, everything should be funny. I know that's a really simple concept, but I think there's something to it.

Maybe it's simple, but it's very hard to execute that in a performance. In the case of "Sleepwalk with Me," there's some pathos there as well. Yes, it's very funny but it's also very poignant and that's what makes the movie work so well.

Well, thank you.

You have both comedy and drama, which I'm guessing is what you were going for because that comes across so well in that movie. And it seems very personal to you as well. Is that something you really wanted; to convey, "This was my experience and life is funny, and I can be funny and tell great jokes, but I also have some times where it's not all laughs?"

Those are the movies that - and movies are my first love as entertainment - are the movies that really got me. The Cameron Crowe, James L. Brooks movies like "Terms of Endearment," "Broadcast News" and recently I was re-watching "Say Anything."

I remember watching "Say Anything" as a kid. I must have been 12-years-old or something, and it just really got me. It just conveyed something so emotional, but also so funny at the same time. It has so many great, great jokes in it; if you think about the graduation party scene. Do you remember the movie that well?

Oh yeah, it's one of my all-time favorites.

So there's that scene where [John Cusack's Lloyd Dobler] takes Diane Court to the graduation party and he's just kind of watching over her, following her around and they make him the Keymaster, which is so funny.

I remember when I was a kid, just repeating my best friend … that scene where he explains kickboxing to Diane Court's dad. And just how funny that was, and yet that movie is just widely dramatic and so emotional. You're so invested in the characters. That's been the goal, to make pieces like that.

At this point I've sort of honed in; for a longtime I was working … on a bunch of different things. I wrote a book, made a movie, worked on TV pilots and comedy specials. Recently I really honed in on this idea that I'd like to make comedy specials and tours to accompany them, and make movies. At this point I don't really want to make TV, not because I don't like TV, but I don't love it like I love movies or standup.

Yeah, you need to have that love for such demanding projects like that, or it just won't work out.

Especially with movies. Movies are so hard, so challenging, so disruptive of your life that unless you love it, you're just in the wrong business. [laughs]

Was "Sleepwalk With Me" like that? Very rewarding, but very challenging?

It was by far the hardest thing I'd ever done. Before that the hardest thing I'd ever done was write a book … making a movie was the hardest thing I could ever imagine doing. It's basically the visual realization [of a book], so there's seven or more art forms occurring simultaneously. There's writing, acting, music and cinematography and production design and all these things that have to be executed simultaneously. You're essentially the conductor of this orchestra. It's very, very hard.

It's baffling when you see some movies from this year, like Spike Jonze's "Her." It was one of my favorite movies this year; just the amount of things he's executing simultaneously, the score is nice and the performances are amazing - Joaquin Phoenix is acting with [just] a voice - the cinematography is gorgeous in this near-futuristic world they're creating. There's so much at play, and my hat is off to someone like Spike Jonze who made something I think is a real masterpiece.

I just found that movie to be such a gift to the audience. I was really shocked that [Phoenix] wasn't nominated for best actor. Did you guys see the movie? For me that performance is so outrageously connected to no one, someone who wasn't there. I really do think that's an epic performance.

I agree. It's weird, I always think of him and back to being the kid with brown paper bag of porn in the movie "Parenthood." He was really good in that too, but he's grown so much as an actor.

That was Joaquin Phoenix. I can't believe that.

His name in the credits was Leaf Phoenix.

Really? I love "Parenthood." That was one of my favorite movies as a kid; very similar story of how it's very funny and also devastating.

Speaking of movies, "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" is also being turned into a movie, right?

Yeah, I've been working on a script adaptation for about two years. What's interesting is that the more that I've adapted it as a screenplay, the more I've written away from the original story. What you find when you're adapting something, I don't know if other people feel this way, but it really takes on a life of its own.

You're representing something visually, so you need to take things that are verbal in the monologue and transfer those into a visual format. Along the way, you make so many leaps that at a certain point it's, is this adaptation or more inspired by? I feel like at this point it'll be another title, and in the credits [it'll have] inspired by "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend."

