Ira Glass and Mike Birbiglia on Stand-Up Comedy and the Movies

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 23 2012 9:31 AM

Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass on Stand-Up Comedy and the Movies

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Ira Glass, Marc Maron, and Mike Birbiglia at Sundance earlier this year

Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Bing

Sleepwalk with Me, starring and directed by the comic Mike Birbiglia, opens in New York tomorrow and in cities across the country over the next few weeks. The movie began as a one-man show, and also became a book. Some of the material from the show was also featured on This American Life, the popular radio show created by Ira Glass, who co-wrote the screenplay. I sat down with Birbiglia and Glass in New York earlier this week.

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

Slate: Having read the book, I was struck by how much more your growth as a stand-up is depicted in the movie. When did you decide to bring that part of the story out more?

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Mike Birbiglia: Believe it or not, that came in the edit. The sleepwalking and the relationship were much more prominent in the writing. And then when we shot the film and screened it to people, they really liked the stand-up—people were laughing at the stand-up, and they were identifying with it, and we were, like, “You know, we should shoot more of this.” We’d never made a feature film before, and in a lot of ways we found it in the edit.

Ira Glass: In very early screenings, when we’d just show it for friends and family, there were a lot of questions about us, like, “What did you do to make this film?” “Why did you do this to us?” In the screenplay that we went in with, there’s an early scene of Mike’s character standing on stage in a coffee shop bombing, and then there’s one or two other scenes of him onstage—and that’s it. And people didn’t really respond. And then showing the film to the test audiences we’d get together, we were very aware of wanting more laughs in the film, so we jammed in more.

Birbiglia: One of the things I learned from the process is there’s a lot of conventional wisdom in the film industry about what films should be, and that conventional wisdom is useless.

Glass: What’s the conventional wisdom in this case?

Birbiglia: Well, there are two things that are notable in the film now and that really work. One is the stand-up comedy career being prominent, and two is talking to the camera. We had that in drafts at least a year before, and people said, “No, this doesn’t work, because there’s nothing happening, there’s no action.” And I was like, “I know, but it’s just different. There’s something about it that immediately takes you by surprise, and I think could really hook an audience in.” And it was only in post that we went out and shot those pieces.

Slate: There’s a real arc to the stand-up material—you gradually start talking more about your own life on stage, getting more personal. And that seems like moral progress, as well as professional progress.

Glass: It’s the thing he’s avoiding the whole film: dealing with his own life.

Slate: On his podcast, WTF, Marc Maron often talks about comics making that kind of progress, becoming more confessional, more personal. And of course he appears in this movie—

Glass: Playing a quintessential Marc Maron role, of like, “I know more than you do.” And I say that in the fondest way. And that is the Marc Maron lesson: Be honest on stage.

Slate: He’s called Marc Mulheren in the movie, and Mike’s character is called Matt Pandamiglio. Those names seem to signal that the movie is fiction-ish. You have a different name, but it sounds a lot like your real name.

Birbiglia: It’s Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer, or something akin to that. The question was, Is this Howard Stern’s Private Parts? Or is this Alvy Singer in Annie Hall? I like both those movies a lot, but Howard Stern clearly was like, “I’m making one movie and it’ll be the greatest movie of all time,” and he’s done. Woody was doing it as part of a long movie career, and that’s what I’d prefer to do. I don’t want to be boxed into, “Oh, this is another Mike-Birbiglia-playing-Mike-Birbiglia movie.” Because I want to have my character kill someone in one of my movies, and I don’t want people to come to my house and accuse me of that. I want to have my Manhattan Murder Mystery moment.

Glass: Also, you wanted to do stuff with the parents, who aren’t really your parents. Having an alternate name gives you the license to make the parents really funny and broad and not have them be your real parents.

Slate: And you avoid the big New Republic story that says Mike Birbiglia’s not telling the truth and I’m going to fact-check all of his comedy.

Glass: Not to move into painful territory, but yes.

Slate: There aren’t a lot of really good movies about stand-up comedy.

Birbiglia: You’re right. Funny People’s good, and I think King of Comedy, Scorcese’s film, is probably the best movie about comedy—

Glass: But it’s not about being a stand-up. It’s not about the process of stand-up.

Birbiglia: No, but it’s about comedy, and the performance of comedy. To my knowledge, there are no road-comic movies. That’s one of the things Marc Maron said when we were at Sundance when he was talking to the press. He’d say, “I’m glad this story’s being told, because there are no representatives of us working comics.” Nobody knows the life of the working comic.

Glass: It makes it seem so deeply unglamorous. I mean, I never thought it was glamorous—

Birbiglia: It is deeply unglamorous.

