Mike Birbiglia on funny sadness and self-deprecating comedy

Mike Birbiglia is not interested in your laughter. Or at least, that's not all he's interested in. While most comedians shy away from long-form jokes -- for fear of not getting any laughs and being stuck with a sinking ship for ten minutes -- Birbiglia is all about the long-term relationship with his audience, building a report of tension and sympathy... and then wham! The joke you didn't see coming knocks you off your perch.

Following up on the success of last year's Sleepwalk With Me, the autobiographical film he made with This American Life producer Ira Glass, Birbiglia released his fourth comedy special, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, on Netflix just last week. Birbiglia took a break from his current comedy tour -- which includes a five-show run at Comedy Works -- to chat with us about sleep disorders, combining standup with theater, and why the horror of our lives is the best source of comedy.

See also: Marc Maron on sobriety in art and not speaking to ex-wives

Westword: What was the moment you realized that the darker stories of your life, like the sleep disorder, could be funny?

Mike Birbiglia: In real life, it took me about a year after I jumped through the window [as related in Sleepwalk With Me] to realize that I was going to talk about it on stage. From when it happened, I secretly thought, "I'm going to use this story someday." But it took me about a year before I actually felt comfortable with it. My fear was that people were going to hear that I jumped out of a window and think I'm insane. I think that's really all of our greatest fear, that people are going to write us off as crazy.

I saw your special, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, just dropped on Netflix this morning. Do you think the first day of its run provides any insight to how it will do in the coming months?

Not in a statistical sense, necessarily. Because Netflix is a place where people discover things. But it does in a do-people-like-it kind of way. Because not many people have seen it, we haven't done test-groups of thousands of people. So far people like it, which is a relief.

You did a lot of test-audience work with the film Sleepwalk With Me. Is that kind of thing not applicable with a comedy special?

Well, with this show the material has been audience-tested, because I've toured with it for two years, and it was off-Broadway for a while. But this standup film hasn't been tested.

There's something about filming standup that is inherently boring. Over the years I've watched a lot of standup specials, and there are very few that get my attention. Seth Barrish directed my special, and he and I watched a lot of the great comedy specials, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby. We wanted something that was very cinematic. We didn't shoot it on film, though; we used the same digital format that we used on Sleepwalk With Me -- we were very careful with what shots we used, how it's lit, camera placement. It stays in shots a lot longer than most comedy specials.

Most of them have quick edits because they're cutting around things a lot. With TV they have to chop it down to 42 minutes. Sometimes they'll cut in the middle of jokes. Sometimes you'll see a setup to a joke, and you won't see the rest -- or you'll come back from a commercial and there will be a joke with no setup. I've had specials where there are call-backs to jokes that aren't in the special. With one special I play a song on the guitar at the end, and I'm referencing all these jokes that were done earlier, but three of them weren't in there -- so then it just sounds like I'm a crazy person.

That's the great thing about putting it out on Netflix: no commercials.

Other than the visual aspects, was there anything that you wanted to try with this special that you hadn't attempted before?

Well I've done two one-person shows that were this hybrid of standup, storytelling and theater; one was Sleepwalk With Me and My Boyfriend's Girlfriend. But we never released Sleepwalk With Me as a comedy special, because I wanted to do it as a film. So the style of comedy that I've been cultivating since 2007 -- when my last special came out -- there hasn't been any visual document of it.

And Sleepwalk With Me was all about how I was a terrible standup comedian, so a lot of people are like, "well, I guess he's a terrible comic."

That kind of self-deprecating comedy is what people have come to know and love you for. But do you ever find some idea or anecdote about your life too depressing to find the humor in it?

I'll try to make anything funny. The shows I'm doing in Denver are titled "Working It Out." I'm only doing a few clubs this year, the ones that are my favorite in the country. And in those shows there's nothing I won't talk about. There's no subject that's too sad and I won't try to make funny.

The things that make it into the specials or one-man shows are the saddest things that I can make funny. In My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, I talk about this really awkward first kiss I had; I thought I was going to kiss this girl in seventh grade, and then I went on The Scrambler ride with her, and I ended up throwing up with her next to me on the ride. In Sleepwalk With Me, I talk about having a tumor in my bladder. Generally I find that the sadder the topic is, you're in really good territory -- so long as you can make it funny.

I feel like that's why we're all going to comedy shows, to have someone explain to us how life, which is inherently sad, can be funny.

When you encounter a good story in your life that involves other people, is there usually a time period that you wait before telling it on stage?

There's that old saying that comedy is tragedy plus time. And I'd say that for me there's usually a good six months, minimum, before I use it. There's a great British comedian named Daniel Kitson who I recently saw in New York, and he made this great point that memories are just memories of memories. That the more we relate a story, and as time passes, the story just becomes a memory of the last time we remembered it.

Over years our brain melds things into a narrative that makes sense, and we remember it as sometimes funnier or sadder than the actual event.

Is it ever awkward when you're telling a story about someone live on stage, and they are sitting there in the audience?

Yeah, that actually happened recently. I'm from the town of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, and I played there recently. The audience was full of guys I grew up with, and their parents. And I'd done this show all over the world in Australia, London, Canada, telling everyone about these private experiences I'd had with these people. But then I was in the town where the stories took place, and I'm like, "Here's what I've been telling everybody."

And everyone has their own version of these stories. So they're like, "Oh, that's how you remember it? If you say so." It was a little bit awkward.

