Monday, October 11, 2010

The Boston Comedy Interview: Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia's Painfully True Stories
Tour at the Wilbur 10/13
It’s a good time to be a Mike Birbiglia fan. On Tuesday, fans will get their first chance to pick up his debut book, Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories. Wednesday, they’ll get to see him at the Wilbur, performing material from his new one-man show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, the follow-up to 2008’s off-Broadway show, Sleepwalk With Me, on his Painfully True Stories Tour. You can hear him on This American Life or see him at the popular MOTH storytelling events.

You might even get to talk about the new book at an Awkward Make-Out Party to celebrate the book. Birbiglia will be missing that, as he has missed most other awkward make-out parties, but he and his brother Joe have designed a special blacklight poster to send to a few groups who host the parties.

It’s not unusual for a comedian to write a book, appear on the radio, or even have a one-person show. But comedians don’t often put them together the way Birbiglia has. The Shrewsbury native has taken a real step forward since his beginnings in stand-up in Washington, D.C. and, closer to home, at the Comedy Studio.

He has gotten more personal without becoming self-indulgent. He is self-effacing without coming off as a tortured artist. And his art has become more sophisticated and more relatable at the same time – a pretty neat trick.

I spoke with Birbiglia last week by phone from his hotel in Washington, where he was performing on the current tour.

How difficult was it to write Sleepwalk With Me? You hear comedians who write book talk about how it’s such a different process and difficult to contend with.

I think the hardest part is that I wrote it. Often, comedians and personalities don’t write their own books. Someone else writes them. They sit in a room with a tape recorder and tell them stories. So yeah, I actually wrote it. I think the hardest part about it is that you’re dealing with this… you’re dealing with this thing that seems so permanent. Books feel so permanent, and you’re just trying not to mess it up in a certain way.

I know with the one-man show, you were learning the physicality of it. That was something that was a bit different to you. And with the book, it’s sort of the opposite, everything has to be there on the page.

Yeah. That’s right.

Doing that back-to-back, doing the one-man show and then the book, was that a strange experience?

They’re definitely completely different exercises on the sense that, onstage, you can express something with a look or a piece of body language or a pause, and in the book, it just all has to be there. You have to put people in your shoes through words, and that’s very difficult. It was definitely very challenging and ultimately taught me a lot about writing.

It seems like the one-man show is sort of the midway point between the stand-up and the book in the sense that, in the book, there are a few stretches where it’s more serious, and you can get into a lot more detail. You don’t really have to have the jokes per minute set-up.

Absolutely. The show definitely got me more focused on making sure everything is thematically tight, and the book is like doing that but on a much bigger and broader scale. But then it affords me some allowances, too, which is, you can digress a bit more on a book, or you can get lost in a description or something and still land on your feet and continue telling the story.

Are you somebody who, when you’re writing for the stage, do you overwrite and trim back? If so, did any of those details get added back in the book?

Yeah. It’s funny you should ask that. That definitely happened. A lot of times with the book, when I was brainstorming what stories to tell in the book, there are actually very few that crossover directly into my stand-up, but often I would listen to my own CDs of My Secret Public Journal and I would take something that was a joke that was maybe twenty words or fifteen words long and it would kind of transport me back into a place an time in my life where those things happened and I thought, what was I thinking then and what was happening then, and my old CDs served as a sot of good inspiration, or at least a good way to prompt memories.

Some things, there are four or five paragraphs that are directly from the stand-up.

Sure, yeah.

Sleepwalk With Me out 10/12
Did you find yourself getting sort of precious about – when you went to put down something that was in your stand-up that you’ve worked maybe several years to hone, and then you have to put it in a different medium – was it hard to decide, I have to sort of change this or that about it?

I mean… I’m trying to think…

If it doesn’t leap out at you, then probably not.

A specific thing that was from my stand-up that made it into the book quite a bit was the Promise of Sleep chapter where I talk about my addiction to news and the Internet and phones and pizza and big meals. That was one that had a lot of stage material in it. That was actually kind of fun because I was actually able to, like you said, go off in ways that, it wasn’t exactly a laugh every fifteen seconds or whatever the desired laugh quotient is. I could kind of dig into stuff more. So the answer is no, I didn’t really view any of the stand-up material as sacred.

I know there were also serious moments in the one-man show, but they pop up a bit more here. There’s one moment earlier on that sticks in my mind where there’s a kid getting punched on his front steps by his father and you and your friend just decide to never say anything. That’s, I would imagine, a sort of hard moment to remember or maybe even to admit.

Yeah, that was one of those moments in my life that always stuck with me. That was an incident where, that was a joke in stand-up that I always told in a much lighter way, which is, “I was always a little afraid of my dad but I was even more afraid of my friends’ dads. Your dad starts going off, you know what he’s capable of. Your friend’s dad starts going off, this guy’s a wild card. I don’t know what’s going to happen. He just kicked the dog. What do you think he’s going to do to us?”

That was kind of the joke incarnation of that actual incident. But when you have a platform like a book you can actually write out those moments. That’s actually a good example of that.

