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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Don't stop the ride: Mike Birbiglia talks about Sleepwalk With Me's success and his current one-man show, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend

Posted By on 10.24.12 at 01:00 PM

Like fun you are . . .
Mike Birbiglia is a storyteller before he's a comedian. It just so happens that most of his stories involve embarrassing, sometimes shocking, blunders and misfires—like spewing cotton-candy vomit all over a seventh-grade date or sleepwalking his way out of a La Quinta Inn window. It's those smart and sincere coming-of-age and of-age yarns that Birbiglia's gotten so much mileage out of over the past four years. Not only did he have an incredibly successful run with his one-man show Sleepwalk With Me, he also converted the stand-up into both a book and recent feature film, which he collaborated on with This American Life host Ira Glass.

Last week Birbiglia spoke with me on the phone about the movie version of Sleepwalk With Me, as well as his upcoming string of dates for My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, his one-man show that's camping out at the Victory Gardens Theater for five days (10/25-10/29) and will likely find its way into movie theaters some time down the line (Birbiglia is working on the adaptation right now, actually).

How are you?

I'm good, I'm good. Getting ready to head to Baltimore and Richmond and Norfolk, Virginia. Then I'm back in New York for some shows, before I come to Chicago for five days, which I'm very excited about.

Making good on the Just for Laughs postponement.

What did you call it?

The Just for Laughs postponement.

Oh, postponement. I thought you said misconduct, and I was like, "Wow, I've never been accused of having misconduct."

We were up in arms about it, you know.

You guys at the Reader were the most emphatic when the whole thing was being moved. There were updates on your site like, "It might not be happening!" and "Now it's happening, but it's happening in the fall!" I thought, "Oh this is great, at least somebody cares." I was excited because Victory Gardens is supposed to be gorgeous, and it was going to be the first time since we had done the show in New York that we were going to do an extended run as opposed to a one-off.

When you sit a show, it starts to have a life of its own. It starts to meld into the space in a certain way. You can work on stuff and try out new material. It's a controlled experiment. But when we were a week out and about to move our set in, we were told that we had to perform the show in front of another show's set.

Ah, the PR just said "technical difficulties" and didn't go into specifics.

I think it was too much information for people's brains—the idea of putting a set in front of another set. But that was the gist of it. They just assumed, and when I say "they" I mean . . .

Those people.

Some people, I don't know who. I think I was shielded from that so I wouldn't cast blame across the Internet. They assumed that because I'm a comedian, I could play on the apron of the stage. But I was like, "No, no, it's a show! We're bringing a show."

What are some of the pieces involved?

Nothing huge. There's a backdrop designed by Beowulf Borritt, who designed Rock of Ages and one of my favorite shows on Broadway ever, The Scottsboro Boys. And he did the design for Sleepwalk With Me. And we have Aaron Copp who's designed lighting for Yo-Yo Ma. The production is minimalist, but it's thoughtful.

I was at the Music Box for one of the film screenings of Sleepwalk With Me hosted by Ira Glass, which of course were all incredibly successful because Chicago loves Ira, completely and totally. Can you explain the impetus behind the movie and how Ira and WBEZ got involved?

I'd been trying to get in touch with This American Life for years, like so many writers and storytellers had been. They're very elusive. I did the sleepwalk story at the Moth where I jump through the window, and once I had that recording, I asked the folks at the Moth if they would send it to This American Life. [Senior producer] Julie Snyder really liked it and apparently brought it up at staff meetings. And Ira heard it and wanted to put it on the show. Then I said I'd like to speak it on the show, because the tape was me playing in front of a live audience. I wanted to do it in studio, like [David] Sedaris. My whole existence had only been live recordings.

And finally Ira just called me and said, "Hey, this is Ira Glass and I'm calling to convince you to let us use your audio." And I was like, "Oh, OK." He made a convincing case because when you're on the phone with him you feel like you're talking to the radio. And then the radio responds. It's surreal.

When I had him on the phone, I said we should get a drink some time and hang out. We hit it off and have been friends ever since. I've worked on a handful of pieces for his show. And around that time, Sleepwalk With Me was running off-Broadway. People were talking about how it could be a movie, and This American Life was getting into the movie game at the same time, with an executive on staff who develops movies and radio stories.

What was Ira's involvement past the producer role? I know he admitted to Fresh Air's Terry Gross when you guys were on the show that he maybe overstepped his bounds.

