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Q&A: 'Sleepwalk with Me' star/co-director/co-writer Mike Birbiglia

Matt Pais, @mattpais

RedEye movie critic

August 28, 2012

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Thanks to medication and spending every night in a sleeping bag, comedian Mike Birbiglia has his sleepwalking episodes under control. Well, except during times of intense anxiety—such as when he co-directs, co-writes and stars in a movie based on his sleepwalking experiences.

“[While] shooting the movie I would have dreams where I was directing the movie. Because I was working these long, long hours, I was sleep deprived, which is terrible for sleep disorders,” says Birbiglia of making the Sundance hit “Sleepwalk with Me,” which is also the title of Birbiglia’s book, live show and album about the period in which his fledgling comedy career distracted him from a troubled relationship and increasingly dangerous sleepwalking episodes.

“I would get out of bed and I would be moving lights in my room, and my wife would come over and she’d go, ‘Mike, you’re not shooting.’ And I would be like, ‘Yes, I am. I am shooting. I need you out. You’re in my light,’” he said. “I’d literally say, ‘You’re in my light.’ And she would go, ‘Mike, you’re not shooting.’ And I would go, ‘I’m sorry, but I am.’”

In the film, Birbiglia plays Matt Pandamiglio, who may have a different name but goes through Birbiglia’s real-life experiences as he climbs his way up in comedy and neglects both his girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose) and sleep disorder.

At the James Hotel the night after participating with Sarah Silverman, Jeff Ross and other comics in a 30th Year in Comedy anniversary show for Jeff Garlin at Second City, the 34-year-old talked about what sleepwalking is really like, enjoying the Backstreet Boys and what Mitch Hedberg jokes say about the people who love them.

When you wrote the book “Sleepwalk With Me,” how much did you think about it becoming a movie, starring you?
When I was writing the book, I was also writing the movie. It was simultaneous. I’m trying to think of the timeline. I’ve been working on the one-man show since 2005, believe it or not. And it opened off-Broadway in 2008, and you know what it was? I wanted to make a movie and I had an idea for a film called “Waking Up Ben,” and I was working on the screenplay for that, but then people kept saying to me when they came to the one-man show, “You should just make it a film adaptation of this. It’s completely logical, and the characters are all there.” It was interesting because I hadn’t considered it but then I thought, “Yeah, that’s a worthwhile thing to try.” Because what became apparent in writing the screenplay, it was very visual. Dreams are visual, sleepwalking is very visual. You don’t really see sleepwalking in films that often. It’s weird; I feel like in popular culture we have the perception of sitcom, arms-in-front-of-your-body sleepwalking, and then maybe Olive Oil and Popeye when she sleepwalks through the construction site. But it’s all very cartoonish, in some cases literally. And so we thought, “This is an interesting thing to shine a light on. It’s not really in anything.”

Was there a small percentage of thought from you or anyone else that said, “Maybe it would be interesting to prompt an actual episode and film that and see how it goes, for authenticity’s sake?”
We’d talked about it before, but I actually went a lot off of my wife, Jenny, just describing it to me. Just to give you a sense of it (Birbiglia walks around the room), if I fell asleep in this room and I was sleepwalking, let’s say I had a dream that I had to make 100 ice cream cones. That would be a classic anxiety dream—if you have an assignment that you can’t fulfill. I’m just making this up; I’ve never had that dream. But what would happen is, everything around you, this would become a spigot for ice cream, and your eyes are kind of half open, so let’s say you bumped into this (bumps into chair), that would become like a person. “Oh, sorry.” It’s interesting how sleepwalking in a certain way becomes an accumulation of your outside stimuli that’s actually there and what’s happening in your brain.

In a dream, why do you think you were afraid of a jackal, of all things?
[Laughs.] That dream, in real life was from when I was in college ... I used to have this dream in college and I would say to my girlfriend, I would be like, “Abby, there’s a jackal in the room. There’s a hovering, insect-like jackal.” In real life it was clothing that was bundled up on top of a hamper. But like I said, the things in real life interact with what’s happening in your dream.

For how long have you been scared of jackals?
I don’t know if it was a jackal. It was like a fictional animal. I don’t know if you have this in your dreams. It was an animal that doesn’t exist. It had claws and teeth, big teeth, and it was flying, almost it had little wings or little arms that were suspending in the air. It was really an accumulation of all my fears, and I called it a jackal. [Laughs.] ‘Cause it was the closest thing that I could think of of what that would be in real life.

