Let’s “Sleepwalk” with Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass
by Dan Casey on August 29, 2012
We’ve all had sleepless nights, but for some of us those nights are more restless than you’d expect. Some folks talk in their sleep, others wake up every thirty minutes to use the bathroom, but if you’re Mike Birbiglia then you suffer from something called REM behavior disorder, a violent form of sleepwalking which causes the afflicted to act out their dreams as they are happening. Sometimes it can be harmless, but one time at a La Quinta Inn in Walla Walla, WA, a somnambulatory Birbiglia leaped through a second-story window, an incident which resulted in him getting thirty-three stitches and forced him to sleep in a sleeping bag inside his bed (which he still does to this day). For a while, he even had to wear mittens to prevent him from getting out of the bag while he dreamed.
There is a positive side to all of this – it gave Birbiglia fodder for what would become Sleepwalk With Me, his critically acclaimed one-man off-Broadway show, a bestselling book, a comedy album and, now, a feature film, produced and co-written by This American Life‘s Ira Glass. Over an appropriately dark roast of coffee, I sat down with Birbiglia and Ira Glass to talk about their blood feud with Joss Whedon, their first foray into feature filmmaking and, of course, pizza.
N: Pizza. I love it, you love it. It’s featured in one of the most memorable scenes in the film. What would your desert island slice be?
Mike Birbiglia: [laughs] Good question! That’s the first time I’ve been asked that. Oh my god, is that hard because there’s so many great pizzas. I have this particular fondness to Arturo’s in New York City. Brick oven pizza. They don’t do it by the slice, but I think in this desert island scenario they might.
Ira Glass: Margherita.
N: Good choice. That’s a classic.
IG: Other versions of pizza, sometimes they don’t satisfy, but the Margherita pizza is always pretty good. Even at a bad place, the Margherita isn’t bad. And you’ve got to figure that on a desert island, you might not have the best chef.
N: All this pizza talk brings me back to the film. Mike, you wear that…
MB: [laughs] Don’t spoil it!
N: Oh, right! I won’t spoil it.
MB: I wear pizza at one point.
N: How was that experience? It seems simultaneously fantastic, but also terrible.
MB: It was the most tasteful joke I’ve ever made. It was from this great pizzeria, the prop. It was from this remarkable pizzeria called Roberta’s in Brooklyn. The prop – I’m not even going to say what it is – Ira and I gave one away to the audience member who had the best question at the 2pm screening this past weekend in New York City. The person was so happy. It takes a lot to drum up business for a small movie.
N: Even more for a small pizzeria. Not everyone is in support of the film though. I understand you have an ongoing feud with Joss Whedon.
MB: We do have some competitors. Joss declared war on us on YouTube. He was concerned that we were creeping up on him because we were originally at 34 theaters, but through the power of the niche audience that Ira and I have on the interweb, people hashtagged #BringSleepwalk on Twitter and now we’re booked at 150 theaters and counting. It’s between 150 and 200 theaters and that’s all because of our friends and our fans saying, “This is a movie that we want to see.” Someone like Joss Whedon, who directed a giant juggernaut like The Avengers, is intimidated by these kinds of tactics. This weekend – I have to say, I don’t want to be cocky – we opened with a higher per screen average than Joss opened with. We had a $68,000 per screen and he only had a $47,000. There was one discrepancy: he opened on 4,700 screens and we were just one the one. [laughs] We just had one.
MB: We actually calculated that if we do that amount of tickets at that theater, it will take us 66 years to beat his $1.5 billion gross.
N: That sounds like a reasonable run for a film.
MB: Especially in this day and age. With the technology, the medical technology.
N: Sleepwalk With Me occupies cinematic territory that other films about stand-up seem to gloss over. Films like Funny People or The King of Comedy give you a sense of the experience, but they don’t hit upon the growth of a comedian from just starting out to finding their comic voice or the experience of being a road comic.
MB: Marc Maron, who makes a great cameo in the film as “Marc Mulheren,” at Sundance said he loves that aspect of it. It tells the story of a road comic, which is never in movies.
