Mike Birbiglia is your quintessential nice guy. He's got a harmless look about him, like he's always jolly or something. But despite appearances, he's not your average joe next-door neighbor. He's a critically acclaimed comedian (and occassional actor), whose most recent special, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, is dropping on DVD today.
After years of touring every tiny comedy club across America, Birbiglia, now 35, has made a name for himself with his self-effacing and endearing brand of storytelling comedy. Not to mention, being the guy who admitted to sleepwalking out of a second-story hotel window in his movie, Sleepwalk With Me. Watching him is like watching an old friend, the clever goof of the gang, recounting memories in your living room. It's a nice change of pace for anyone turned off by the in-your-face nature of the stand-up world.
Complex got a chance to speak to Birbiglia on what inspires his comedy, his reluctance about fame, and his self-delusional ambitions growing up.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
Is it true you wanted to be a rapper?
That’s true. When I was a kid, I was really ambitious. I wanted to be a Canadian, a rapper, or an owner of a pizza restaurant. As a joke, I said, "You know, rap was very different when I was a kid. It was innocent. It was just like rippity rap rap rap a raptastic!" Rap has gotten so aggressive. Rappers would be like "2013, motherfucker!" and I’m like, "You’re mad about the date?" You gotta pick your battles. You get mad about that, no one’s gonna believe you when you’re mad about real stuff.
When I was a kid I used to watch Yo! MTV Raps. This was the '80s, when I’d come home from school and watch the Beastie Boys, Kool Moe Dee, and Public Enemy. I had no sense of reality. I’d watch that and think, "Yes! That’s what I would like to feel." I had no sense that there was really no chance that could happen.
When I was a kid, I was really ambitious. I wanted to be a Canadian, a rapper, or an owner of a pizza restaurant.
Did you ever battle people?
No, I never rapped! You know the D.A.R.E. program? There was a D.A.R.E. graduation and I was like, "Can I do a rap I wrote about drugs?" And they were like "Sure." [Laughs.] I wrote a song that was a take on Young MC’s "Bust a Move" and instead of “bust a move” the words were “bust them drugs.” I wrote full stanzas and I performed it in front of my whole school—Saint Mary’s School, in Shrewsberry, Mass.
What would your rap name be?
Notorious M.I.B., or Birbiggie.
So l saw you perform at Carnegie Hall. Were you nervous? Since it’s Carnegie Hall.
I was more nervous about giving out ice cream after it than I was about the show, because there’s so many logistics to the ice cream. I saw one of those video crazy things that make you feel like you’re gonna have a seizure. Those four-second video clips they’re coming out with—
Vine! There was a crazy Vine of me giving out ice cream and I thought it was really well done. I had to worry about whether there'd be enough ice cream and whether it'd be cold enough. I was nervous about the show, too, but I’ve done it so many times that I was like, "I don’t think I can botch this show. I feel like it’ll at least be pretty good."
Doing the same thing all the time, does it ever feel like you’re on autopilot?
When I was performing Sleepwalk with Me, I felt like I was going insane. I performed that for eight months at the Bleecker Street Theatre. One of the definitions of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again and not learning from it. That’s kinda what that is. I was just telling the story of jumping through a second-story window, sleepwalking. Meanwhile, I was still having some sleepwalking episodes. In some way, I was in denial about it as I was experiencing it.
Do you still sleep in the sleeping bag?
I do. It’s not that cumbersome, but it’s a part of my life. When I go to bed, my wife says, "Time to go in your pod." That’s we call it, my pod.
When did you realize that being funny could be a job?
When I was in college, I worked the door at the DC Improv Comedy Club in Washington, D.C. I got to open for people like Brian Regan, Kathleen Madigan, and Margaret Cho, and I could see what they were being paid. This is because I worked in the office, too. I thought I could live on that amount and I could be successful. It was similarly delusional to my hip-hop ambitions in the sense that I didn’t see any barriers between me and achieving that goal.
Eventually I was a feature act, that's the comedian that's right before the headliner. I did that for about a year or two and then eventually I was the headlining comedian. To everyone who asks me for advice, all I can say is working at a comedy club—selling tickets, or running food to tables—is probably the best way to do it because you can see how it works.
