Mike Birbiglia: The most famous Mike B in America
Post by michael donnelly on 10/2/2012 4:45pm
Mike Birbiglia's film, "Sleepwalk With Me," is showing as part of the monthly Driftless Film Fest Screenings: October 5 and 6 at 7 p.m., and October 7 at 3 p.m. at the Mineral Point Opera House. Dane101's Michael Donnelly interviewed Birbiglia back in 2009 when the comedian was in town for a live show at the Barrymore. We're re-running the story here.
Dane101: How's your tour been going so far?
Mike Birbiglia: It's good. It started in Newport, Rhode Island this weekend, but what's kind of odd is it's not in full effect until September 16.
Dane101: It looks like you have a lot of time off before the Midwestern leg; are you going to work on some other projects?
MB: I did these gigs at the top of the tour that are like "vacation gigs." In Newport they book concert acts for the summer -- you wouldn't book anyone in Cape Cod in the winter, that wouldn't be a good idea.
Dane101: The vacation crowd wouldn't be there then.
MB: Exactly, there would be no people there. It's kind of good. It gets me thinking early about what I'm going to talk about, gets me off my heels.
Dane101: How much time had you had off before that since the end of Sleepwalk With Me?
MB: "Off" is a very relative term. The show ended, I believe, June 7. We'd run eight months, which is an absurd amount of time to run a show, and eventually I had to give it up. It could have gone forever based on the audiences that were showing up.
Dane101: Why'd you stop? Was doing the same material getting to you?
MB: It's a play, so it's precisely the same show. I think I was going crazy, I was experiencing Groundhog Day.
Dane101: I can empathize. I love telling stories, but I've found that they last a couple of months and then I don't tell them anymore because I'm sick of it.
MB: Exactly. I mean, you can revisit them -- I think I'm going to tour with Sleepwalk With Me in a couple of years because I think it's a great bunch of stories -- but yeah, you need to take time off and talk about some other stuff.
Dane101: And then when you go back to it, it'll be fresh again.
MB: Yup. So, do you live in Madison?
Dane101: I do.
MB: I love Madison, it's one of my favorite cities.
Dane101: How many times have you been here before?
MB: I've probably been to Madison seven or eight times. One of my best friends from college was a guy named Ed Herro in my improv group. His folks were from Madison, so when we were in college we made a road trip there and did a benefit show for his family's church group. Then a few years ago Ed and I said, "Let's do a show in Madison," so we talked to some people at Luther's Blues, which I guess no longer exists?
Dane101: Yeah, it's sad. It was a good venue.
MB: It was fun, I loved that place. I've been to Madison a lot over the years. I played the Barrymore before which is where I'm playing this time. There's another place I played that's bigger.
Dane101: The Orpheum?
MB: That's it, the Orpheum. I played with the Friends of Bob and Tom radio show.
Dane101: What did you think of performing at the Orpheum?
MB: I loved it; I've played there twice. Do you get good feedback on it?
Dane101: Everyone has a strong opinion about it. It's a gorgeous space, but it's kind of weird because you've got one audience 10 feet below you and another one 15 feet above you.
MB: The level thing is very strange. But then what's funny about the Barrymore is that it's a little like a high school auditorium.
Dane101: It's an attractive space, but it's kind of a big box.
MB: I'll tell you a funny story from the Barrymore the last time I was there. I do a receiving line after the show and sign people's stuff or take photos. Usually I'm there for an hour or two afterwards.
These two guys and a girl came up who had -- I have a kind of surreal logo on my web site of a bear standing on a microphone, it's a cool image and I put it on a lot of stuff -- these people got it as permanent tattoos.
Dane101: How'd that make you feel?
MB: It was a grand compliment. It makes me want to have a long career so I can keep these guys proud of their bodies.
Dane101: That would make me a little nervous.
MB: Oh no, I wasn't nervous. They seemed really cool. Maybe they'll be back, the bear tattoo folks.
Dane101: I've got to imagine anyone who gets your logo tattooed is going to be back again.
MB: The bear tattoo posse only has a couple of events a year in Madison, and my show's one of them.
Dane101: I've noticed a theme in your material. You tend to talk a lot about stuff that happened to you that I'd rather not have happen to me.
MB: Sure, that's sort of the theme.
Dane101: Is there any comedy in the good stuff in your life?
MB: My wife and I talk about that sometimes. She says, "You should talk about how great your marriage is," and I'm like "Yeah, but that would be another genre. I'm in comedy."
MB: No one wants to come hear you go, "So, things are going great, I feel fantastic, I jog every day, and I'm eating healthy. Yeah, I mean frankly, life couldn't be better." That's just boring.
Dane101: Have you already had enough bad things happen to you to mine for the rest of your career, or are you going to have to go through more crap if you keep being successful?
MB: No human being is short on tough experiences no matter where your life takes you, so I think I'll be okay in that department.
I did this DVD special called What I Should Have Said Was Nothing, and the entire premise is I have a habit of making awkward situations even more awkward. I did a whole album and special about it, and I thought, "I wonder if by doing this it'll cure me of being awkward. Maybe I'll see the patterns and trends and go 'I'll just not do that.'" And thinking of that, I go to this college one week and I was on stage and I told a joke about a funeral. "I went to a funeral and they handed out Kleenex at the beginning of it which I thought was cocky."
