Mike Birbiglia Talks Refining Material, His New Special and, Naturally, Top Gun

Comedy Features Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia isn’t the type of comedian to wear leather jackets, or get too heavy into drugs and alcohol, or even to tell jokes. He’s usually in some sort of fleece or button-down shirt that kind of fits, opting to perform longer stories from his life that weave in and out of one another over the course of a set. They’re funny, of course, but can also catch audiences off guard with their poignancy. He isn’t afraid to substitute in a tender realization about love where a punch line would normally go.

That’s the Mike Birbiglia most of us are familiar with, anyway. The one who turned the story of his ongoing battle with sleepwalking, one that almost killed him, into an award-winning feature film, Sleepwalk With Me, that was just as touching as it was hilarious. He followed it up earlier this year with the release of My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, a special full of stories of his romantic misadventures that he’s also turning into a screenplay. The tales Birbiglia tells are so personal and honest and relatable—he’s clearly just as amused and confused by life as the rest of us—that to see him perform almost feels like you’re in his living room with him as he recounts, say, an awkward experience he had on the bus earlier in the day, or how he ended up eating a chicken salad sandwich in an airplane bathroom. He’s a normal guy who wants to laugh, just like the rest of us.

On Sunday, at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village, it was actually Birbiglia’s bedroom we’d been invited into. Well…not Birbiglia’s bedroom. The nightstand and twin beds at his back belonged to the dormant set of whatever production was about to start running at the not-quite-200-seat venue. Birbiglia began immediately at the scheduled 7:30 p.m. start time by sitting on the side of the stage to discuss how much late people suck with the early arrivers. Once the stragglers were let in, the unknowing butt of the joke, Birbiglia playfully confronted them. One of their excuses was “brunch,” and he had fun with that for a while.

For the next 90 minutes, Birbiglia was essentially in conversation with the audience, and it really did feel like a casual storytelling event he had just invited all of us over for. He couldn’t have been more at ease, sitting down here and there, tying and re-tying his shoes, laughing along with everyone. He could have left the stage for five minutes and come back eating a slice of pizza and the audience would have loved him all the more for it. Topics included everything everything from an encounter with super mice in Massachusetts, to the absurdity of Top Gun, to why he has a hard time telling jokes in his normal life. People around me were complaining about how their cheeks were sore from laughing so hard for so long. He finished to a delighted round of applause and thanked us all for volunteering ourselves as his test subjects for the night.

This is because the show was part of Birbiglia’s recent “Working it Out” series of performances, in which he’s been workshopping material for his next stand-up special in smaller comedy clubs, regularly in New York and occasionally in exotic locations around the country. Like Nashville. He’ll be there Nov. 21-24. Then he’ll be at Largo in L.A. from Dec. 4-5. Mostly, though, Birbiglia has been “Working it Out” at Union Hall, a venue so close to his Brooklyn home that he can make it there by foot (although he usually opts for a cab to get back home after his set). A few days before his show at the Cherry Lane Theater, I was able to catch up with Birbiglia, and this is where our conversation started.

So how often have you been playing at Union Hall?

I do a show there almost every week. It’s oddly ironic because it’s where my character works in Sleepwalk With Me. He’s a bartender at Union Hall. We shot it at Union Hall. I never was a bartender or worked there, but I always just thought it was a very cinematic looking place. I was always like, ‘Somebody should film this. This is great,’ and that’s where we shot the film. Now I started doing a regular show there. I love it. It’s one of my favorite venues to film comedy in, that basement area.

The show that I’m doing, that I’m developing material for, I’m touring theaters across the country staring in January and the show is called “Thank God for Jokes.” That’s what I’m getting ready for.

Is that going to more of a traditional show of stand-up than some of the more story-oriented stuff you’ve been doing recently?

