Sleepwalk With Me, Mike Birbiglia’s comedy-show-turned-book-turned-one-man-Off-Broadway-show-turned-This American Life-feature-turned-Sundance-darling-turned-grassroots-box-office-hit, has got to be one of the best feel-good stories of 2012’s film scene. The comedian sat down with us recently, with contributions from podcasting king (and old standup hand) Marc Maron, This American Life host Ira Glass and legendary comic actor Carol Kane, to discuss the film, the comedy-club scene and why his parents still haven’t read his book.
Paste: Stand-up is such a fascinating subculture, and I love how your film—and Marc’s podcast for that matter—give us such an in-depth insider’s look at it.
Mike Birbiglia: I think the story that’s never told in movies is of the working comedian.
Marc Maron: The grunt.
Birbiglia: Yeah, the grunt, the road warrior. And I feel like it’s relatable in some way. Even if you’re not a comedian, you’ve been staying in a hotel where they had comedy in the lounge, or on a cruise ship where they had a comedian, or in college some comedian came and performed in the cafeteria or at a lip-sync competition or something.
Maron: It’s all very real. It’s the world of the one-nighter comedian. You’re at a club, and then there’s this whole other place, where on Thursday you’re going to be at this place called Fuzzys; it’s in a mall and they just have comedy on Thursdays. It’s only 200 miles away.
Birbiglia: Yeah, in Eastern Oregon somewhere.
Maron: And you just go do it. That’s how I came up.
Birbiglia: And that’s one of the reasons I love that Marc is in the film. I needed someone who was a comedian, who was honest, and who had the weight of years of experience in comedy. And I thought Marc was just fantastic.
Paste: What is it that makes it worth it?
Birbiglia: For Marc and me, and for Carol, who’s done theater around the world, it brings you to the heart of what you are actually doing, which is performing for a group of people. That is real; that exists. And I feel like show business sort of franchises that idea. It’s like you’re either a celebrity comedian, or you’re nobody. And that’s not actually accurate.
Maron: And also, with the whole club thing, so many of us started out doing these gigs. It’s a very specific world, especially on the East Coast. These one-nighters were ridiculous. You’d go out and do a half hour, usually before someone else did 45 minutes, and you had no idea what you were walking into. And I always thought that was part of the job of comedy, and you knew that you could go anywhere, for any number of people, up and do your thing, and make it work.
Birbiglia: It’s kind of a badge of honor. I can walk into any bar in the world and create something. I don’t know if it will go well, but it will be something.
Paste: Carol, you’ve done lots of comedy, but never stand-up. Did you feel surrounded by stand-ups on the set?
Carol Kane: I didn’t feel surrounded. Our relationship in the movie wasn’t about his standup, so I didn’t even think about that part. My character is so concerned with his well-being, and being in touch when he’s at his little La Quinta or wherever. And proud of him. But I didn’t feel like I was walking into the standup world.
Maron: Parental concern in our profession is a very real thing. They just want to believe in some weird fate. And it’s hard to shake. “Are you done yet?” “Mom, I’m on television.” “I know, but it just doesn’t seem real.”
Birbiglia: My dad was like that, completely. And my mom was like Carol’s character, where she was supportive but didn’t quite get what I was doing. But wanted to! My parents haven’t seen it. My parents haven’t read my book either.
Maron: They’re afraid of how you portray them.
Birbiglia: But I portray them very respectfully.
Maron: My father insists he can’t get my podcast. And it’s like, really? You can’t turn on your fucking computer? And he’s been on the podcast three times. But the book is different. There’s gotta be something else stopping them from reading the book. I don’t want to make this weird or anything. I mean, it’s not my show.
Paste: Was that worry about your parents any part of changing the name of the character?
Birbiglia: We talked about this for hours and hours. Is it going to be my real name, or a fake name like Matt Pandamiglio. And we ended up going with a fake name because we didn’t want this to be too close to documentary. I feel comfortable telling my own story, but I don’t feel comfortable filling out other people’s characters who actually exist in real life, and who I care about.
Paste: Carol, could you identify with the standup anxiety?
Kane: Of course. You always feel it’s highly possible that whatever you do next is going to display your complete lack of talent, and then it’s going to be gone for good.
Birbiglia: And that ties back to the film in the idea of delusion, where you have to convince yourself it’s going well, when it’s really not. Otherwise you wouldn’t go onstage again. I applied that to directing the movie. So many people told me I shouldn’t be directing it. It was really a similar journey to the character. But something inside me just told me I should be the one directing it.
Kane: I have to say that I was stunned with Mike’s ability to direct. He was so calm, so open, so collaborative. I felt completely comfortable working with a first director, which shocked me. I’ve always loved his writing and his work as a comedian, but, no I’m completely confident in him as a director, too. And I wish he was my son.
Paste: How did the idea come about to make this a film?
Birbiglia: Around the time that the off-Broadway one-man show of Sleepwalk with Me was going on, I did a piece of this story on This American Life, and Ira and I became friends, and we started working on some other pieces. And we eventually thought, why don’t we turn this into a film? Because, like Ira was saying earlier, it had so many visual elements, but also so many intimate elements. Sleepwalking is such an intimate event, but I’ve never seen it realistically depicted.
Paste: Lauren Ambrose is really spectacular in this movie; when did she come aboard?
Birbiglia: Lauren was actually my wife Jenny’s idea. When we were kicking around this idea for a few years, we were talking about who would play this part of Abby. And it was really important, because when you get to the end and they break up, if you feel sad for Abby, then it sucks. That’s not good for anybody. You need someone who’s really strong, someone you feel is going to land on their feet. And my wife was such a fan of Six Feet Under, and she told me, “You really need to watch this girl Lauren Ambrose. She’s extraordinary.” And I watched it, and she just had this crazy energy that is really uncommon. She’s just immediately explosive, by doing very little.”
Ira Glass: There was a point where we showed this to some test audiences. And people said, “I don’t get them as a couple.” We needed people to see them more as a couple. And someone had told us about this famous show-business story about saving the cat. Apparently there was a movie where the main character was kind of a tough guy, and the audiences didn’t like him. And so they inserted a scene early on where he saved a cat. This story is so apocryphal-sounding, but we put in that little scene where he picks her up from work and they just seem to get along so well as a couple. And nobody ever said to us after that, “What’s the deal with them as a couple?” They just accepted it.
Paste: Is this the beginning of a whole series of This American Life-inspired films?
Glass: It takes so long to make a movie! You people that make movies are insane! And then it’s like 90 minutes long! But hopefully, yes.