So you want the movie to be separate from the live show?

Lately I've been at the point where I wrote a book, then a comedy album and then a movie. A few people would say, "I was a fan of all those things and I knew the story," but for the most part people liked all the different versions. The more fans I accumulate, the more I feel a real responsibility to be delivering something entirely unique from the previous thing. I don't want anyone to be penalized for having watched the previous stuff.

That's why the [tour] is really exciting right now. The people that are coming out, [and] this was always my goal when I started comedy, to have people to come out and see my shows on purpose. When I was starting out it was always I'm opening for someone else who maybe isn't of a similar type of comedy, or I'm part of a bill with five comedians [or] there'd just be a sign out of the bar that says, "Tonight Comedy."

They'd come see comedy and watch me and say, "This isn't my type of comedy." I feel like that was a lot of my early career. Maybe three out of the 100 people in the audience would come up and say, "Hey, you were my favorite."

I feel like over the years, those three out of 100 have accumulated and all those people are at my shows now. And it's really one big inside joke. Like I said, it's a religious experience; like you're experiencing a joke with a group of friends, but a big group of like 1,000 friends. That's really magical.

So it sounds like your stop in Columbus for "Thank God for Jokes" will be new for your biggest fans, even ones who've seen you multiple times.

This is one of my favorite theaters, the Capitol Theatre. I played there I think four times at this point. I considered shooting "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" at that theater because it's a very similar layout to where we shot it … in Seattle. [The Capitol Theatre] is a three-quarters in-the-round structure. Basically every seat is close to the stage so it feels intimate even though it's 1,000 people.

The problem was I'd just done the show last spring at the Capitol Theatre right before I shot the special. So it was the whole thing of my agent and I being on the phone and [thinking] we can't do it in Columbus because we have to get a whole different 1,000 people; a whole new crowd.

Some people will repeat and maybe they won't laugh as hard. And comedy is all about surprise. It's not like music, where you can hear something 100 times and enjoy it more. You enjoy it, but in a different way. You hear a joke that you love - Mitch Hedberg used to always say that people used to shout out requests to him because he got so popular, and he didn't want to do that because [they] won't laugh, they'll clap. I don't want people to clap. I want people to laugh. It's a clapping of acknowledgement, but as a comedian you crave laughter.

Well, maybe you'll keep Columbus and the Capitol Theatre in mind for a future special.

I love that theatre. It's such a gem. The only thing that's annoying about it, and maybe it's not this [way] for people in Columbus, but for me it's kind of confusing for me to find it in the building. Wait the theater is up this escalator, and then around this roundabout thing, and then we're in this big lobby that looks like it's for a Pfizer Corporate headquarters or something. Next thing you know you're in this beautiful theater. It just doesn't make any sense, but the theater is incredible.

No, you're right. It's weird.

It's so confusing. But it's perfect for comedy. And I recorded My Secret Public Journal live album at the Funny Bone in Columbus.

So you have a good relationship with Columbus?

Yeah, and as a matter of fact, I recently played CCAD, which was really fun. I think it was student-only. It was a cool spot. The other tie that I have to Columbus is that I was finalist for the Thurber Prize for my book ["Sleepwalk with Me & Other Painfully True Stories"] and the Thurber House is in Columbus.

We're always happy to have you perform here. Lastly, I wanted to ask you how you're able to vary you delivery of material so drastically; sometimes very deadpan, other times super animated?

Increasingly over the years, the degree to which I'm animated has to do with just [being comfortable] with storytelling. I just get more animated because I'm more comfortable with telling a story how I would tell my friends a story. The Scrambler [a bit about Brigbiglia's unfortunate experience on the carnival ride] is this real break-through piece for me physically because I tell it in this super-animated way. It's very much like how I would tell it to my friends at a bar before I told it on stage.

For a long time I thought that's not how "Mike Birbiglia" would tell a story because he's more deadpan and blah, blah, blah. At a certain point I let go of that; you know what, fuck it. You just have to tell the story how it comes out, the way it honors the story the best and conveys what's in your head. That's what sort of guided the energy level.