Right now, it’s just a new 90 minutes of stand-up. It’s 90 minutes of stand-up, with a theme that ties it all together, which is jokes. How jokes are my favorite thing in life, but how I don’t tell a lot of jokes off stage because they always just get me in trouble. I always feel constantly misunderstood by jokes, but they’re also a thing that connects me to people and makes me feel profoundly close to people. It’s kind of about the double-edged sword of jokes. Meanwhile the show it packed with…you know, ton of jokes. It’s a really fun show. I’m really proud of it. I’m really interested to see where it goes, whether it becomes something like Sleepwalk With Me or My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, where it has this dense narrative structure, or whether it becomes just a really tight 90 minutes of stand-up.

How close are you to having a more concrete idea of what the show is going to be?

Honestly, I feel like it’s going to be another year or so before I figure out what the final, film-able special is. There’s a bit I do about Top Gun about basically how I revisited the film with my wife, and even though I hadn’t seen it in 20 years years, I was like, ‘THIS IS WHO I AM.’ Then she watched it and she was like, ‘This is who you are?’ It’s this whole story. Basically I forgot that it was a homoerotic fighter jet film that takes place that takes place in peace time. And this really happened. She was like, ‘This is who you are?’ It’s just a really fun story. It kills with my demographic. 35-year-old white guys that live in Brooklyn really dig this story. But when I took it to a college a few months ago: nothing. 20-year-olds have no idea what you’re talking about when you’re talking about Top Gun. It’s like I did a five-minute bit about part of it, but people would be like, ‘I just don’t remember it that well.’ Just the college age kids right now definitively do not know.

But it’s educational. It’s good to take a show…Other comedians do this, too, like Louis [C.K.] or Aziz [Ansari] or Doug Stanhope, they take their show around the world and you figure out what’s interesting. One of the most educational experience I’ve had comedically…Last year I played Australia and two years ago I played London with this show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, and I made really significant writing changes in the show based on those reactions. At its best, I want these shows to work everywhere. I want them to capture a human experience. I don’t want them to just work because they have cultural references that make people giggle.

So, for instance with the Top Gun thing, you might keep it in the show, but just take out part of it where you go into detail about something specific that happened in the movie?

Yeah, that’s exactly right. Even with My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, I used to have a joke in that about the movie Bagger Vance. It was a really funny joke that just went away, because ultimately not enough people knew what the hell Bagger Vance was. I think the joke was…Do you ever get in an argument with your girlfriend that’s so bad that afterward you don’t know where you are or what year it is? You’re like, ‘You win. Let’s just watch Bagger Vance.’ For whatever reason, it killed with some people, and then with other people they’re just like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m glazed over with boredom.’ So it just all had to go away. I just had to cut the joke.

I guess just because you think something is hilarious, even if it is hilarious, it doesn’t necessarily mean it should be in a special that’s meant to appeal to a wide audience.

Honestly, about the My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend release, the most exciting thing about it…I workshopped it for over four years. I put it in front of hundreds and hundreds of audiences. I know it inside and out. I know which things work and which things work better than others and I know why. I feel like I’ve really refined it. That’s kind of one of the things I’m really proud of about it. On the DVD is a little documentary, a 15-minute documentary, called “How to Make Whatever This Is.” It’s all about how that even when the show was done and even after it had run off Broadway and was reviewed and won an award and all this stuff, I actually kept rewriting it. I rewrote it for another year before I filmed it. I was always like, ‘This could be better.’

How do you know when something is done, if you ever do? If you’ve been constantly tweaking something for that many years, it’s hard to imagine getting to a point where you’re completely satisfied.

I think what I learned from that process is that at a certain point you get to like 95 or 98 percent what it could be and you just have to go, ‘I can’t spend the next five years working on the other 2 percent.’ I just can’t do it. I have a lot of other stories to tell. I have more movies to make. But you’ve got to keep working at it when it’s at like 80 percent. At 80 percent, there’s a solid 20 percent that I could be knocking out and making more refined and more specific. More specific is usually what I’m trying to bring to it. There’s this part of My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend where I talk about a bachelorette party. It used to be this kind of thing where there was a bachelorette party and I was kind of drunk and it was this kind of vague thing that I passed over. Every time I performed it I was like, ‘I’m not really going into much detail about what that world and universe is. I’m just going to blow that wide open.’ And that’s where I evolved that dildo straw and the gummi penises bit. I wanted to really explore this bachelorette party universe. That ended up being one of the bigger laughs in the show and I wrote that like two months before we filmed it.

