Mike Birbiglia Tells Me What He’s Learned About Standup Comedy


Sleepwalk With Me is the loosely autobiographical film adaptation of Mike Birbiglia‘s award-winning show about his travails as a struggling comic, boyfriend, and sleepwalker.

I just talked to Mike for some insight:

Congrats on the film, Mike. Did you really struggle for years as a comic?

I started out as a comedian when I was 19 and I pretty much failed up until just about last week. [laughs] The stuff about me borrowing my mom’s station wagon and driving across the country to comedy clubs is true. I couldn’t believe it, but every hotel you drive by, on the marquee it says “Comedy Night on Tuesday.” I’d think, “There’s comedy at the Econo Lodge in Cherry Hill, New Jersey”?

In real life, did you really learn–like your character does–that standup comedy is best when it’s about issues that really matter to the comic?

That’s definitely true. I’ve never been one to experience realizations the way movie characters tend to do. Movie characters realize things in a moment. I tend to have realizations over four or five thousand moments. Eventually I’m like, “Oh yeah.” In the film, it was achieved with economy.

How did you learn to take control when people heckle or don’t laugh?

I was very bad at it early on. I was particularly unskilled at that. I was trying to mimic what other kind of meaner comics do–just insult people, call people names. Then over the years I kind of learned to talk to people like you’re in a conversation. If somebody was like “Next” or “Not funny,” I learned to treat it like “Oh wait. I think there’s some confusion. I’m doing the show and you’re supposed to sit there.” I treat it like I don’t know exactly, but I think these are the rules. People expect me to be really mean and when I’m naïve, it takes them by surprise.

Will there be a new wave of cuddly teddy bear male comics to counter all the scathing bitches?

I hope not. I don’t think that should be a genre. I’m not interested in that at all! [laughs]

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