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Mike Birbiglia turns serious issues into comedy. His stand-up acts include stories about being diagnosed with an unknown tumor while still a teen, and having a serious sleep disorder that caused him to sleepwalk out a second story window. We hear about his new semi-autobiographical movie, produced and co-written with “This American Life” host Ira Glass.
“Sleepwalk With Me” official trailer:
Comedian and director Mike Birbiglia stars in a short film opposite NPR Fresh Air host Terry Gross:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Technically, Mike Birbiglia's new film is a work of fiction.
MIKE BIRBIGLIAI'm gonna tell you a story and it's true. I always gotta tell people that because inevitably someone will come up to me and be like, is that true? I'll be like, yeah. And they'll be like, was it? I don't know how to respond to that. Like, I guess I could say it louder, you know, like, yeah. They'd be like, it's probably true if you say it louder.
NNAMDILike Birbiglia the comedian in the movie is struggling in his relationship and his career. In real life, Birbiglia's anxiety and stress provoke a sleepwalking disorder, a dangerous one in which he'd act out his dreams while asleep. One night he even jumped out of a motel window. It all became fodder for his one-man show and for a book. A regular on This American Life, the comedian, writer, actor and director, Mike Birbiglia recently stopped by to talk about his new film "Sleepwalk With Me," co-written with Ira Glass. He sat down with producer Ingalisa Schrobsdorff. She asked him about adapting his one-man show into a movie.
BIRBIGLIAAdapting a one-man show into a movie is not the easiest thing I've done, although it's funny 'cause now that I've done it I'm doing it again. And one of the reasons I'm doing it is because it was so hard to teach myself how to do it that now that I know I'm like, I gotta do it again. I can't just have this insane skill that is completely useless in any other part of my life. And then also I was very inspired by directing. I felt like it -- there's a lot of room to get better, and it was really fun, and I had really use all different parts of my brain.
MR. MIKE BIRBIGLIAI actually went to school here in DC. I went to Georgetown, and so I had screenwriting and playwriting. So I had written in college like two feature like screenplays and a three-act play, but I never adapted anything, so that was a real challenge. It's a challenge to come up with kind of visual representations of things that you speak, you know. Sometimes it's impossible. So the premise of "Sleepwalk With Me" is about a guy, not unlike myself, of the name Matt Pandamiglio.
MR. MIKE BIRBIGLIAMy name is Mike Birbiglia which is, you know, kind of like a wink to the audience that it's not me exactly, but it's pretty much me. And it's about a guy who's basically in denial about many aspects of his life that are -- he's failing in. He's failing in his personal relationship with his girlfriend, and he's failing in his career, and he's failing to acknowledge this sleep disorder that as the film goes on gets increasingly worse.
MR. MIKE BIRBIGLIAWhenever people ask like whether it's true, I always say the things that you wouldn't thing are true are true, the most extreme things, like the really extreme sleepwalking incidents and the dangerous things like that.
MS. INGALISA SCHROBSDORFFThe jumping out the window.
BIRBIGLIAJumping out the windows, that's stuff that happened. The stuff that is, you know, the minutia of it is kind of convenient, like it's like, you know, my parents don't live in real life in Long Island, they live in Massachusetts. But it would be so confusing if throughout the film we always are having me drive to Massachusetts.
SCHROBSDORFFYou've done a lot of basically work on your own solo work. What was it like to direct a movie, I mean, movie productions are huge things with dozens of people that you have the coordinate.
SCHROBSDORFFHow different was that from being able to make a decision and just go forward with, you know, your own thing?
BIRBIGLIAYou know, you always think of like great film directors like, you know, Scorsese and Coppola being these auteurs who are, you know, thinking about what's the composition and what is, you know, what are all the these artistic elements, but meanwhile you're actually -- it's a lot of interpersonal work. It's a lot of convincing people like in student council, like you're gonna do the streamers and you're gonna do the music, and you're gonna hire the, you know, you're gonna get the cheese balls.
