If you’ve been paying any attention to comedy, even poorly, you’d be hard pressed not to have encountered Mike Birbiglia’s comic musings. His second special My Secret Public Journal has been heralded as one of the greatest comedy albums of the decade by The Onion’s Av Club. He followed up with an even more critically acclaimed off-broadway one man show Sleepwalk with Me, that eventually became his feature film debut as both an writer, actor and director and garnished a number of Film festival awards, including Sundance’s Next audience award. While you can currently catch the film and his most recent Stand up special special My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend on Netflix, he’s bringing his latest, Thank God For Jokes to The Michigan Theater, Sunday, September 14th.
As a young stand-up comedy fan yearning to get on stage, Birbiglia’s special “Two Drink Mike” was my bible. His hyper-personal ‘woe is me!’ storytelling coupled with his caustic yet disarming charisma made him a sleeper hit in the comedy community. Though the term “comic’s comic” gets thrown around a lot, but to an aspiring funnyman that’s what he was.
My first encounter with the now-veteran comic was at a show on the banks of the Maumee river in downtown Toledo, OH. Birbiglia was fresh off stage having successfully shutdown a wasted babbling heckler, and having delivered one of the funniest live show’s I’ve ever seen. I nervously sidled up to him hoping for an autograph but instead got some advice that gave me the push to pursue a life of comedy.
I was lucky enough to speak with him again about upcoming projects, his ties to Ann Arbor, and what to expect when he hits the stage.
Current: How’s it Going?
Mike Birbiglia: Great, my wife just told me no matter what they ask, don’t tell them my grade point average.
[Laughs] Don’t worry she’s safe. Let’s start off on a weird note personal note, I actually met you before in Toledo and you performed at this restaurant in on the river.
I remember that, it was a fun show.
Yeah the cool thing is, at that time I was thinking about becoming a performer and writer myself, and you gave me this great piece of advice that really helped give me the courage to go that direction.
What was the advice?
I have really bad anxiety and I asked you what it was like getting on stage with such personal material. I asked you how you found the courage to put yourself out there. I was so nervous even asking you, and you didn’t miss a beat and said, ‘well the important thing to know is that no matter what you’re not going to die…’
[Laughs] That’s hilarious.
You said, “getting on stage is a lot like skydiving but you know you have a parachute that works. Even if you’re scared, you’re pushing yourself and that’s a good thing.” I just wanted to get that out of the way before we got started. So thank you very much.
I have to write that down, because I could stand to tell myself that. Thanks for remembering that for me.
I’ve gotta say it’d be strange to talk about comedy this week without at least broaching the topic of Robin Williams death. Is there anything you’d like to add to the dialogue about him?
I was lucky enough to meet Robin a few times, and he said he’d liked my movie (Sleepwalk with Me), which was a really exciting thing for me because I admired him so much. I think one of those things that people don’t realize about Robin is that he actually was as generous and electrifying off stage as he was on stage. I did the benefit with him for the Wounded Warrior Project, I think two years ago, and it was me, him, Patton Oswalt, Jon Stewart, Bruce Springsteen and Roger Waters. It was just a wild line up and he by far killed harder than any other comic. But beyond that we did a meet-and-greet with the soldiers and he really sort of put on a show he was sort of your fantasy version of what you wanted a Robin Williams interaction to be which is so rarely the case with comedy and musicians—the person never ends up being like they are on stage. But he was a genuine article. He is a wildly generous guy. He lived his life at a pace at about 95 times the speed of anyone else’s pace. In some ways he gave us so much more than anyone would if they lived to be 150. We were just so lucky to have him for any amount of time.
I think a lot of the dialogue you are seeing in the news is that Pagliacci joke about the “sad clown” and I think it is interesting talking to you because so much of your material comes from personal traumas but you speak about them in such a lighthearted way, like ‘I had a tumor in my bladder, it was hilarious.’
[Laughs] The darkest and saddest moments of your life, that’s where you should find humor, because if you can find it there then you hit the jackpot. That’s why people are going to comedy shows in the first place. Life is hard, if someone on stage can make you understand pain and struggle in a different way and even go so far to make you laugh about it—that’s the reason for comedy, music and art. Comedy for me is high on the list in terms of it having a healing power. When I go to comedy shows, when I see someone I really admire, I am really lifted by it.
Does it ever get to a level of sadism where something terrible is happening to you but that little dark part of your mind thinks, “this sucks now but is going to be gold!”?
