The Strange ObserverInterview by Becky Fritter
By nature of the beast and by his own admissions, Mike Birbiglia does not fill the mold of stereotypical class clown. Far from a gregarious powerhouse of wild humor, the manner in which the slightly reserved comic delivers a line is less focused on drawing a short unison laugh from the crowd; rather, he weaves the line into a string of strange and dreamy observations about the world that leave his audience not only rolling on the floor but highly engaged.
In addition to a few Comedy Central specials, numerous comedy festivals and regular reading excerpts from his blog (My Secret Public Journal) on The Bob and Tom Show and other radio programs, Mike boasts on his résumé late show appearances for both Conan O’ Brien and David Letterman and his newest project: a self-exposing one-man Broadway show co-produced by Nathan Lane entitled Sleepwalk With Me.
In Mike’s observations, former President George Bush is reminiscent of that neighbor at local barbecues who just insists a little too hard on playing wiffleball and getting upstaged at a college campus show by the emergency testing of fire alarms. His jokes are not choppy one-liners, they are thoughtfully hysterical chapters to an endearing long running personal narrative where the joke really is at his own expense. And although since its conception comedy has always been cozy with the concept of storytelling, few can craft such a masterfully embarrassing brand of comedy as this particular standup can.
Becky Fritter: Let me begin by saying that you are pretty exposing of yourself in your material, and I will reciprocate by admitting I’m pretty curious as to what caused you to approach comedy in such a way in the first place.
Mike Birbigilia: I think it was all in the process. It wasn’t necessarily something I came out of the gate doing. My first interests in comedy came from watching Bill Cosby specials. And when I was in high school, the first comic I ever saw was Steven Wright. I remember thinking, “This is the type of comedy I want to do; I think I could do that.” And of course I tried it, and found out I actually can’t do it. (laughs) I failed miserably for a long time, like most comedians. There were certain comedians that I studied over the years, like Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby, and I noticed that with all of the observational comedy that’s still popular, it really is flooding the marketplace. So why not try something that’s a little more personal where you’re giving something to the audience? When you open up to an audience, I’ve found that there’s a chain reaction where people will come up to me after a show and tell their stories to me. Openness can be an infectious phenomenon and that’s something I’m exploring heavily in Sleepwalk With Me.
BF: Forgetting the obvious inspirations like Steven Wright, do you take any inspiration from authors of autobiographical humor? Like David Sedaris, for example?
MB: Yeah, of course. And I love David Sedaris. You know, I was an English major in college – studied playwriting and filmwriting – and the thing with Sleepwalk With Me is that it was originally a play with other actors. Over time, I wrote it as a one-person show and kind of experimented by performing parts in my standup and telling these sleepwalking stories on stage. I didn’t know if it would be well received, but I actually found that the laughs were bigger than what I’d get out of my usual material.
BF: So Sleepwalk With Me is inarguably the most revealing of your material.
MB: It definitely is.
BF: Does that mean enough time lapsed where you’re able to poke fun at these memories you cover in Sleepwalk With Me, memories that might have been previously quite painful or not funny?
MB: Yeah, I think for the most part. I just turned thirty and you know, I’m now starting to come to grips with things that happened in my early twenties. Sometimes it hits too close to the bone but most times it works well. Ultimately, you figure out how funny you can make these memories through a live audience, though.
BF: Most of your fans are aware of the serious sleepwalking disorder you have but other than that, what kind of memories are in the new show?
MB: Of course I can’t give too much of the show away, but I had a malignant tumor in my bladder when I was nineteen, so I cover that. In my early twenties I was engaged for a while. Things like that.
BF: Can most tragedies be made comedic?
MB: If done well. Not too long ago, I went to Walter Reed, the military hospital and I was performing for the USO. I talked with soldiers who were laid up with some serious injuries and a lot of the laughter from those meetings came not from me telling jokes or forcing comedy into the situation, but mostly from the soldiers talking about what happened to them. It seemed cathartic for them.
BF: How would you feel about exploring the actual print publication of things like your “Secret Public Journal” instead of delivering the stories onstage?
MB: Yeah, I wrote a couple screenplays when I was in college and I hope to make films someday. I worked on a pilot for CBS loosely based on my life, and although it didn’t get picked up I have some film scripts that I’m working on. Also, I was on This American Life recently and told my sleepwalking story. Mostly I’m working on my new show, because what’s great about live performance on Broadway is that ultimately you have control over the content.
BF: As far as the content itself… why do you think social discomfort is so funny to us all?
MB: Well, it seems like people can relate to it, which is something I never realized until I started telling my own stories on My Secret Public Journal; the most embarrassing stories, like the old millpond story, where I’m humiliated as a child after jumping out of this tree and landing on my back… the gist of it is that every summer, my friends jumped out of this tree into a pond, and I never did it because I was afraid, until one summer where I jumped from the tree and landed on the water with my back on the surface of the water at a flat plane. There was this gunshot noise from me hitting the pond, and around ninety-nine gallons of water rushed so far up my ass it felt like it was coming out of my mouth. Kind of like a back alley colonoscopy. And as I’m underwater, I can hear laughter from above the surface, and the whole point to the story is, when you’re underwater and can hear people laughing, it’s loud. I remember thinking as a little kid, “I’m not sure these people are really my friends… but they are my friends.” Which is sad. Things like that, that’s a story I hadn’t told people for years
And that’s usually how stories end up in my act, I’ll be drinking with a friend after a show and I’ll be telling stories that are embarrassing or painful, but they’re laughing so hard at it I end up experimenting by putting those stories onstage.
BF: To shift the tone for a bit, I just don’t know if it’d be right to interview a comedian about the value of their work without incorporating some absurdity in here. So for those who don’t know, give a brief rundown of what happened with the Erie Zoo incident and how you saved face.
MB: Okay, what happened with that was I made a joke about the Erie Zoo in one of my specials, about how some towns are so small they shouldn’t have a zoo. I was in Erie, Pennsylvania, and it was so small it was almost as though they let the guy in town with the most animals have a zoo where he’s like, “We have penguins!” and you’re like, “But that’s a dog...” (laughs)
So when the Comedy Central special aired I got all this hate mail from people in Erie, telling me to find another small town to make fun of. So I talked about that on the radio and for interviews and whatnot, and I ended up actually having a gig there in Erie. So the owner of the zoo came to the show and offered me a private tour. I mean, I got a backstage pass where I got to feed a polar bear, which was my dream because I love animals. And everything was great until later in the week, when there was a story in the news about how the polar bear at the Erie Zoo died. And that left me like, “What? I killed the polar bear?” So I gave a big donation to the zoo – or big for me, anyways – for the zoo to get a new polar bear.
BF: Was it disappointing that the biggest controversy you’ve ever started involved furry creatures?
MB: A little, but I must admit that the local Erie news coverage of that whole thing was hilarious. Local news coverage is always the funniest.
BF: I did see that, and when the journalist that was interviewing you hit you in the arm when she found out you said something snarky about the zoo?
Yeah, something like that! There was definitely some physical violence. (laughs)