What do you think about people who get their big break on YouTube?
It just feels like a new avenue these days. It’s not better or worse than anything else.
How did you develop your storytelling skills?
Part of it is that my mom’s a real talker. She’s got that Irish streak in her because she’s a storyteller. My dad is very dry. I’m definitely the child of those two types of humor. In terms of telling stories, I gravitated in that direction throughout the years of doing stand-up.
There’s this great interview with Jerry Seinfeld from the early '80s where he says, "It could take years as a comedian to become yourself on stage." It’s a hard thing to do. When I was starting out, I was a terrified character version of myself, the dumbest version of me. I was insecure about putting myself out there because I didn’t want to be rejected. The closer you are to yourself, the more the audience can say, "Yeah, we don’t like you." [Laughs.] And you think, "That sucks. It’s really too bad you don’t like me because this is what I am." Some comedians spend forever playing a version of themselves. I homed in on who I was five or six years ago on stage.
Do you ever feel weird putting all of yourself out there?
Definitely. [Laughs.] But it’s pleasant, too. One time, while I was walking to make a connection at a Chicago airport, a guy eating lunch at a restaurant I passed said, "Hey, Mike Birbiglia!" And I said, "Hey! How's it going?" It felt like I became friends with the world.
I really like my fans. The people who come to my live shows are generally the kind of people I like to hang out with. They’re not rowdy or drunk. They’re usually pretty mellow and interesting. I almost feel lucky that there’s not too many of them in a way. Sometimes when people break wide, they get a few too many fans and then it becomes a little bit irritating. You get the spill-over of people who kind of get what you’re doing and then kind of are just excited that they recognize you from something, from anything.
You've done movies, like My Sister's Sister and The Fault in Our Stars.
But I chose those really carefully. They're projects that align with my sense of humor and what I think is worth putting out into the world. I love the way the screenwriters approached The Fault in Our Stars. The author, John Green, wanted to make a story about these kids with cancer who have a sense of humor and have a compelling story. They're not just victims, they’re falling in love. It’s really powerful. Also, I was already super on board because the screenwriters had written The Spectacular Now, one of my favorite movies of the year.
I felt so lucky during filming. John Green was on set, so we got to hang out and watch the Pittsburgh Pirates versus the Cincinnati Reds play-off game. It was so exciting.
How would you feel, then, if you become Dave Chappelle-famous?
Yeah, I don’t really want that. But it could happen. [Laughs.]
Where does your optimism come from?
From my mom. My mom is the funniest person I know and part of the reason she’s so funny is that she’s willing to laugh at herself all the time. That’s the greatest gift you can give people as a comedian. If you give yourself to the audience and you’re willing to be laughed at by the audience and laugh with the audience, that’s a great gift.
I was with my mom recently, visiting her in Cape Cod. We went to this restaurant for lunch and she was eavesdropping on the four older women at the table next to us. She kept looking over and I was thinking, "Does she know those women?" Finally, before we left, she said, "Excuse me, I had to come over because I overheard you talking about this knee surgery that you had and I had that surgery also." [Laughs.] I said, "Mom, you had to go over? You had to? You didn’t have to go over to compare knee surgery stories."
What's funny is that my wife, Jen, points out that I do that, too. I constantly start conversations with strangers that are totally not justified conversations. She'll come home and make fun of me: "I went in to the bicycle store. I talked to the bicycle man about bicycles. I like to ride bicycles around Brooklyn and I found the Brooklyn bicycle tour." I’m always overextending myself for the universe. I just like talking to strangers.
Is that a way of finding material?
I don’t mean it to be that. It naturally leads to material, but it’s not on purpose. My mom would always tell this story about me that’s the defining thing about my childhood. Apparently, when I was four, my parents couldn’t find me. They're freaking out. They started running around the neighborhood trying to figure out where I went. Finally, they found me down the street, holding court with a bunch of adult strangers having what I thought was an adult conversation. It's genetic or something.
Do you remember what you were talking about?
No, I don’t even remember it happening. It’s just a story my mom tells.