IG: You see him go from bad to being somebody with an original voice. And you also see a road comedian. There haven’t been movies made about these guys who were starting out, traveling the country, staying at shitty motels, going on stage night after night.
MB: For some reason, it’s just not in movies. It’s the traveling salesman of comedy, which there are more of than there are Hollywood comedians.
N: Now, this story – this is something that we’ve seen multiple times before…
IG: A guy sleepwalking and jumping out a window? I know.
N: Yeah, that classic trope.
IG: Paul Rudd did it, Paul Giamatti did it. I know, it’s a hack move to do that old story again.
N: Hacky though it may be, I was referring to the fact that this is another iteration of the Sleepwalk with Me tale, something which has been a radio piece, a book and a one-man show. What do you think the story gains in a filmic form?
MB: One of the things is showing the family pressure, so you feel the family pressure for this guy not to be a comedian. Also, you feel the pressure of this guy who has a great girlfriend – why would he mess this up? – and the anxiety that comes from that. Of course, the dreams – our cinematographer Adam Beckman did such a great job with those – and sleepwalking, which is something we’ve never seen in films. It’s an expression of the subconscious happening in real-time. To watch someone sleepwalk – it’s just weird.
IG: Truthfully, I think the one-man show and the radio versions were totally legit, lovely versions of the story. This is just a different one. We were able to stretch it with a couple of different things because there are certain things you can do visually with comedy. One thing that’s never been in any of the versions of the story is this thing that’s been so popular with audiences when we show it: we beefed up the storyline of Mike becoming a stand-up comedian. It really wasn’t in any other versions of the story. We had it in the script, but when we’d show it to public radio listeners at advance screenings while we were still cutting the film, people just went nuts for it. It was so fun to watch somebody who was terrible at being funny at the beginning of the film – the jokes are Mike’s actual jokes from when he was first starting out. He didn’t have to write new jokes for it; that’s his real old act. It’s just painful and hilarious to watch how bad they are and then to watch him evolve. Plus, it’s a great excuse to have these other talented comedians like Marc Maron, Jessi Klein, Wyatt Cenac, and Henry Phillips, to create a place for cameos where they can be funny. It makes for a very pleasing story that wasn’t in any of the versions, and, truthfully, there wouldn’t have been any place to convey his interactions with other comedians in the one-man show. It’s a convenient way to showcase a lot of talented funny people. And we know from the comedians who have watched it that they were so excited to see it because it so captures this thing about their lives.
MB: One of the things we’re most proud of is that Sleepwalk With Me doesn’t feel like most other movies. And not that it’s better than other movies or worse than other movies, but it has it’s own kind of patchwork.
N: I agree with that – it was very refreshing. When you’re breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience during the narration sequences, it didn’t feel jarring, which can so often be the case. It’s almost like having a DVD commentary built into the film, but not in a bad way.
MB: Thank you! I’ve never heard anyone refer to it like that, but that’s a funny way of looking at it.
IG: Cause that’s what people want to see: the DVD commentary integrated into the film. At last somebody can give it a proper space. [laughs] I’ve always thought that Mike has this superpower where he can really connect with an audience when he talks to them – that’s true on stage, it’s true on the radio – so it’s nice that we could figure out a way to use his amazing superpower for the film’s sake.
MB: Ira’s wife Anaheed made a point that the final monologue I give is kind of like the character in the film reporting a story in the middle of the film. It’s strange.
N: Mike, this was your first time directing a feature film, correct?
MB: Yes, I directed shorts before but I gave up on that once I realized it was a money pit.
N: In something of this size and scope, how difficult is it to direct yourself in a scene?
MB: It’s not difficult to do the scenes that are, I guess you’d call them pedestrian, everyday life kind of things. Hanging out with Jessi Klein, Henry Phillips and Wyatt Cenac – that’s fun! It’s something I would do anyway, so it’s second nature. Even the scenes with Lauren [Ambrose] aren’t that hard. The more emotionally draining scenes, some of the sleepwalking stuff, some of the relationship stuff that gets painful – I really had to spend some time with Seth Barrish, my co-director, to find out where is this guy emotionally at this point.