BIRBIGLIAAnd like when you're a director you're organizing the actors and the production designer and the cinematographer and music composer and the editor and all of these things, and you're trying make them all work together. It's like seven art forms operating simultaneously. And so the organization of it is oddly the most challenging.
SCHROBSDORFFOne thing that really comes across in the film is that stand-up comedy is hard. Really, really hard. What's it like to bomb on stage?
BIRBIGLIAIt's very lonely. It is -- bombing on stage is so lonely because it is you along, which is only inherently to start with, and then it's people witnessing that in a group. So it's like -- it's -- it's failing, and then it's having people watch you fail, which combines two of our greatest fears which is -- one is like -- one of our greatest fears is public speaking, as people, and statistically, and then the other is failing, and it's both of those at the same time.
SCHROBSDORFFSo what kept you going?
BIRBIGLIAI think that what kept me going was being a little delusional. I mean, thinking it's going well when it's really not going so well, you know. Like I would -- like the character in the film has this -- three by five note cards that he writes the jokes on, and he put a check mark next to the jokes that work, and an X if it doesn't work, and the -- and you notice that, you know, he's got all kinds of checkmarks, it's all double checks and checks and there's no X's and it's -- and you -- it just, you kind of -- that's sort of the life of the comedian is you have to approximate the response to be a little bit higher. Not a ton higher, but a little bit higher than it actually goes.
SCHROBSDORFFOr you'd never get back up there I guess.
BIRBIGLIAYeah. Or else you wouldn't get on the stage again. It would just -- you would just quit.
SCHROBSDORFFIn the film Marc Maron plays an older, wiser comedian who gives you some advice that changes the course of your career. We're going to a little of that scene.
BIRBIGLIAYeah. So Marc Maron plays sort of a mentor and Marc and I have a long history. I've known him for about 14 years, and that's a little bit rocky. He didn't always like me, but then we kind of made up on his podcast, "WTF," which is, you know, his podcast and radio show, and then -- it's based on, you know, a few people who I got advice from over the years, you know, Marc Maron and Jim Gaffigan, and Louis CK, and Tom Papa, and Greg Giraldo, and Mitch Hedberg, and a lot of comedians who I looked up to, who I got little bits of advice from along the way.
SCHROBSDORFFAnd basically that advice was to be yourself.
SCHROBSDORFFComedians often develop their humor in response to maybe something in their childhood, or...
BIRBIGLIAI was youngest of four, so I had that thing where I was kind of shouting to be heard, and, you know, everyone's kind of talking over everyone else, and so I developed ways of strategically getting people to listen to me. You have to be a little bit more clever, a little bit more maybe manipulative my wife might say. My stand-up persona is actually oddly similar to my real life temperament. I mean, I in some ways meander through life. I kind of look around and observe things and respond and, you know, sometimes when people -- if people heckle me at my shows, which is a very rare thing, but if they heckle, me, I'm not like -- I don't really say like mean stuff.
BIRBIGLIAI more kind of respond like you'd respond if someone were heckling you at a party, you know. If someone said hey, you know, stop talking, you know, or this is boring, you just go, wait, but this is kind of what I do on stage. I would go, wait, are you talking in the middle of my show, like in the middle of me talking, you're talking? That's crazy, you know. Like I don't say like you're a jerk, I more just say like that seems crazy that you would do that. That just seems irrational.
BIRBIGLIAAnd I think the audience tends to get a kick out of that, because it's not what they expect. But actually just calling something out for what it is, as opposed to putting some kind of exaggeration on it or being really harsh or stern, is -- it's kind of more fun. And then in terms of like, I mean, I'm not all -- I shouldn't paint myself in just this one very two-dimensional way of being just meandering. I mean, I also have a very passionate side and panicky side and an anxious side, and very serious side.
BIRBIGLIAYou know, sometimes in my shows I get very serious and I talk about serious incidents in my life. I mean, my two one-man shows, "Sleepwalk With Me," and "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend," both have some pretty dramatic scenes in them.
SCHROBSDORFFThere's a scene where you and girlfriend have just spent the weekend with your family in which you've told her that you're not interested in marriage. Let's listen to that scene.