MB: And people go oooh. So I asked, "What, what happened? Did somebody die recently at the school?" And someone said, "20 people died - there was a shooting."
Dane101: Oh no.
MB: I could've just kind of passed over, but instead I spent 20 minutes talking about the shooting on stage, finding out more details.
Dane101: It's like picking at a scab.
MB: Yeah, exactly, it's like picking a scab or like a fly going towards a flame. I can't not go toward the awkwardness, I'm just naturally inclined to it.
Dane101: So you're not getting any better about it. Do you at least, when these things are going on, have some part of you that's going, "At least I can feed this to the audience later?"
MB: A little, yeah. And you know the other thing is that if something happens in the show -- people gasp at a joke about a funeral and I find out there was a shooting there -- to me that's an interesting part of the show. Well, that's what the show should be about; if that's what's on everyone's mind, let's talk about that.
This is kind of self-centered, but I'd like to think that's why people come back -- because I always make the shows different. When I was first starting out I used to do a lot of repeat material. I'd go to a city and then I'd go back and I'd do pretty much the same hour or so of comedy. And then I said, "I'm not going to do that anymore. I don't think that's what people want."
Dane101: Like you were saying earlier, that can't be much fun for you either.
When something happens -- you hear about something that happened in the town or something goes weird in the show or someone shouts something out, and you end up going off the rails a little bit -- does that end up being a good show because it's different or a bad show because you're off your game?
MB: Well, generally good because it adds some texture to the show and makes it unique.
I had it happen one time that I had a heckler. This was in St. Louis a number of years ago. There was this heckler who said, "You got a girlfriend?" This guy was really drunk. I said "Yes, yes I do," and then I'd do a joke about my girlfriend. And he kept saying "You got a girlfriend?" He kept saying it through the whole show. I was trying to play along and respond to what he was saying, but finally I was like, "Sir, you're ruining the show, you're literally the worst person in the room, you're a terrible person." And he goes "I'm crazy -- crazy girlfriend" which is the title of one my jokes. What I didn't realize was that he was requesting one of my jokes the whole time. He was my biggest fan in the entire room, and I had no idea.
Dane101: Do you do anything to deliberately invite that sort of interaction from the crowd?
MB: I don't, but I think that if I really analyze what I do, I think that people do it because of my style. My style has a lot of pauses and silences in it, and sometimes people feel like they have to fill the silences. "This is a mistake, I'm just going to say something." But it's not a mistake, it's just how I talk.
A lot of the time people think I'm high as a result, but I'm not high either. I've only gotten high on stage once ever. I was in Sacramento opening for Tom Rhodes when I was starting out. I went on stage and I was supposed to do 15 minutes of material. I did two minutes of material and then I forgot everything else in my act. And I'm just standing there on stage, silent, and then I go, "You guys ready for your next comedian?" And that was it. I did like three minutes.
Dane101: I can see why that would be the one and only time.
MB: I never got high again. On stage.
Dane101: Do you have anything new and terrible going on that hasn't made it into your routine yet?
MB: Well, I'm writing a book right now called Sleepwalk With Me and Other Stories, and because I'm writing this I'm kind of discovering a lot of stories from my childhood. I won't tell you the whole story because it's a good one for the show. I went to a carnival with this girl I had a crush on in the seventh grade, and we went on the Scrambler, and I had a very embarassing incident on the Scrambler. It's the funniest thing I've done in so many years, but I just had forgotten it happened. I think I had blocked it out.
Dane101: Well, anything bad enough to block out....
MB: Yeah, totally. It's all about scooping out the blockout material.
Dane101: I figure you got a pretty good bump in publicity from the stuff you did for This American Life. How did you get involved with those guys?
MB: I had done a story about my sleepwalking disorder for The Moth, and the story came out so well that I wanted to get it on This American Life. I'd wanted to be involved with them for years. I asked someone at The Moth if she'd put me in touch with the show. She was a little bit reluctant because they get so many solicitations that it's overwhelming to them, but she got in touch with them and they liked the story. They actually built an episode around it called "Fear of Sleep," so that's how I got involed and met Ira.
Ira and I became friends and now he's involved with a film project I'm working on.
Dane101: What's that?
MB: I'm working on a screen adaptation of Sleepwalk With Me.
Dane101: Another one man show?
MB: No, it'll be whole movie with actors and directors and things.
Dane101: Are you going to play yourself?
MB: Yes, I am.
Dane101: Well, that's exciting.
MB: Yeah, it's fun.
I did a lot of stuff with This American Life this year. I did their live show -- did you guys get that?
Dane101: No, we didn't, we would've had to go down to Chicago for it.
I found a cool thing when I was doing my research for this interview. You know when you go to Google and type in something to do a search how it autocompletes for you? You only have to get as far as "Mike B" before it completes to your name.
MB: Oh wow.
Dane101: So you're the most famous Mike B in America today.
MB: *laughs* This is what the title should be: The Most Famous Mike B in America.
Michael Donnelly (@gomi_no_sensei) is president of dane101's board of directors, covers local politics, and assists Shane with technical management of the site. He also serves on the board of directors of the Tenant Resource Center. Originally from Rhode Island, Michael moved to Wisconsin in 1994 for school and to Madison in 1999 because Madison is excellent. He's been involved in dane101 since October, 2005.