What is it like to put your story on screen and say, “I’m going to capture my excitement of touring by jumping on a bed to a Backstreet Boys song”? Why did that capture that for you?
The Backstreet Boys song ended up in the movie because around the time I was writing the film I went to Georgetown—I went to school there—I think I was performing in D.C. and I went back to this bar that I was a waiter at [a bar] called the Tombs. It’s a college bar. It’s the place where they had “St. Elmo’s Fire,” the movie scenes. I was one of those waiters. I had the bowtie. [Laughs.] And I’m sitting there with a bunch of friends and the DJ played that song, “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys. And this was 2009, 2010, 10 years after I graduated. That song was popular when I was in college, and everyone is singing on the top of their lungs. All these college kids. I’m like, “I can’t believe this; this is classic rock.” I was shocked! I was like, “Something about this song is enduring.” It’s exciting, and I was like, “I want to put this in something or use this somewhere.” It’s weird; one of the first stand-up comedy bits I ever did, in like 1997, was there was a Backstreet Boys—that album came out and I went to the store and I bought it, and then I opened the jacket onstage and read the liner notes to the audience. And that was the whole bit. I didn’t even do commentary really.

That album with “I Want it That Way” on it?
Yeah. And it killed.

Have you done that with other albums?
No! I’ve never even done that since. It was such a random idea. I remember when that came out, I was like, “That song is really good,” and I bought the album and I read the liner notes and I was like, “I’m just going to do this as a comedy bit.”

Do you remember one lyric that really killed?
It wasn’t the lyrics; it was the thank yous from the members. It’d be like, “AJ: To my boy G-Stone, keep feelin’ it.” I would just read the stuff straight-up and totally earnest—there’s something about earnestness that’s really funny. There’s something about that song, do you remember “Magnolia”? There’s that scene where William [H.] Macy drives a car into a wall or something playing that hilarious pop song. But I forget what song it is. It’s like, “Dreams can come true.”

Talk about your first stand-up routine and this notion of comedians having to be delusional.
The first time I got on stage I was at Georgetown [at an event] called the “Funniest Person on Campus” contest, and it was in [a] hall and it seated about 700 people. It was pretty packed. I was terrified. It was so nerve-racking, and it felt like I was undergoing anesthesia. Where I didn’t even know what was happening at a certain point. It was almost like I blacked out, even though I wasn’t drinking. And afterwards I came off and I was like, “How’d it go?”

Was it similar to the movie where you get up on stage and say, “I’ve been thinking about Cookie Monster.”
Well, strangely enough it was me doing a character. It was this character I called Peter McAvoy, and it was like this Boston—’cause I’m from Massachusetts—it was like this tough Boston guy with a thick Boston accent who just likes talking about middle school and how popular he is in middle school, or he was in middle school. And how he had a really sad incident where he dropped his bouncy ball that he carries around with him out of his pocket and it went down the sewer. And then I sang. It closed with a song; at the time there was that P. Diddy song about losing Notorious B.I.G. I forget the song’s name.

“I’ll be Missing You.”
So I had “I’ll Be Missing You,” except the instrumental and then I sang an “I’ll Be Missing You” song to the bouncy ball. What I was doing was so weird and abstract, and it was nothing like what I ended up doing, but I think I was just hiding behind this character because I wasn’t comfortable being myself. And then I got the chance from that—one of the prizes was you can do stand-up at the D.C. Improv, which is a comedy club there which I ended up eventually working the door at. I got to open up for Dave Chappelle one night, which is pre-”Chappelle’s Show” fame, but he was still an amazing comedian at the time. So that was a big dream come true. It went pretty well for my second time, and I did jokes in that one. I did the Peter McAvoy character, but then I did some jokes. And then I said, “You know, I’d love to do this again.”

Naively, I was like, “Yeah, put me in, coach. Tomorrow night, let’s do this again.” And it was like, “No, we have no spots available. You can work the door. You can sell tickets blah blah blah. And then maybe we can get you onstage once in a while.” And that once in a while was very liberally used. It was a long while before I was able to get on stage. It was a lot of waiting. In a lot of ways at the D.C. Improv for a long time I was the backup comedian. I was there just in case other people didn’t show up. But it was good. I learned from watching comedians. The headliners that would come in were great: Dave Attell, Dave Chappelle, Lewis Black, Kathleen Madigan. Extraordinary comedians. In a way it was like going to comedy college, which was the opposite of what my dad wanted me to do. When I was working there [my dad would be like], “That’s not your number one priority,” and I was like, “Yeah, it is!”