It doesn’t seem like you’ve changed much.
No, definitely not.
Is there anything that’s off limits when it comes to your comedy?
I don’t think so. I’ve tried to make myself a joke more than other people. So much of My Girlfriends’ Boyfriend is about myself and my wife, and unfortunately she’s a writer as well. She remembers a lot of the conversations in the special better than I do. We'd talk about them and whether or not she was comfortable with me telling certain stories. And then I'd try it out on stage. In a lot of ways, my wife had some of the best lines in the show. Also, she comes off the best because she's got all the words of wisdom. I'm this idiot who’s like, "I don’t know nothin’ about nothin’."
Your delivery and the way you tell your stories makes it seem like you're telling a secret.
[Laughs.] That's true, and I do that at my shows! I’ll say, "Seriously, don’t tell anybody this." It’s based on a genuine instinct. In a way, I don’t want to tell people, but I just have to.
What I like about seeing your shows is that it’s not so loud.
Yeah, I hate that. I can’t stand loud comedy. I also can’t stand when I’m nervous for the performer, especially when I can tell they don’t know how the joke’s going to go.
You once said that comedians usually weren’t the class clown. Who were you?
I was the student government kid. I was an over-communicator. I was class president. I was the editor-in-chief of the newspaper. I was doing a lot of writing and a lot of organizing people, which stand-up is a lot like. And even more so, directing a movie. When I directed Sleepwalk With Me, the thing I compared it most to is to being in student council and saying, "Hey, we’re going to have a homecoming dance and you’re going to do the streamers and you’re going to do the punch bowl, you’re going to hire the DJ, and it’s going to be a lot of fun!" Even though you know it’s not going to be fun, you gotta say, "It’s going to be a lot of fun!" [Laughs.] You have to keep a really positive vibe throughout the movie, or throughout your stand-up set, because you’re the person who’s responsible for keeping the morale of the crew or of your audience up.
My mom is the funniest person I know and part of the reason she’s so funny is that she’s willing to laugh at herself all the time. That’s the greatest gift you can give people as a comedian.
If you talked to any of your classmates back then and told them you were a comedian now, would they be shocked?
I honestly do think they’re a little surprised. When I was in college, I started being a comedian and I got an email from this guy, Mark, who I grew up with. I hadn’t talked to him in years and he said, "You’re a comedian?! You’re the least funny kid I grew up with!" I said, "OK. Thanks for the feedback. Now I know how you felt all those years."
It boils down to this: When you’re younger, what’s funny is not what becomes funny when you’re an adult. When you’re a kid, stuff that’s easy is funny, like, "That guy’s fat. That guy’s dumb. That guy’s this." All these really obvious extremes are funny—actually, I don’t think I can qualify this. Some adults still think those things are funny, and sometimes I do, too. [Laughs.]
People who I truly admire in comedy are people who say things make me think and have this built-in wisdom to them, like Louis C.K. Doug Stanhope’s special is also really beautiful. Have you seen that one?
I haven’t. I’ll look it up.
He’s not for everyone, and he'd be the first person to tell you that. To me, he’s speaking from the heart. He talks about his mother and when she decided to let go in her life because she had cancer. He says close-to-the-bone stuff that's deeply emotional but also very funny. I get so sick of TV that I’ll watch Jon Stewart just because I feel like there’s more wisdom and news in his broadcast than there is on the "news."
I think that’s why everyone watches him.
Yeah, because what he’s doing is pointing out hypocrisy in politics and world events. It’s more powerful than anything on TV news.
Comedians aside, what makes you laugh the most?
Our cat. We have a new kitten, Mazzy. I talk about my cat a lot in my new tour, Thank God for Jokes. My wife makes me laugh. My mom makes me laugh big time.
I was thinking today about how I have yet to do certain things in comedy that are the funniest things about me, but I don’t know what those things are yet. When my wife and I are laughing, when we’re laughing about some inside joke so hard about something, there’s something that I’m tapping into comically in myself that I’m never tapping into on stage. Someday, I’ll figure out how to tap into that, but I don’t know how to do it yet.