The funny storyteller somnambulates into print.
Fri Nov 5 2010
After building a successful decade-long stand-up career joke by joke and fan by fan, Mike Birbiglia started telling stories. He got involved with This American Life and the Moth... and suddenly, his Off Broadway solo show was being produced by Nathan Lane, garnering rave reviews and warranting extensions. Recently, he turned this poignant and very funny tale—about an awkward kid from Massachusetts becoming the kind of person who almost dies in his sleep—into a book by the same name, Sleepwalk with Me. We caught Birbiglia after the book appeared on The New York Times' best-seller list, talked to him about the format transition and gave him a high five.
Thanks. I called my mom last week and I go, "Great news! The book is a best-seller." And she goes, "Who bought them all, you?" So my mom has become an insult comic. And people wonder why I'm a comedian.
Are you more comfortable being honest in prose because of the naked experience of doing stand-up?
There was definitely a point two or three years ago, when I was developing stuff for This American Life, that I stopped saying no to myself about what I would say onstage. I told this story on the show about getting beaten up in ninth grade. For years I was even uncomfortable talking about that to people. Because it was so embarrassing. But the upside has been the recognition of laughter and of people saying, "I've had that," "I've done that."
The book is about being a talker, and encouraging yourself to speak. Was it difficult to translate your work from the stage to the page?
I'm a very audience-dependent writer. The adaptations of the stories that were in the stage show weren't as difficult as the brand-new stuff. It's so hard to know what's interesting about your own life. I kept wanting to write about show business, because it is my life. But as a reader, if you want to know about that, you could just read Francis Ford Coppola's biography, or Robert Evans's book. They are going to be way better.
You and I have discussed before, that storytelling, like at the Moth, is the next step in a comedian's progression after telling jokey jokes. Is writing a book the following step?
Originally, my instinct was a very pure one. I would look at observational stuff and think, Who cares? In my gut, I would think, There's got to be more than this. You've got to be able to be this funny and also move me in some way. But as my writing has caught up to my life, it's becoming very hard.
I just wrote my own book, and I couldn't write nonfiction right now if I tried. I don't have any stories left to tell.
Yeah, it's like, "Call me in ten years." Because it's very difficult to write about the present. So now I don't know what to do. At one point I was talking to my mom about the "Like Hell" chapter, and I said, "Mom, just so you know, this book is really personal, and there's stuff about you, and about our relationship." And my mom goes, "No one believes anything in those books anyway."
Mike Birbiglia cohosts the annualTue 16 with Jonathan Ames. Sleepwalk with Me (Simon & Schuster, $24) is out now.