That's something I talk about a lot in my show these days, the idea that jokes are really just your side of the story. I tell a story in my new show about my wife being a person who is always late for things, whereas I'm always on time. We were supposed to meet up for yoga class the other day, and she was like, "Save me a yoga mat; put it next to you in the class." And I told her I couldn't do that, because she's a late person, and she was like [exhausted] "Fine."

But I put a yoga mat down for her anyway, and then she didn't even show up for the class. People had come up to me and were like, "Do you mind if I put my mat here?" And I was like, "No, my wife is coming." The class was 100 percent full, except for this empty yoga mat next to me. And all I could think about afterward was that everyone in the class assumed my wife was dead, or that I made up the fact that I had a wife.

So at the end of the bit I tell people, "But that's just my side of the story. If my wife were here she'd tell you, 'Yeah but you're not telling them about--' and I'd tell her, 'Excuse me, ma'am, there's a show going on.'"

Considering that Sleepwalk With Me has been your biggest success, do you often get strangers approaching you on the street telling you about their sleep problems and asking for advice?

Yes. Very, very often. Perhaps too often. It's funny, because it's become so common these days. Sleep medicine is a burgeoning field right now, scientists are discovering so much about the brain and how it relates to sleep. I feel like people often assume I'm an expert on it, but I'm not, I'm just someone who's read a book. I tell people to get this book, The Promise of Sleep by Dr. Dement, who makes a cameo in the film. That's the book I read, and anything I say is just a watered-down version of that.

Do journalists often lead into interviews by asking, "How are you sleeping these days?"

Yes, there's a lot of that.

So . . . how are you sleeping these days?

Pretty well. I've been doing a lot of yoga, which has helped. And I've taken a lot of time off this summer, just to write and rest and get my circadian rhythms in order. Being a comedian is not the friendliest career choice to your circadian rhythms.

So much of what you've become known for are these humiliating stories of female rejection, being broke, struggling to make it as a comedian -- and while I'm sure your life isn't all wine and roses now, you do have a wife, a hearty income and success as a comic. Has this change in your life altered the stories you tell on stage, or the persona you present to the world?

Well, Kanye and I were just talking about this. . . . I'm kidding. It's definitely more of an ingredient in my thought process than it used to be. I have to think about what's relatable in my life, and what isn't. Going to a movie premiere is not relatable. Going home to see my family for Christmas is relatable. Some things never change. Your dad's always your dad, your mom is always your mom. Those things never change. And if they do, something is going to your head and you're doing something wrong. My family is always too willing to tell me when something is going to my head.

Is this something that you're concerned about personally?

A little bit. To be honest with you I feel like so much of what I do is being a traveling salesman. I'm selling my comedy. I travel around, I fly Jet Blue, I rent a car -- there's not much that I do that is any more fancy than what a traveling salesman does. Sometimes I'll be in an extravagant situation, like a fancy hotel or restaurant, but that's only because the people hiring me live that way.

More than just the changes that you've experienced in your own life, I imagine you've seen the comedy industry change in the years you've been in the business.

Well, I'd say that it's diversified a lot. There are so many niches now. And I think that's worked to my advantage a lot, because I have a niche in that I tell personal stories, there's a long narrative arc, I tend to not curse. I curse a little bit, but not gratuitously. I'm not insulting, I don't go after people. There's a niche for all of that, but there's also a niche for what I do.

Twitter and Facebook are interesting in that they've democratized the entertainment industry. You're able to keep in touch with your fans and let them know what you've been up to. What's gone away in the last ten years is the single, ubiquitous comedian. Gone is the era where you only had Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano and Bill Cosby. When I was a kid and I'd say something funny, people would say, "Who do you think you are, Jerry Seinfeld?" Because he was the comedian of America. But today we don't have a "the comedian of America." And I feel fine with that, because I never wanted to be that anyway.

You're much more collaborative than most standups. And it seems like you sometimes choose people who aren't comedians, like Ira Glass, to give input on your act. Do people like this give you a unique perspective on your work that another comedian wouldn't provide?

Yeah, I've always been interested in storytelling, and that's how I got involved with Ira Glass and The Moth. I've always studied theater, and that's how I got involved with Seth Barrish, who directed my one-person shows. I generally like genre-bending. I just saw Edgar Wright's film The World's End, the followup to Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and part of the reason I love Wright's films is there's all this weird genre-bending with action, comedy, zombie, suspense -- but then it has a heart to it as well.

I've been watching a lot of movies like that recently. Like The Spectacular Now, or Frances Ha. And people like James L. Brooks and Woody Allen all do that kind of genre-bending. I just want to make things that don't feel like other things.

Though comedians often rate their set based on how big the laughs are tht they're getting, and how consistent those laughs are. Do you purposely bring dramatic elements into your standup, knowing that they wont get a laugh but confident that you're entertaining people?

Yeah, and I've had to train myself over the years to do that. It was a difficult thing to break. I started out as a door-guy and a busboy in a Washington, D.C., comedy club when I was twenty, and I consider that my comedy college. I opened for people like Margaret Cho, Mitch Hedburg and Dave Chappelle. So I feel like I was trained as a comedian to look for the laughs every thirty seconds. But over the years working with people like Ira and Seth, I've realized that what you're after isn't the funniest thing every thirty seconds, but really delivering the most interesting thing every thirty seconds. Sometimes that's huge laughs, but sometimes it's not. Mike Birbiglia will perform five shows starting Thursday, September 5 through September 7 at Comedy Works, 1226 15th Street. Tickets are $30. For more information visit For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.