Mike Birbiglia: interview

Master US storyteller Mike Birbiglia talks to Ben Williams about making his UK debut

© Joan Marcus

No theme, no links, just one piece of material after another making up a 60-minute set. That’s often the American approach to stand-up. Not that it’s necessarily a bad approach – it regularly produces funny results. But whereas long-form storytelling comedy has become prevalent in the UK, with the unrivaled Daniel Kitson generating consistently brilliant, remarkably moving story-based shows, the format is less commonplace in the States.

Step forward Mike Birbiglia. A Massachusetts-born comic who has become a superstar in his home country for poignant theatre-comedy crossovers which mix interweaving stories and killer gags. His 2008 off-Broadway run of ‘Sleepwalk with Me’ ran for eight months, playing to more than 32,000 people. Our buddies over at Time Out New York named it their comedy show of the year and it’s now been turned into a feature film, which recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. But 33-year-old Birbiglia’s performances haven’t always been so anecdotal. ‘When I was in high school I saw Steven Wright, a brilliant one-liner comedian,’ he tells me, ‘and I thought: That’s what I should do, I should write one-liners. And I did. My first album is mostly one-liners.’

But it was while at the 2003 US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen that he changed his approach. He was asked to perform at live, candid, storytelling show ‘The Moth’ and ended up telling an embarrassing tale about his first high school girlfriend. ‘It was one of the most exposed feelings I’ve ever had,’ he says. ‘But after it was done it was wildly invigorating. I thought: I enjoy this so much more. And I think the audience does too. My shows now have as many jokes as my regular stand-up shows did, but the jokes add up to something that’s more emotional and, hopefully, more impactful.’

© Joan Marcus

Birbiglia’s total honesty, and willingness to reveal embarrassing secrets are key to his shows, helping connect the performer with the audience. ‘It’s almost like extending a friendship to a group of strangers,’ he says. ‘It’s basically like saying, “Here’s the worst thing about me. Do you still want to be friends?”.’

The raconteur has dealt with some heavy subject matter too. In ‘Sleepwalk with Me’, the comic told stories of his own occasionally life-threatening sleepwalking condition, REM behaviour disorder (which once caused him to jump out of a second-storey window) as well as his recovery from bladder cancer. Why does he turn often grim scenarios into comedic material? ‘I think serious situations actually make for the best kind of belly laughs,’ he replies. ‘But they’re also the hardest to convert into comedy at the outset. For example the “something in my bladder” story didn’t work comedically for about three months of doing it on stage – it just bombed. But then when you can finally land the comedically lubricated version of that, then it’s kind of euphoric and cathartic. Sometimes you even get nice notes from people. Like, I’ve had notes from people saying it helped them get through a similar experience, and that’s probably the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had in comedy at all, because you feel like it’s actually a job and not just some kind of petty, narcissistic showboating.’

Despite his own honesty, Birbiglia is careful about how he depicts other people in his stories. ‘There are certain things I’ve witnessed in my life that I think are horrific,’ he says, ‘and I would try to protect the people who are involved, or I would talk to them about it and ask if they’d be comfortable with me telling the story.’ His latest show, ‘My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend’, presumably required some chats before it premiered, as it focuses on Birbiglia’s romantic past. He describes the show as a ‘sort of cynical look at marriage and a series of events in my life that led to me getting married despite those views. So, in some ways it’s romantic, in some ways it’s funny, and in some ways it’s very pointed about the institution of marriage. But overall people usually end up leaving happier than when they came.’

He's now bringing the show to London; Birbiglia’s UK debut, after 12 years of performing. Why’s it taken him so long to reach our shores? ‘I feel like for so many years I’ve been afraid to,’ he confesses. ‘It’s almost like the girl you have a crush on at work that you  would really like to date, but you feel like if you make the wrong introduction of that concept it will go terribly and then you’re forever stuck at work with them. I feel that way about the UK: you guys are right there, I know a lot of British comics from international festivals, and I like you guys a lot, I admire you. I just don’t want to mess it up.’

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