You talked about the movie being about denial. When you go through this again, how many regrets do you have? Was there something that you look at and say, “I can’t believe I wasn’t more focused on the relationship or the sleepwalking,” or does it feel like, “I was paying attention to my career, and if I had a chance to do it again, that’s still what I would do?”
I think that my regrets mostly have to do with my relationship with my ex-girlfriend. Every once in a while you get those flashback memories of conversations you had with your exes and you just like wince when you’re walking down the street. Something occurs to you, “Oh, no, I said that.”

Anything specific?
I’m trying to think. I described this a little bit in the book, but I feel like when you know that you’re doomed in a relationship you start criticizing the other person for things that are just useless pieces of criticism. “That shirt doesn’t fit you.” That kind of thing. And you’re like, “I don’t know anything about clothes or anything. For some reason I’m criticizing this person?” And I think it’s just you’re trying to express something but you can’t, and then you express something else that’s entirely different, but it hurts people and it’s so painful to think back on hurting people. It’s awful.

A clip of Mitch Hedberg appears in the movie, and I read that he was an influence on you. What’s your favorite Mitch Hedberg line?
The one that’s in the movie: “Quit trying to act like I’m a steamboat operator,” because it’s a joke about being misunderstood. ... So many of Mitch’s jokes I love because they’re multilayered. So it’s like that joke is a really silly joke about writing a letter but then it gives you a little bit of a window into his relationship with his dad and maybe they’re not always connecting on things.

Do you think people’s favorite Mitch Hedberg joke says something about them?
I’ve never thought about that, but that’s a good point. Why, what was your favorite?

I don’t know if this is my favorite, but one I was thinking about before this interview was, “I got lost in the woods, but then I built a house. I was lost, but now I live here.” That’s good advice to me.
[Laughs,] That’s really funny. I always quote this one where he goes, (impersonates Hedberg), “I am pretty good at tennis, but I will never be as good as the wall. The wall is relentless.”

Yeah, maybe it says something about people’s personalities, which of his jokes jump out at you.
Yeah. But I will say that the steamboat operator one, it’s meaningful, this idea of trying to communicate with people. I think that’s the journey of the character. It’s like trying to communicate with people, trying to tell people what you want and what you want to do and having people just like, “OK, all right,” and the glaze in their eyes. I feel like the struggle of this character, I feel like probably that’s the relatable side of this whole thing. I tweeted a joke the other day: “No one ever complains about being understood.” [Laughs.] “No one ever thinks they’re understood.” It’s so true. I feel like we’re always faced with trying to essentially pitch ourselves to people. And be like, “No, I know that I’m not that good at this thing that I’m trying to do now, but I will be good, and I really want you to trust me.” But no one wants to trust anybody. [Laughs] Who ever trusts anybody? But there’s a few people in my career who have trusted me. Ira [Glass] is one of them. There’s a few other people along the way who were like, “Oh, no, you’re onto something.” And that’s enough.

Plus:
On Chicago: “I’m a big Lou Malnati’s fan. To the point where on this trip I can’t allow myself to have it. Because it’s like, first of all I can’t order a pizza without eating the whole pizza. And if you eat a whole Lou Malnati’s pizza, [Laughs] you gain like 10 pounds. Pizza’s problematic for me.”
On the pizza pillow (similar to an airplane neck pillow but made out of pizza) used in a “Sleepwalk with Me” dream sequence: “The pizza pillow was real. We had four of them. So we had four takes at it. The first take we did I laughed so hard that it was entirely [unusable]. I was laughing, the camera operator was laughing, so the camera’s shaking, and then the whole crew was laughing. From the absurdity of having a pizza pillow and earnestly going like this. (Imitates taking bites). You can’t not laugh at that. [Laughs.] We always talk about patenting the pizza pillow.”
Why his June appearance at the Victory Gardens Theater for “Just for Laughs” was postponed until October: “ I’ll say just this: I’m here. [Laughs.] I’m here, so there’s no Mike Birbiglia difficulties. There was a misunderstanding I guess about the stage we were going to be on … I think there was basically a misunderstanding that they thought that I could do stand-up in a very enclosed space, but the show is a touring show with a set. It was an off-Broadway show; we’ve gone to London, we’ve gone to 30 cities in America. We bring a set. It’s not a big set, but it’s a set. They have a set already that they’re building for something else basically. That was where the complication was. It was weird; it was one of those things where for a week we considered, ‘Well, I could just do it on someone else’s set,’ but then you lose this part of the story … and you don’t want to give people the B- version of your show.”
Guilty pleasure movie: “Music and Lyrics.” “My wife and I love it. We love Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. We think they can do no wrong. They’re both great rom-com actors. And I love the music. I love that they make up these songs. Someone composed songs for the movie that were quote-unquote pop songs and they’re catchy. They actually are catchy. ‘Pop Goes My Heart.’ I have it on my iPod.”

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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