Comedian and author Mike Birbiglia is coming to MSU's Wharton Center. WKAR's Melissa Benmark spoke with him about his appearances on public radio's "This American Life," teen angst, and what medium he is most comfortable working in.
MIKE BIRBIGLIA: I think that I’m most at home writing. It’s the first thing I did when I was a kid. When I was a kid, I used to write, like, you know, little cards, greeting cards, and poems, and then eventually when I was in high school, I wrote kind of satire pieces for the school newspaper. I was editor of the newspaper. And then when I was in high school and college, I just started performing on stage. And what I realized is that, as a writer, since no one really wants to publish your work when you’re an inexperienced writer, one great way to get it seen or heard is just to perform it.
And so, that’s sort of how I started being a comedian. I started working the door at the Washington, DC Improv, where I was going to college there, at Georgetown. And then, you know, cut to about ten or twelve years later, here I am and I’m a comedian, and I kind of doubled back and I wrote a book last year, and I wrote a screenplay and directed a film adaptation of “Sleepwalk with Me,” which is one of my-one man shows.
MELISSA BENMARK: A lot of our listeners being radio geeks like myself will mostly know you from “This American Life.”
BIRBIGLIA: “This American Life,” sure.
BENMARK: So, where did that come in your career? What role did that play in where you were headed?
BIRBIGLIA: Well, probably about three, God, four years ago, actually, now, when Ira Glass heard my sleepwalking story from my one man show, my last one man show, “Sleepwalk With Me,” and he asked me if I wanted to have an excerpt of it on “This American Life.” And I was thrilled, you know, a huge fan of the show, and then Ira, I’d wanted to get on for years, I tried to figure out a way to get on the show for years, and it had never worked out.
But eventually he asked me to have this piece in the show, and then he and I became friends, and then I ended up doing probably, you know, seven or eight pieces for the show over the years. And then he actually produced the “Sleepwalk with Me” film adaptation that I directed this year that was just in Sundance a few weeks ago.
BENMARK: Congratulations on the NEXT Audience Award.
BIRBIGLIA: Thank you very much! Yeah, thanks!
BENMARK: And I’m wondering if, you know, you had the “Fear of Sleep” show on “This American Life,” and then you’ve got the off-Broadway show “Sleepwalk With Me” and then “Sleepwalk With Me,” the movie. Is there a certain irony for you that a condition that has actually been life-threatening at times, to the tune of thirty-some stitches, etc., has gotten so much comedic mileage for you?
BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, certainly. I mean, that’s sort of the principle of my comedy, and this is true in my new one-man show, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” as well, which is just that, there’s, within the pain lies the comedy, somewhere. And sometimes it takes a long time to find it. But if you can find it, then you’re in pretty good shape. Ira was saying recently that the sleepwalking incident in my life was the best opportunity that had ever occurred in my entire writing career.
BENMARK: One of the pieces you had on “This American Life” was about trying to break into the kissing business in your early teens?
BIRBIGLIA: That’s right, yeah.
BENMARK: You know there were these two distinct teams. Folks who did. Folks who didn’t.
BIRBIGLIA: The Make-Out Club, and the Non-Make-Out club
BENMARK: And there’s this great line that I wrote down: “Not exactly our first-round draft pick for kissing.”
BIRBIGLIA: That’s, yeah, I was speaking of myself.
BENMARK: And I really identified with that because I was second lowest on the totem pole all through school of all of the social pecking order. And certainly a lot of people do teen angst in comedy. But what kills me is how tuned in you are all these years later about those absolute lines that kids make for themselves. You ARE on the team or you’re NOT. You’re FIRST ROUND or your NOT. What do you think it is about that kind of young absolutism that becomes hilarious when you’re away from it for twenty years?
BIRBIGLIA: Well, I think that there’s, I don’t know, I don’t want to over analyze it and take away all the humor, but I think that there’s something that we identify with about that stuff, that, you know, kind of never goes away.
I mean, there’s always the people in this club and the people in that club, even when you’re an adult. The people who have this kind of house or that kind of house, or the people who have this kind of car or that kind of car. And when you’re in seventh grade, it’s the people who’ve made out and the people who haven’t made out! And it’s like there’s something about it that’s so absurd but at the same time kind of exists in your life.
BENMARK: But you gotta have a little bit of a feeling of revenge now. It’s like, ‘I just got an award at Sundance, I’ve got this movie, I’ve got this show. If you would have known that, you would have thought I was first round, twenty years ago.
BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, I’m trying to get the word out. I’m trying to explain to these people that I’m not a loser, and it’s not working. Trying to turn back time, trying to rewrite some history, but it’s not exactly working. No, I, when I was working on the book, the person, Lisa Bizetti, that’s a fake name that’s based on someone’s real name…but, I called the girl that I had a huge crush on in seventh grade.
BENMARK: Did you really?
BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, I called her because I just wanted more details about the situation. I had the whole story about going on the Scrambler ride with her and everything.
BENMARK: Oh, yes.
BIRBIGLIA: And I…she didn’t really call me back. I mean, we played phone tag maybe once, but I was much heavier on the phone tag side. I mean, I probably called her four times to her one. And I was just like, ‘I can’t win! I mean, I’m on television, I’m on talk shows, I’m on the radio, and I still can’t get Lisa Bizetti to call me back.’
BENMARK: The little red headed girl still doesn’t know you exist. Oh geeze. Well.
BIRBIGLIA: And thus, that’s where the comedy comes from. It never goes away.
BENMARK: For folks who maybe aren’t as familiar with your work, what would you tell them if you were blurbing yourself about the show we’re going to have here at Wharton, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend?”
BIRBIGLIA: It’s a clean show. You could bring your teenager to it. It’s about love. It’s kind of optimistic and cynical, simultaneously. And you’ll laugh, and you might even experience even more than that.
BENMARK: There’s a photo on your blog page of you and Ira Glass wrestling. And I don’t know if that really is the Entertainment Weekly cover or not, but I have to ask you, who won that particular wrestling competition?
BIRBIGLIA: I think I did. Because he just eventually said, “You know, are we still doing this? Are we going to stop this soon?”
BENMARK: You sound just like him!
BIRBIGLIA: I think I won. I don’t know what he would say, that’s just my side of the story.