MB: [laughs] It’s not the easiest thing.
N: Did you dream about the film at all or have any film-related sleepwalking episodes?
MB: Yes, I had sleep-directing incidents where my wife would come into the bedroom and I’d be adjusting lamps. She would say, “What are you doing?” And I would say, “We’re shooting.” She’d say, “No, we’re not,” to which I would respond, “I’m sorry, but we are.” I’d patronize her, which is the worst thing you can do to someone when you’re sleepwalking, just insult someone for not understanding the reality of your dream.
N: You definitely get a sense of what the experience of sleepwalking is like in the film, but what is the sensation of transitioning from sleepwalking to reality like? Is it like a slow dissolve? Something more abrupt? Or is it too difficult to quantify?
MB: It really varies, truthfully. I’ve had ones where it’s quick and I wake up, I’ve had ones where it’s prolonged. I’ve had ones where I wake up and wonder, “Did I just do that for fifteen minutes? Was I just wandering around the room swatting flies that aren’t there?”
IG: I mean, it’s just so radically different because you’re thinking about so many other things and conceiving of the story in a way that’s different. Even things you’re used to doing, like thinking through the plot points of a story, are executed so differently. In this film, there were things that Mike and I definitely didn’t want to do because it was too close to our day jobs. Like, the main character definitely shouldn’t narrate the film because that’s a hack move. And that’s what Mike does on stage, he narrates his own stories. It’s what I do on the radio, produce stories like that. Then we made the film without narration and people said, “You know what would make this better? Narration.” So, even the things you think you know, you wind up going back and rethinking.
N: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned – as a director and a producer respectively – while making this movie?
MB: On the set, it was not to say the phrase, “I don’t know.” In theater, it’s like “let’s explore this together!” In film, if you say “I don’t know,” well screw you because we just lost $1,000 or $5,000. I learned to say, “I’ll tell you in five minutes,” and then move on to something else so I can figure it out while I’m doing that.
IG: I’m going to jump back for a moment. Your question about producing for film versus producing for radio was such a grand question that I feel like I answered it badly. When you’re producing a radio story, there’s so many fewer steps and you control the whole thing: you edit it, you direct the person yourself, work on the script with the person, so it’s very straightforward. Whereas, with a film, you’re herding dozens of people and you’re raising a million dollars for a film like this, which is not, as it turns out, so easy to do. And you’re responsible for the whole thing, but you’re not doing any of the fun stuff like writing it, acting in it, directing it or editing it. You’re not doing any of that, yet somehow you’re responsible for all of it. Then you’re a weird sort of backseat driver, sitting behind these people who are super skilled at what they’re doing, but you have to tap them on the shoulder, “But but but, what if we just tweaked this a bit…I just had a little thought about this.” You feel such a pest! It’s a really weird job.
N: Would you feel more comfortable in just the editor’s seat? Or writing or directing even?
IG: No, because I don’t have the skill for that. I can’t direct a film! I can’t edit a movie. There are things I’ve seen the editor do that just boggle my mind. We’d be together in the room, putting a scene together, going shot-by-shot from the wide to the medium to this, so on and so forth, and, honestly, he goes bam, bam, bam and it wouldn’t look quite right. Then, he’d take off two frames here and one frame there and it would look perfect. You’re sitting there like, “I don’t have any idea what just happened!” [laughs] So, no, that’s a super specialized craft, which I know nothing about.
N: Mike, over the course of your career we’ve seen you evolve from something of a traditional stand-up comedian to more of a storyteller. What do you think prompted that shift and why does this resonate with audiences?
MB: It’s funny, my three comedy albums – Two Drink Mike, My Secret Public Journal, and Sleepwalk With Me – are all very different. Two Drink Mike is all jokes, Secret Public Journal is all stories that are disjointed from one another and Sleepwalk With Me is obviously a story with a narrative arc, a one-man show recorded. The thing about storytelling is that you’re serving someone a meal, whereas with stand-up comedy you’re sort of serving them chicken wings. And you’re talkin’ to the biggest fan of chicken wings. I love chicken wings, but I love when someone serves you a meal. You feel satisfied, satiated, you’re done. There’s nothing more to be had.
