Mike Birbiglia can tell a mean story. He has built an impressive comedic career based on his mostly autobiographical vignettes of growth, duty, fear and love, shared in an engaging yet conversational tone. Most of all, his pieces and performances have a concept that run throughout, as opposed to the typical ad hoc musings of which most stand up comedians are guilty. His marquee piece is Sleepwalk With Me, the story of how his REM behavior disorder came to a sharp point (literally) as it mixed with his increasing anxiety over his relationships and career. First performed as an off-Broadway “one-man show” in 2008, Sleepwalk With Me has been reproduced as a comedy album, a memoir, and most recently, a feature film produced by This American Life’s Ira Glass. Talk about getting mileage out of an idea.
It helps that Sleepwalk With Me is a fantastic narrative, no matter the form. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a comedian/bartender/slacker is essentially forced to take the reins of his life, something he worked to avoid. This isn’t a typical slacker flick, however. As you have likely inferred, this slacker suffers from a severe sleepwalking disorder in which he acts out his most vivid, strange and, at times, destructive dreams.
There’s the time he got the Olympic Silver Medal in dustbustering, the time a fellow comedian shot gallons of scalding marinara sauce at his face and the time his hotel room went to DEFCON 2. All of this is going on as he receives what he perceives as tremendous pressure from his girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose of Six Feet Under) and parents (Carol Kane and James Rebhorn) to get married and/or a real job. It’s a relatable, and, at times sad story that Birbiglia has mastered in all its current forms. That said, is it fair to compare the different iterations of which the story has been told? Different forms have different strengths, so comparisons across media get muddled at best, despite the consistent source material (Birbiglia’s memory).
At a public Q&A session after the Chicago premier at the classic Music Box Theatre, I asked producer, personality and brand Ira Glass the same question. Mind you, this is only moments after the picture ended and in a room of hundreds. I may not have posed the question as cleanly as I did above, but it was asked in some way. He quickly answered with a question:
“Which one did you like best?”
I was honest and said the one-man show. I thought of course Ira Glass, probably the nicest guy in mass media since Walter Cronkite, would appreciate some honesty. He didn’t. I was not prepared to go toe to toe with Mr. WBEZ on his movie (also a debut), I didn’t even intend to go that route, I was more interested in the discussion on media forms. He was more interested in promoting the film he just spent months if not years producing. I get that. After fumbling with a few reasons as to why I had the performance above the film, Glass was done discussing.
“Well, when you make a movie with Mike Birbiglia, you can make it your way.”
The Ira Glass! The Prince of PRI!
I’ve had plenty of time to think of what I should have said, and I stand by my decision, and I still find my question one worth thinking about. Where the performance/album succeeds is in the breadth of anecdotes, asides and background Birbiglia can cram in. In just about the same running time, the album touches on far more than just his career, his girlfriend and his sleep habits, including: his attempt to overcome his fear of bears, how his father tears through war novels like he goes through boxes of Cinnamon Toast Crunch (quickly, aggressively, passionately), waking up in a hospital stoned on painkillers with his mother and countless examples of why I don’t want to be a comedian. He’s able to explore all these other topics because he doesn’t need to set up shots or include uncomfortable sequences of his girlfriend pressing marriage, he just needs to tell us those events happened. Somehow by condensing his larger piece for the screen, the film ends up acquiring more fluff, and at times feels like another generic and cute indie flick.
Here I go again, comparing new works to previous masterpieces. The bottom line is this: Mike Birbiglia is one of the leading comedians in what I see as a fantastic time for comedy, no matter the form. See the film, it’s well done, and supremely enjoyable, if a bit fluffy. But also spend an hour the album, posted below, and you’ll hear what I mean. No offense, Ira.
Peter Lillis is Managing Editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. This is his first ever film review, so go easy.