Prior to his stop at the Egyptian Theatre on Friday, March 23, Boise Weekly caught up with comedian, writer and film star-director Mike Birbiglia via email. Birbiglia is currently on the road with his show My Girlfriend's Boyfriend. Below, you can find out what comedians he thinks are funny, what he thinks of Idaho, and why so much of this seemingly tireless performer's work has to do with sleepwalking.
What’s the last good joke you heard, and do you have an all-time favorite joke?
Some of Mitch Hedberg’s jokes are my favorites of all time. He has a joke on Strategic Grill Locations with the punchline, “Quit trying to act like I’m a Steamboat Operator.” Mitch was a genius.
What’s life like on tour? Do you have a favorite road snack? When do you get to sleep? Are there rockstar-esque post-show parties? And do you have a favorite tour story?
Our food is unhealthy. [I remember] walking through a late night Wendy’s drive-thru because our van doesn’t make the clearance. (Look at my Facebook page for photo!) And our “post-show parties” feel more like book club meetings—but a very rock star book club.
Who makes you laugh?
When I was a kid—like most comics—I watched Saturday Night Live and David Letterman. Then when I was 16, my brother Joe took me to my first live comedy show, which was Steven Wright at the Cape Cod Melody Tent, and from the moment I saw him I decided that’s exactly what I wanted to do. So my favorite comedians growing up were Steven Wright, obviously, Mitch Hedberg, and Bill Cosby. And then the more I got into comedy, the more I started getting into comedians like Richard Pryor and Woody Allen.
What is the worst state you’ve been in onstage or on set—deathly ill, exhausted, hung-over, etc?
One of my most memorable shows in my life was in Grand Rapids, Mich. I was backstage and deathly ill and I thought I was going to throw up on stage. And I went out —it was very suspenseful—I was like, “Am I going to throw up on the people of Grand Rapids?” And I didn’t! But for a few minutes there, I thought I might be the most famously unpopular performer EVER.
What is putting on a successful one-man, off-Broadway show like?
Well, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend ran Off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre in 2011 for about 100 performances. And it was really fun. I worked with my director, Seth Barrish (who also directed my other one-man show, Sleepwalk With Me), to develop this show for the stage. And we had this set designer named Beowolf Boritt (Rock of Ages, Scotsboro Boys, Sondheim on Sondheim), who is a really impressive designer with an impressive Broadway resume. He also designed the touring set and we’re so lucky that he did. And our lighting designer Aaron Copp (who’s created lighting designs for Yo-Yo Ma, Natalie Merchant, and others) also developed a touring lighting plan. So really we’re taking the whole New York show and bringing it on the road. And it’s really exciting because, in New York when you run a show for four or five months, you do seven, sometimes eight shows a week, and there’s this sense from the audience in some ways that they could just go to the show any night if they wanted to. It doesn’t feel like a window of opportunity that if they miss it, they will forever have missed it. And when you tour the country with a show, it’s this sense of people coming out like, “We HAVE to see this show. If we don’t see this show, we may never see this show for the rest of our lives.”
For me, that’s always better. It’s always more enjoyable to play for people who are really excited to be in that space in that moment. Like there will be one Boise performance of My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and that’s it—whatever happens, happens.
Please tell me a little about the process of book writing.
It was kind of one story at a time. I would talk stories out with my brother, Joe, or my director Seth or Ira Glass from This American Life, and I would tell them a story and if they laughed or were engaged by it, I would know that there was something there. So, I would go off and write a draft of it and then show it to them or my editor. And then it was just a series of rewrites. I never seem to nail something on the first take.
How was SXSW?
Fun but overwhelming! I showed my film, Sleepwalk With Me, and saw some bands. The strange thing about SXSW is that there are just too many bands. There are literally 2,400. You’ll be walking down the street and there’s a band playing next to another band. One day, I woke up to find a band playing in the mini fridge in my hotel. And that was a good slot! They were psyched to be there. The lead singer thanked me for coming out, and handed me a $9 Fresca.
Ever been nervous?
Actually, the first time I did Letterman, I was so nervous because I love Letterman and always wanted to be on his show. And I was on the elevator from the green room to the stage with my brother, Joe, and they asked me if I wanted cue cards with bullet points for my jokes. And I go, “Oh, no thanks.” And Joe just looked at how nervous I was, and he was like, “Yeah, we’ll have the cue cards.” So I’m on stage and I did my first joke and it went well and then my mind went completely blank. I had no idea what I was going to say. And then I looked up at the cue cards and it said “Marblevores,” and then I finished the set.
What makes a good audience instead of a great audience?
Tough to say. I mean, maybe the best audiences are just kind of open to whatever comes their way. Also, the laughing ones are good.
About all of this sleepwalking business—are you really a sleepwalker?
Yes, I really am! And you can read about it in the Sleepwalk With Me book or hear it on the Sleepwalk With Me Live CD. Some of the craziest, most unimaginable things have happened to me while I was sleepwalking. After a few years, I was diagnosed with REM Behavior Disorder, so now I take medication for it, and I’m a lot more conscious about my sleep habits. A few hours before bed, I turn off the news and the Internet and my phone and I don’t eat big meals. Actually, there’s this great book, The Promise of Sleep, by this guy named Dr. Dement, who is kind of the father of sleep medicine and actually made a cameo in my movie, Sleepwalk With Me. And his book has all these great tips for sleep hygiene, and it’s been really helpful for me. And could be for you!
Ever been to Boise?
Yes, I was here with the Bob and Tom tour a bunch of years ago.
What did you think? No need for flattery.
I loved it. I love the people and the countryside is just breathtaking. That’s actually exactly what I need—to breathe. It’ll be good to get away from the New York air.
How did the title come about, or, more directly, who is your “girlfriend’s boyfriend?”
Well, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is basically about all of the painful romantic experiences I’ve had in my life and how those affected my relationships as an adult—how it led to me having a deep fear of marriage, to the point where I didn’t believe in marriage at all—and how, despite that, I decided to get married. So it’s all in the show. I don’t want to ruin any of it.
And finally, you’ve accomplished a great deal at a young age. What would you like for the future—more of the same? Focus more on film, comedy?
Thanks! I love what I’m doing right now, touring this show. And I like directing and starring in films, and I’m going to keep doing that as long as people let me do it. The thing about the film I made and the one-man shows I do is that ultimately, I’m in charge of the creative content, which is really important to me. Like I’ve done a network sitcom pilot, and I’ve found that whenever people try to change what I do into more what they do, it just comes out watered down. Then I don’t really like it and they don’t really like it, and it just comes out disappointing in general. So it’s really about being able to keep doing what I’m doing, and as long as people keep coming to the shows, I’ll keep doing it. So thank you, people of Boise, in advance. I look forward to laughing with you. And come say hello after the show. I’m going to be signing stuff and taking photos. And I’ll sign anything—tickets, stuffed bears, pajamas!