BIRBIGLIAA lot of those stories that are on the surface just very sad, were very sad the first few times I told them on stage, and, you know, like that -- on "Sleepwalk With Me: Live," the album, there's a story about having tumor -- finding a tumor in my bladder when was 19. I went in and I had a cystoscopy and then looked and they saw there was a tumor and they took it out and, you know, it didn't recur, and so it ended up being okay, but it really -- it positioned me really close to my only mortality in a way that made me face things that were very intense and serious.
BIRBIGLIAAnd so I started talking about that on stage, probably when I was about 26 or 27. And at first it was not funny, but then over time, it became very funny, because it was -- it's something that people can relate to. I mean -- and you find that like there's this catharsis that happens when you talk about something that's very sad or very personal that people don't like talking about, and if you talk about it in an earnest way, I think people appreciate that. I think that people get offended I think with jokes when they're flippant.
BIRBIGLIAPeople just go, well, I hate you because, you know, because you're making light of this thing that should never be made light of. But I actually disagree with that. I think, of course, everything should be made light of, but the better you do it, I think the better people will respond to it.
SCHROBSDORFFAt the center of the show in the film, as you said, is your sleepwalking problem. Did you have sleep issues a kid, or did this hit you as an adult out of the blue?
BIRBIGLIAThe first time I remember it was really in high school when I started having like extreme anxiety about grades. High school is that first time where you're like, oh, no, I'm going to be an adult soon, and grades matter, and things matter, you know. Before that I feel like you don't quite get that, and I started sleep walking in high school, but I never talked about it. Like it never came up, but I remember it and, um, you know, my brother would mention it, or, you know, at one point I had a roommate and he mentioned it, and then in college, when I -- my girlfriend and I secretly moved in together without telling my parents.
BIRBIGLIAIt was me and her and this other guy, and we put all of her stuff when my parents visited in one of the bedrooms and the we would close the door to that bedroom, and then we hung tapestry in front of the door as though the room didn't exist, and it worked. I mean, it was like a scene from "Three's Company," or something. But it caused me so much anxiety, and that's when I really started like seeing the jackal, like having -- like in the movie like the jackal dream where I think that's a hovering insect-like jackal in the bedroom.
SCHROBSDORFFCouldn't be metaphorical. A door shut that you can't open and you don't want to show your parents.
SCHROBSDORFFYou went through all sorts of treatments for your sleepwalking, doctors, you got wired up with brain monitors...
BIRBIGLIAThe sleep studies are very invasive. I mean, they basically put all these electrodes all over your body and they monitor your brainwaves as you're sleeping, and that's how I was diagnosed with what I have which is called REM Behavior Disorder. And just to clarify, REM Behavior Disorder is a disorder where people have a dopamine deficiency. I'm putting this very kind of simply and not clinically, but dopamine is the chemical that's released from your brain into your body when you fall asleep that paralyzes your body so you don't do what's in your brain.
BIRBIGLIAPeople who have this are commonly running away from some kind of demon or wild animal, or in my case a jackal, and people who have this in some cases have been known to kill the person they are in bed with remaining asleep. So in other words, a guy would have a dream that there's a burglar in his house and he would take a bat he would beat his wife to death with the bat and wake up and his wife's dead and that's who the burglar was, you know.
SCHROBSDORFFAnd PTSD you hear about those stories too.
SCHROBSDORFFLike, you know, having flashbacks in sleep.
BIRBIGLIAYeah. And it's -- it's horrible. And I remember reading that in this book called "A Promise of Sleep," and thinking like, oh, maybe that's what I have. I actually still didn't see a doctor. That's how in denial I was about the whole thing. I was like, you know, maybe I should see a doctor, and I thought, maybe I'll eat dinner, and I just went with dinner, like for years, and then eventually I jumped through a second-story window, and that's really when you can't be in denial anymore.
SCHROBSDORFFYou had to take it seriously.
SCHROBSDORFFThere are a lot cameos in this film, Kristen Schaal, Wyatt Cenac, David Wain. What's it like when a bunch of great comedians all get together?