And you’re adapting My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend into a screenplay now, right?

Yeah, I would say it’s a loose adaptation. The more I’ve written the film the more it’s evolved away from [the special]. The car accident story, the original car accident story that I had done on This American Life, that’s kind of the basis. I kind of strung out the car accident story so that it stretches over the length of the whole film as opposed to just being kind of the final act of the film.

The This American Life performance of that part of the story was the first I heard anything from My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. Once I saw the actual special I had to think back to where I had heard that car accident story before.

That’s so funny because that was actually the incarnation of the show, that night, that This American Life live event. That was the incarnation of the show. That night my director Seth Barish and I were there and we were like, ‘This should be it’s own show. This should be it’s own thing.’ So that’s where the show actually started, was from the This American Life piece.

You touch on a lot of other topics in My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, though. Has it been more difficult trying to adapt that into a unified screenplay than it was with Sleepwalk With Me?

It’s one of those things where once you’ve made your first feature, you know what you can do wrong and how hard it is to shoot a feature. Before you do it you just don’t know how hard it is. Once you’ve done it, when you’re writing a second one, it’s almost like you’re preparing and it’s almost holding you back. You’re just like, ‘It has to be better. It has to be better.’ There’s a lot of stuff with your first feature where you’re just like, ‘We can just figure it out on the set.’ Then you get to the set and you’re like, ‘There’s not time to figure out anything. We’ll be lucky if we can even shoot the movie. We’ll be lucky if there’s a movie at the end of this.’ Never mind accounting for like, ‘We will experience epiphanies on the set, and they’ll be as brilliant as anything you can spent five years writing.’ But I’m writing two movie scripts right now and I’m also writing this new show. So I’m pretty busy writing these days.

Are both of the scripts for you? Would you be in the movies?

They’re just for me. In one of them I play a large part and in one of them I have a small part, kind of an ensemble-ish part. But yeah, I’m not looking to sell them or make them for a studio. The thing about My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and Sleepwalk With Me, both of them, is that I did them with these companies that were great and gave me a lot of artistic control and kind of allowed me to film them and produce them and edit them in a way that is true to what my live performance style is. I don’t think you get that with the studios. I even feel that sometimes when I watch studio films. You can feel the studio notes in the movie while you’re watching the movie. People are making better and better small budge independent films these days. Of my three favorite films this year, two of them are small budget and one is big budget. Frances Ha and The Spectacular Now were both small budget films that I thought were brilliant. One of them was made for next to nothing and one of them was made for like three millions dollars. And then Gravity, which I loved. Some people loved it, some people hated it. I happened to love it. That’s another case where Cuarón was given a ton of freedom, because he had made Children of Men and he had made other movies in the past that were very successful. Apparently he had a lot of control over that film.

And the TV show will be autobiographical?

It is autobiographical. I find I can’t…I’ve yet to write a stand-up show that isn’t autobiographical. Someone gave me a piece of advice once, my first manager Lucien Hold. He said, ‘If you do stand-up about your own life, no one can steal it.’ I always thought that was the best piece of advice. Early in my career I was really observational. What’s funny about the Teletubbies is this… What’s funny about the A-team is this. I had this one joke, which was in Sleepwalk With Me: ‘I have this girlfriend and she wants to get married, which is sad because we’ll have to break up. Because I don’t want to get married until I’m sure that nothing else good can happen in my life.’ I did it in Sleepwalk With Me and that was my epiphany moment. But my first manager Lucien was like, ‘You just have to write a whole bunch of jokes like that. No one could steal that. It just feels like you when you’re saying that.’

Mike Birbiglia will be performing at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York again this Sunday, Nov. 17. From Nov. 21-24 he’ll be at Zanies in Nashville, and then at Largo in L.A. from Dec. 4-5. My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is currently available to stream on Netflix, and will be out on CD and DVD Nov. 26.

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