That, and there are a couple of things where you tag a more lighthearted story with a close to that part, not necessarily to the chapter but to that particular section, with something a little heavier. There’s that one and there’s also the idea that a priest got sent away.

Yeah, yeah. It’s intentionally ambiguous, because I don’t really know exactly what happened to that guy. I just know that he’s gone. [laughs] And we never heard from him again. It was like, he’s needed somewhere else, whatever the line is, and that’s exactly how it happened.

Is it hard to remember these things? Are all of these things from your life at your access?

A lot of it is stuff that, I would remember kind of pieces about it. And then I would call people who were close to me during that period of my life and, “Do you remember this? Do you recall anything about this?” My brother and my sisters were very helpful with that. My mom was helpful for that. My mom told me that story about my sister Patty and the horses. That’s a ridiculous story. And yeah, I don’t have an outstanding memory, but I don’t think anything in the book is extraordinarily specific [laughs] where you go, how can he possibly remember that?

On a personal level, whenever I try to remember a story from my childhood, and any time there’s sort of a neat punchline or ending to it, I feel like I’m remembering it wrong.

That’s funny. There’s definitely a lot of stories on the cutting room floor of this book. This book is just about two hundred pages, and the rough draft was probably about four hundred. It was probably about twice as long. And I couldn’t find those neat endings and resolutions to the stories. If something didn’t have a thematic resonance that was worth putting down on the page, it pretty much didn’t make the book. That was one of the rules of thumb when I was working.

I would write the initial draft and then I would work with my director, of Sleepwalk With Me, Seth Barrish and my brother Joe and I would show them what I had and I would say, what do you guys like? What’s working and what’s not? And generally it was the stuff that skewed away from memoir and closer to essay. The kind of essay that, if it were This American Life, that I would go with. The more it skewed toward memoir, the more it was like, well, who gives a shit about Mike Birbiglia anyway? Who am I? I’m not Joan Rivers. I’m not David Letterman. It’s not like I have some sort of extraordinary track record that we have to go back and dig through the annals of history that made it all possible. It’s more like, do you have good stories or don’t you? Are they funny? Are they poignant? That’s really what I was looking for.

I’d imagine appearing on things like This American Life and the MOTH would be extremely helpful on that regard. A lot of those people aren’t necessarily Joan Rivers or David Letterman either.

That’s absolutely right. I think both of those shows veer away from that. It’s kind of not what they want to do. Which I respect a lot. Working with Catherine Burns at the MOTH and working with Ira Glass at This American Life and working with Jane Feltes at This American Life and Julie Snyder is probably the closest I’ve come in getting a master’s degree in anything.

Were there any stories you regret you had to cut?

There are some. There’s stuff, like, for example, I did a full, blown out version of both the celebrity golf story and the c word story from My Secret Public Journal album that were well written and shed more light on those stories than just the stand-up versions, and ended up cutting them, probably because, in a way, the whole book build toward the sleepwalking incident that happened in 2005, so it happened when I was about twenty, twenty-six years old.

And so what I wanted to do was have everything that was building toward that help set the table for that final chapter. So in the final chapter, and it’s the same way in the one-man show, the final chapter is the most satisfying that it can possibly be. I felt like with the celebrity golf story and the c word story that, they have to do with an aspect of my personality but not the aspect of my personality that’s pertinent to the sleepwalking stuff.

It reminded my of Tom Perrotta in a way. There’s an element to it where, there’s enough humor that that’s on the back of your head, that all of this has to turn okay in a way, and then there are some startling turns where you realize there are real problems here.

That was definitely a choice. There were certain people in my life who tried to steer me away from that. And I actually had to hold my ground and say, no, I think that stuff is important, like the moment you were saying abut my friend getting hit by his dad. Or the masturbation stuff is a bit like that, where it’s pretty raw. Maybe funny for some, maybe gross for others. But real.

Do you feel you’re more of a storyteller than a stand-up comedian now?

That question I’m asked a lot – am I a storyteller or am I a comedian. I don’t know. It’s like, ultimately, I’m inspired by what I’m inspired by. And that is, the movies of Woody Allen and James Brooks, and recently Cameron Crowe and Judd Apatow, and the books of David Sedaris and David Foster Wallace and Sarah Vowell and the plays of Kenneth Lonergan. So you get inspired by what you get inspired by. In stand-up, Pryor and Seinfeld.

You get inspired by what you get inspired by, and then you sort of put out what you put out. I don’t really have a thing where I think, I want to be the greatest comedian of all time. I want what I’m doing to be authentic. The kind of artists I’m describing are the kind who make me feel something with their work, and I’m trying to make people feel something for my work, whether it’s a book or a movie or a play or stand-up.

Is there anything else coming up that I haven’t asked about?

Yeah. I have a new one-man show, which is called My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and I think we’re going to open up off-Broadway this winter. In the meantime, I’m doing all the material from it on my new tour. And then I’m doing it in Sydney, Australia in January. And then opening it in New York. And I’m working on a film adaptation of Sleepwalk With Me. Ira Glass is producing it, and we’re probably five or ten drafts into the script. We’re hoping to make it next year.

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