I don’t think it goes so far as I want it to happen, but I can’t say there hasn’t been situations when I am in pain at the doctors and I say to myself, “this could be a good bit.” You tuck it away in your brain, remember to write this down later. I told this story last week: I went to the doctor because I had a shooting pain in my urethra and I got so alarmed about it that I emailed the doctor and told him that this is the most personal email I have written. He replied and he CC’d a third person on the email who I didn’t know. I was like “Dude.. you can’t do that.” And I went into the office and I said to him, “Hey maybe in the future don’t CC other people because I am a comedian, and he was like, ‘You’re a comedian!?” At the time I was so irritated by it but at the same time I was like this could be a good bit.
Let’s talk about your most recent tour, what can we expect as an audience goers?
It’s all new, I set out to write the funniest show I ever could write and I feel like I hit that mark; it’s ten stories running together about jokes. Jokes are interesting because they really can’t get us in trouble, whenever we are telling jokes we are always kind of gambling with our friends and I think that is kind of special. I think it’s kind of like this, a joke is a thing that can only be shared among friends and a live comedy show is like having 1000 friends at the same time which is a rare experience. I think of it almost as a religious experience, a community of people laughing at the same time while someone on stage is giving their upside down thoughts on life.
Stylistically Two Drink Mike and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend are completely different. The first was a very jokey punch line type thing and the most recent was almost like a one-man show telling story situations. Was that a conscience effort or is that just how your writing has evolved?
You are always trying to learn and grow you are just trying to get better. I went in a direction with writing more narrative pieces and after I finished it I was like I wanted to go back to my Two Drink Mike lifestyle and see what I’ve learned from doing the narrative stuff. And I found what emerged in this show is a very organic narrative group of stories and jokes. It is as funny as Two Drink Mike but it has some of the innate narrative as my Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.
This will sound weird but to make a bizarre comparison your movie Sleepwalk With Me was so personal it seemed like your version of Eminem doing 8 mile.
[Laughs] I think that is a good comparison in terms of what type of movie it is, it is semi-autobiographical.
Do you think there will ever be a follow up to that? It was such an encompassing movie it seems like it’d be very hard to follow up.
There will be for sure. I am writing two film scripts right now but I am not sure which will come first but I hope to make 10 films or so. I love directing, I love writing and acting. That’s the goal.
I see you are doing a lot more acting lately, do you have the acting bug now or is it just ‘Well this is what comedians are suppose to do’?
No, it is a learning thing. But I’m looking at my IMDB and there’s supposed to be another movie called Don’t Mess With Texas with Reese Witherspoon that’s not on there.
I’m much less self-conscious knowing we’re both looking at your IMDB for notes.
[Laughs] But, I like acting and I have been trying to get as much experience as possible so I can be a better director and writer.I hope it will help next film be that much better and add that much more depth to it.
I haven’t seen The Fault in Our Stars but my understanding is that it is almost a Notebook type romantic situation and I see your name attached and I was like, wow this guy is really branching out. Are you looking for those roles?
It is a lot better than the Notebook. But no it was a great opportunity to work with the director and the writers and John Greene is a brilliant novelist. You learn a lot from working with great people.
Is it strange to transition from set to stage?
I can’t say it’s not strange because the movie world and the stand-up world is so different from each other. You will be on the set of a movie and the production assistant will be like I know who you are, and I am kind of like a standup comedy secret. It is strange. I feel like my whole career has been a word-of-mouth campaign of people being like you should check out this guy Mike because you are weird and you will like him. I always tell people when they come to my shows when I explain my specials and things and they go uh what’s that. I am proud of that. I like that I don’t have a certain demographic but all these people show up and the show is sort of like a group of friends and we establish inside jokes after a while.
Do you have any anecdotes about Ann Arbor or performing around town? Is there anything you look forward to?
Two Drink Mike is based on a bed and breakfast in Michigan. My wife went to Michigan so she took me on a trip there and yeah I love Ann Arbor. I had a Pizza House emergency. I was filming the movie Tina Rabbit, which was a short film in Ann Arbor and I had two days off and I didn’t have a car or anywhere to go so I called my wife and she said what I should do is get Pizza House and it would make me so happy. And I did it and it made me so happy. I will always have that pizza memory of Pizza House in my soul.
I love that the depth of the experiences in this interview range from how much Robin Williams has touched your soul to how much Pizza House has touched your soul.