BIRBIGLIAIt's wild. It's almost hitting me more now than it did at the time, because the film shoot is over the course of, you know, five weeks, and so it's -- now, it's like people are picking up that story, like look at this movie, it's got all these cameos, these famous comedians, and meanwhile it's like those are just people I know. I mean, Kristen Schaal I've known since I got off the Boat to New York City. I mean, she and I arrived at the same time. We're on all these like little new talent showcases and things.
BIRBIGLIAActually, one of my favorite scenes, if not my favorite scene, is when the comedians are hanging out with each other and Wyatt tells that story about Home Depot, and that's a true story. That's his own true story, and then Jesse Klein tells a story about performing at someone's house, you know, and that's a true story of her own, and...
SCHROBSDORFFSo it's kind of improv there?
BIRBIGLIAYeah. Those were -- there were scripted lines there that we got on film, but we -- I said, yeah, let's do some where we just tell our own stories, and those were much better, of course.
SCHROBSDORFFSo you and Ira Glass of "This American Life" co-wrote the script for the film.
BIRBIGLIAIra and I have now worked on I think about six or seven stories for "This American Life," and the collaboration is always really good. I mean, he -- Ira's show is brilliant and I've always admired it. He has a real strong sense of what he wants. You know, a lot of times like I'll be in his office and I'll say well, what about this story, and he'll go, oh, who cares, you know. And you'll go, what about this story, there's not enough stakes, you know. And I'll go, well, there's this one story, but I don't think I would want to tell it on the radio, and I'll tell that story, and he'll be like, oh, yeah, yeah. That's the story we'll do. It's always the story that I'm the least comfortable with that we end up developing.
SCHROBSDORFFHe goes there.
BIRBIGLIAAnd I do feel like he is, you know, whenever I work with him, I become better as a writer and so that's, you know, a real gift that he gives me.
SCHROBSDORFFIs he something of a mentor? I know you guys are friends, but he's a couple decades older I guess, and...
SCHROBSDORFF...has been doing this at this a long time.
BIRBIGLIAHe's definitely -- I would say he's definitely a mentor and close friend, and yeah. I mean, and we've -- in addition to doing "Sleepwalk With Me," we also did "Fresh Air 2: Too Fresh Too Furious" with Terry Gross.
SCHROBSDORFFWe've got a link to that short film on our website at kojoshow.org.
BIRBIGLIAWhich there's no way Terry would have done that if I just called her. That was clearly an Ira favor, because she loves Ira.
SCHROBSDORFFYou're trying to get this film into as many theaters as possible, and Ira Glass has even, you know, made personal pitches on "The American Life" asking that people lobby their theaters to bring the film.
SCHROBSDORFFKind of surprising, you know, given it's Ira Glass and you and -- that it would be difficult to get this -- to get this in theaters.
BIRBIGLIAWe are equally surprised. No. It's -- the movie business has been really hard for me and Ira to enter. In certain ways, it's the king of American media, and possibly international media. I mean, it's -- I guess it's the largest -- well, I guess video games are bigger now or something like that, but it's huge, you know. And it's huge, and the people who work in the movie business know that it is huge and they think that everything else is small, including radio and including stand-up comedians and playwrights.
BIRBIGLIAAnd so we really -- like even though we went to Sundance and South by Southwest, and at Sundance we won an audience award and we got great reviews from critics, there was this real brick wall where people were like, yeah, but that's not -- it's not going to be a big movie. It's going to be one of these small movies that's in 10 or 15 theaters, and we're like, well, no. It's -- we listen to the audience. Like if the audience loves it, we know that we're in a sweet spot. And the reaction to it has been outrageous, and so basically in the last like month or so, we've had people tweet at their theaters and email their theaters and call them, and we've end up going, you know, from 34 theaters to over 100 theaters which is unheard of in movies of this size apparently.
NNAMDIThat's comedian, Mike Birbiglia speaking with producer, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff who joined us here in our studios recently to talk about his new film, "Sleepwalk With Me." The film won the audience award at Sundance. It opens Friday, August 31 at the E Street Landmark Cinema here in the District. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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