MB: You can always stuff more wings down your throat. [laughs] I feel that way about pizza too. I could eat a large pizza by myself and then I’ll ask, “is there another slice? Is there another pizza from which I could have a slice?”
N: I definitely had a moment for reflection when your character eats an entire pizza by himself, late at night in his hotel room.
MB: Oh yeah, that’s another scene that comics really relate to: checking into a crappy hotel and being like, “This is great. I love this.”
N: Do you plan to pursue other directorial opportunities after this?
MB: Yeah – I’m touring the country right now with my new one-man show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, which I ran off-Broadway last spring for four months. I’m touring that around the world right now – London, Australia, Canada, the US. I’m adapting that into a screenplay and it’s just a matter of setting aside some time to do it.
N: This American Life is wildly successful as a radio show and, I would venture, even more successful as a podcast. It’s a very digestible way for people to consume radio. What is it about podcasting that excites you? Is this where radio is headed?
MB: Well, for starters, no one would have given a radio show to Chris Hardwick. That guy has no idea how to make radio. [laughs] No, I’m just kidding. I love Nerdist and Marc Maron’s podcast and This American Life. I think there’s something about podcasting, Twitter and the social networking side of things right now that allows people to find their audience – as small or as big as that might be.
IG: I mean, podcasting is one of those things that people keep saying is going to replace radio, but almost a decade into it, it still hasn’t. People are still using their radios because people are fundamentally lazy, and as long as people are lazy and don’t want to program every single thing they’re going to listen to on their commute, they will actually get in their car and turn on the radio. They’ll do it when they cook dinner and god bless them for that. Thank god, thank god because radio can be so wonderful. Podcasting has become a supplemental way to reach an audience. Our audience on the radio for the past ten years has been about 1.8 million people per week, according to the Arbitron readings. During that time, we’ve gained 700,000 people per week who are downloading the podcast and streaming too. And that 700,000 didn’t cannibalize the 1.8 million. Those listeners are still there.
N: Like people who might not have been able to get to their radio when the show was being broadcast live.
IG: I’m talking about the infirm, the aged who can’t use the Internet – I’m making a joke here. Lots of people who are younger and in perfect health and also own their own Internet-capable devices listen to us on the radio. One of the things that was a lucky break for us in making This American Life is that the aesthetics of our show correspond accidentally to the aesthetics of the Internet, which has made it a success on the Internet. When you’re tweeting or blogging – all the writing on the Internet, even on something like Nerdist, makes you feel like, “Oh, these people are just talking to me. This is someone like me talking to me.” And that’s how our show has come across. I feel like I know Howard Stern or Terry Gross like a good friend. Any radio show that operates with that aesthetic – of course it would work as a podcast because they’re one and the same.
N: As this film is very much about the beginning of your career and finding yourself as a performer, what advice or lesson do you know now that you wish you knew then? What would you tell someone who’s maybe thinking of heading down the path of becoming a comic or a creator?
MB: Everything is going to take about seven years longer than you thought. [laughs] It’s not going to take one year longer; it’s going to take seven. Making a feature film was a part of my five-year plan. I’m going to become a comedian, be successful in that and then I can make films. That five-year plan took fourteen years, which is actually nine years longer than I thought. So, persistence and patience – just believing in something and you’ve got to keep going after it. Don’t get too down with the failures because they will be abundant.
N: Yes, but you learn something from those failures and carry them with you.
MB: The failures are probably – I hate to say it, but I have to tell this to myself all the time, again and again – the failures are what make you interesting. As much as it sucks and as much as you’ll hate it, as long as you learn from it, you’re fine.
Sleepwalk With Me is now playing in New York City and opens in select theaters nationwide this weekend. For a complete list of screenings, check out their website. Even better? Mike and Ira will be doing Q&A’s in person at theaters in NYC, Los Angeles, and Chicago.