I'm for sure that what he said was that he's kind of a backseat driver. He's wonderful to work with, and I don't say that lightly. I will notably omit people that I'm not as excited about. One of the luckiest things that ever happened to me was collaborating with Ira Glass. Every time I work with him, I become a better writer and more critical of my own work, which creates better products.

I'm excited about this specific tour right now, this leg of it, because the experience of the movie has forced me to scrutinize work on a frame-by-frame basis. It's forced me to scrutinize the one-man show, I guess you could say, on a word-by-word basis. I'm constantly adding stories, taking lines away.

I've been shooting documentary footage of the tour, and I may shoot some in Chicago as well. The tentative title is It's Not Done, because I can't set the pencil down and stop changing stuff.

There wasn't a lot of national publicity for Sleepwalk With Me. At the screening I attended, Ira asked the audience to take a photo of him and hashtag it #bringsleepwalk, which is a Twitter campaign you guys have been using since the movie's release to get it in more theaters. How did you work the publicity angle prior to the movie gaining popularity through word-of-mouth and positive reviews?

There's not a lot of ad budget with a company like IFC. And to IFC's credit, it's a company that puts out movies like ours that a lot of places wouldn't distribute. This may not be 100-percent accurate, but as far as I understand it, if a movie makes ten million at the box office, chances are they spent five million in advertising. That's what people say. We spent less than a tenth of that. Maybe 300,000 in advertising total. And we've now been in 300 theaters. Less people overall, but the positive side is that people who have seen it have a certain ownership over it. They're like, "It's mine. I've seen it and I'm going to tell everyone about it."

(Glass went well beyond the call of duty during the screening I attended, giving away $300 out of his own wallet so that a girl with dangerous sleepwalking tendencies would seek medical help.)

It's exceeded your expectations, I would think.

Completely. At every step, we were sort of unsure of what would happen. The movie's on demand now, and Ira and I did these video chat pizza parties the other weekend. We video Skyped in to people's pizza parties. We're doing everything. There's no shame.

One phenomena that we experienced with the video chats is that people have told us that the movie has caused them to break up with their husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends. But then they all say that it was for the best. They quote the line from the movie: "We stayed together all this time, because we didn't want to make the other person mad." And what's funny about My Girlfriend's Boyfriend is that it has caused people to get married, which is insane. It's about how I decided to get married, after not really believing in the idea.

In Montreal I was asked to be present in the lobby while a guy proposed to his girlfriend. I've had five or ten people tell me that after the show they got engaged or married.

The title of the show, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, refers to a specific incident in the book version of Sleepwalk With Me where you very literally meet your girlfriend's boyfriend. Needless to say, a pretty bizarre situation. How are you using the title as a jumping-off point for the show?

It has to do with a thematic crossover between my present-day relationships and my relationships in high school and grade school. My first kiss. My first girlfriend and how . . . wait, this is getting heady. People shouldn't read the rest of this answer if they want to be entertained. If they just come to the show, they'll be all "Hahahahahaha!" I'm laughing, I'm enjoying myself. But if they want to know more, this is the answer.

The mechanics behind the show are that I would intercut flashbacks from my childhood and teen years and those failed relationships with failed aspects of my adult relationships—and see how they're in dialogue with each other. That's the root of My Girlfriend's Boyfriend. The story about my high school girlfriend telling me that I couldn't tell anyone she was my girlfriend has a thematic parallel with my adult self.

That's the answer for losers, people who want to overthink things. I want all the nonthinkers to show up as well.

One of your more popular stories is the unfortunate Scrambler incident at the carnival, which shows up in My Girlfriend's Boyfriend. The carnival date is often romanticized—I always think of Big, for some reason—but what's your take on it? And did you ever revisit the carnival date after that early mishap?

No, I hate carnivals. I think they're havens for misanthropes and death machines. If I ever have kids, I'll never go to carnivals. I'm hostile, anticarnival. Though I do enjoy the former HBO series Carnivale. I liked the early atmospheric stuff. Really captures a moment of time.

Finally, has making out gotten any easier or less worrisome over the years?

I did a revision on that story where I describe it as an awkward event in life because it's such a specific agenda when you decide to connect your mouth to someone else's mouth. You may be like, "I think we should connect mouths," while the other person is like, "I do not think we should connect mouths." Such starkly contrasting agendas.


Through 10/29: Thu 7:30 PM, Fri-Sat 7:30 and 10 PM, Sun-Mon 7:30 PM, Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, 773-871-3000, victorygardens.org, $45.50 (Thu 10/25 and Fri-Sat 10/26-10/27 early shows sold out)

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