Around this time last year, I was headed up to Michigan wine country with an iPod full of This American Life episodes. No, I wasn't driving a faux-wood-paneled station wagon sipping Earl Grey, but I might as well have been. Have a laugh. Anyway, if you have yet to tune into TAL (Sundays at 11 a.m. on WDET 101.9 FM), you're missing out on the most amazing radio programming on the airwaves. Hinging on true stories found in all corners of the country, host and producer Ira Glass delivers narratives that hit on all of our delicate emotions. It's more painful than pretentious.
There was an episode entitled "Fear of Sleep," whose first chapter featured Mike Birbiglia, a burgeoning comedian with one hell of a sleeping disorder. Birbiglia, it turns out, struggles with a REM behavior disorder that enables him to physically and vocally act out his dreams while sleeping. Birbiglia's story, which was ultimately about procrastination, was mesmerizing and funny. He told a couple of stories about how this disorder has affected his life, each one sort of sad, and ended with a true tale about jumping out of a second story window of a hotel after dreaming a guided missile was headed straight for his room. He sleeps in a sleeping bag now.
From Wiffle Ball to Twitter and the lost art of spinning yarns, suffice to say Mike Birbiglia is a raconteur.
Metro Times: We know all the stereotypes of road life for musicians and actors, but what's it like for a comedian?
Mike Birbiglia: Well, right now we're headed to Indianapolis from Nashville and before you called I Twittered: "Laying in tour bus thinking about all the country singers who got laid here, and the dads who don't understand why their son looks like Clint Black." I've been a Twitter nerd lately, so, yeah …
MT: Do you follow any celebrity twits, I mean tweets?
Birbiglia: Kevin Nealon's is pretty damn funny, so is Sarah Silverman's — I think hers is the funniest.
MT: How many people are following you on Twitter?
Birbiglia: Let me see: 22,070. I made a joke yesterday, because it's true, that the number always seems to go down after I write anything about Jesus or the president.
MT: Must be kind of weird to have some 22,000 people give a shit about what you say, right? A year ago, that wouldn't have been the case.
Birbiglia: It is strange. I'm 31 now, so it's been a slow build, career-wise. I say that because I kind of got my big break on Letterman when I was 24. It just so happens that in the last year or two a lot of people have come to know who I am even though I've been touring for the last seven or eight years. I was never a star, but when I'd go to Toledo, Ohio, I was, because I was the only person who had ever been on TV who was in town that week.
MT: You aren't a typical stand-up comedian in that you set up and try to knock down punch lines, and a lot of your repertoire is based on true stories. Do you ever come across the Joe Wilsons of the world?
Birbiglia: Sure, every now and then, mainly in the South. Occasionally I'll do a political bit, like this one I do called "Wiffle Ball Tony" about George Bush. There was this one time I was in Florida and this guy stood up right in the middle of the bit and — see, the premise is that Wiffle Ball Tony is like George Bush, you invite him to the party because you know he's the guy who's going to start the Wiffle Ball game. People generally like him and when he shows up everyone's like, "Yeah, Wiffle Ball Tony's here! It is so on!" And then one day someone's like "We're going to put Tony in charge of everything." And I'm like, "We are? The burgers and the potato salad? I don't know if that's a good idea." Tony's very competitive. All of a sudden he's going into neighbors' lawns and challenging them to Wiffle Ball games. He's like, "I heard you bitches wanna play Wiffle Ball!" And they're like, "We didn't say that!" But he starts chucking hamburgers at them and we're all, "Tony! What are you doing, man?" And he's like, "They were going to throw hamburgers at me!" But it turns out they don't even have hamburgers, they have hot dogs, but they only throw them at each other, so it's cool. People start to get upset, and say, "Maybe we shouldn't have gone with Wiffle Ball Tony, maybe we should have gone with Bookworm Steve. But he's so boring." And then one guy's like, "What about Ralph?" And everyone says, "Shut up, Ralph! This is no time for joking."
It's not fearfully partisan, but it still gets grumbles in the South. If anything, I find that sometimes people talk back to me. I have a very conversational style, so sometimes I'll be in the middle of a story and them someone's like, "That happened to me too!"
MT: But you're still working from a script, so does that sort of thing throw you off your game?
Birbiglia: There's this Jerry Seinfeld interview called "On Comedy with Jerry Seinfeld" — it's a really great audio interview and he gets into a lot of interesting things. In it he says that comedy, in a sense, is kind of like a scene with two characters, you and the audience. You're working with the audience so it's as important to listen to them as it is for them to listen to you. I'm not hoping people are going to talk, but I guess if they do I just don't get flustered by it because it's part of the scene that's playing out.
MT: Are you as extroverted offstage as you are on it?
Birbiglia: Offstage, am I still the ship captain? I'm a bit more of a fly on the wall, really. Sometimes people are thrown off because they'll meet me and they expect me to be really funny and so I have to point out that if I said the things I say on stage in regular conversation people would be like, "Well, that was a really weird thing to say just now."
MT: Do you have any intention of using that conversational voice and storytelling approach to stand-up that's garnered you so much attention recently and putting it in a book?
Birbiglia: Actually, yes! Funny you ask, but I'm in the process of writing a book right now for Simon & Schuster called Sleepwalk with Me & Other Stories. It's a collection of personal essays. I also just finished a draft of a screenplay that I hope to shoot this spring. As a matter of fact, Ira Glass, the host and producer of This American Life, is one of the producers on that project. The next step I want to take is the one into film; it's something I've always wanted to do. I've always admired the work of Woody Allen, James Brooks and Cameron Crowe, filmmakers who make personal stories universal and somehow balance both a dramatic and comedic voice.
MT: What makes a good storyteller?
Birbiglia: Trial and error is what it's all about. You have to put it all out there in front of an audience and see what works for them. When you can recognize what's intrigued them and where the laughs fell you got to blow that out and explore those facets. The most important thing though is to go where you're afraid to go. If you're overly comfortable, your story's probably not that interesting.
Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com
Mike Birbiglia performs his off-Broadway one-man show Sleepwalk With Me at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 27, at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, 318 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-298-0708.
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