Glass: But it just seems so boring and seedy and monotonous—

Birbiglia: It is. And lovely and wonderful. I love it.

Slate: I went to see Colin Quinn work out new material in Queens last night. And he’s Colin Quinn—he had a show on Broadway, he was on Saturday Night Live. But this show was free, it was at a very modest venue, and he was pulling the table up onto the stage—

Birbiglia: That’s what I do at Union Hall now. You can see me all the time there. Just 60 people in a basement.

Glass: I’m struck by the same thing. At some point all comics have to go out and be retail salesmen doing door-to-door. And this idea of somebody who totally knows their craft having to get up for free in front of a crowd to work out some stuff they’re thinking in their head, still, after as much success as you can get, is really interesting.

Birbiglia: Chris Rock does it. In 2002 I was at the Dayton, Ohio Joker’s Comedy Club. It’s now closed, but at the time it was the kind of place that had dildo straws in the lobby for sale for bachelorette parties—a lot of novelty jokey gifts like that. And I was opening for Mitch Hedberg there, one of the greats of his generation who’s passed away. And they told me that Chris Rock had been there a month before, just dropped in and played Monday through Wednesday because he was working on his album. And I remember at the time thinking, What is Chris Rock doing in Dayton, Ohio at Joker’s Comedy Club? Now I’m 34 and I think, I wanna go to Dayton, Ohio and work on material. That way no one would see it. You could actually workshop in front of people. The ability to workshop in stand-up comedy is incomparable to any art form in my opinion.

Slate: Can I ask you a little about Mitch? You hear his voice in the movie at one point, which I thought was a lovely tribute. You got to know him a bit, right?

Birbiglia: I did, yeah. I opened for him a handful of times. I forced myself on the bill in a bunch of different situations.

Slate: And you traveled with him?

Birbiglia: Sometimes. I opened for him probably a total of 12-15 shows in different states—Atlantic City, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Albany, New York City. I got to know him as well as people knew him at that point. He was very supportive of road comics. He actually would’ve really liked this movie, I think, because he loved the life of the road comic. He used to put together these shows in L.A. There’s this super venue called Largo, and people would put these shows together—Patton Oswalt and Friends, so-and-so and friends, what have you. He would have Mitch Hedberg and Friends, and the joke became among comics—and I don’t know if this is true, this is just lore—the joke is he would book it with the worst comedians he could find, just like struggling, hard-working, bad comics. So the joke became: One comic says to another, “Hey, you should be on Mitch Hedberg and Friends,” and the other comic says, “Fuck you, man.” But Mitch was a real friend to the struggling comic.

Slate: After your character in the movie starts doing these road gigs and talking more about his life on stage, there’s a scene when you’re on the phone talking to your girlfriend, played by Lauren Ambrose, and you tell her it’s going well. She asks what sort of material you were doing, and you can’t tell her—because it’s about the two of you. And it’s uncomfortable. I wonder if that’s something you still struggle with.

Birbiglia: Well, I’m married now. When I met my wife, I was a working comic, so the first week we went out she saw me perform, and it was very clear what I do.

Slate: But do you get into situations where you’ll be out on the road and you’ll try something out that she doesn’t know about?

Birbiglia: For sure. Like the other night I was in D.C. playing the Improv—which is where I started, working the door. It was their 20th anniversary, and I was on stage and I was talking about, um… I was talking about—

Glass: Some stupid thing she said.

Birbiglia: No it wasn’t that. I told this story about wrestling, about how I was the worst high school wrestler. And I improvised on stage, saying, “And that’s why I’m a comedian.” And then I go: “And my wife’s high school boyfriend was a really successful wrestler.” And I’m realizing this as I’m talking on stage—that he was a really successful high school wrestler, and I think that’s all we’re trying to do is redeem ourselves from our failures in our childhood. Like I was a loser then, but I’m not gonna be a loser anymore. You were with a successful wrestler, I was a failed wrestler, but look at me now. It was this riff, and it was funnier than that—it went really well—but it never would’ve come out of a writing session.

Glass: Could you have done that if she were sitting in the audience?

Birbiglia: No, not really. It wouldn’t have come out that way.

Glass: Because you would’ve been aware of her sitting there. You need the un-self-consciousness.

Birbiglia: Stand-up comedy’s a little bit like a peep show, where you’re the stripper and you’re taking your clothes off. “Is this sexy? Is this sexy?”

Slate: Except that you’re occasionally taking somebody else’s clothes off, too.

Glass: That is so poetically put. I wish one of us had said that.

Birbiglia: How’d David get the last laugh? Just drop the microphone on the table. “Peace! I’m out of here!”