Comedian Mike Birbiglia discusses the development of his show Sleepwalk With Me, his recent Medium Man on Campus college tour, and his forthcoming role in the film Stanley Cuba.
How was Oh, Hello ?
It was good. I did Oh, Hello, Invite Them Up, and last night I did a show that Eugene did for the first time in Brooklyn at a place called Union Hall. It was Todd Barry, A.D. Miles, Eugene, and myself. It was great. A really cool local Parkslope sort of crowd.
You and John Mulaney were in an Improv group together at Georgetown?
We were in the same Improv group, but not at the same time. It was called The Georgetown Players Improv Group, abbreviated as G-PIG. I graduated the spring before the fall that he matriculated.
What sort of Improv training did you get there?
We focused on Chicago style long form improvisation. We did workshops with Charna Halpern from the ImprovOlympic in Chicago and different people from the Upright Citizens Brigade, like Matt Walsh and Andy Secunda.
Was there a competing group at Georgetown doing short-form Whose Line type Improv?
Kind of. At one point, a few of us broke off and called ourselves The Regal Beagle and we did primarily sketch and long form improvisation and the Georgetown Players did Whose Line type stuff and long form. Eventually, we came back. It's a very boring history.
Were the Harolds well received?
They seemed to be at the time. I bet if I watched tapes of those shows now I wouldn't be impressed. It was an important part of the process of becoming a comedian and trying a lot of different things.
Do you find that your background in Improv comes in handy doing stand up?
I think it does. It took me a long time to get to the point where I was comfortable improvising as a stand up, even though I had done Improv for a lot of years. But now that I've made that leap, I feel like all the Improv training pays off.
I saw that you're doing the Georgetown Orientation.
Yeah. I think it's my fifth time doing that event.
Will you be doing stand up or giving a speech?
An inspirational speech? No, I'm just performing. With college shows, I try to gear my stuff more toward college-based stories. When I did the Medium Man on Campus tour with Comedy Central in the spring, I basically developed of twenty-five or so minutes of just college stories, which is a good way of connecting to the audience and then talking about the other stuff I talk about.
In your experience, how do college, comedy club, and alternative audiences compare to each other?
College audiences tend to get more of the pop culture references. They know who Jay Z is and that sort of thing. Some of those references resonate more. In general, I find that whether it's alternative, comedy club, or college that people are people and that stand up comedy, in its most simple form, is one person talking to a group of people. When I show up and I get onstage, I'm really just trying to figure out how we can have a dialog. There's a great interview in the On Comedy series on Laugh.com where they interview Jerry Seinfeld, which is a world of insight into stand up. Seinfeld talks about stand up as being a scene and the audience as your scene partner. They're responding, you're listening and then responding back. They're not responding verbally but with their laughter and applause. Sometimes you'll play a college and they won't get anything and sometimes you'll play a college and they'll get more than you could possible have expected. There's almost no way to classify it. With stand up, you just need to go in with your agenda and be open to changes.
I listened to the Carlin, Seinfeld, Carson, and Woody Allen On Comedy CDs. That guy asks strange questions. He asked Woody Allen, "Can you sum up your entire career with a single joke."
He's goofy, that guy.
When you did your NACA (National Association for Campus Activities) audition, was there lots of crazy stuff there?
Yeah, the NACA market place is really funny because there's every type of entertainment, lecture, or educational series crammed into one room. You'll be at a show and you'll be sandwiched between a hypnotist and a motivational speaker. Those events are fun and really random. There are six regional conferences a year and there's a very complicated process of applying where you get accepted or rejected in different conferences.
After you've committed your material to CD or TV, do you try to phase some of it out in favor of newer stuff?
It varies depending on where my head is at and what I'm working on. Right now, I'm working on a whole new show called Sleepwalk With Me. When I did Dogyears, which is my self produced CD, four or five years ago, I was pretty happy with it. When Comedy Central approached me about doing a CD, I thought that since it was going to be in stores for the first time, I would put on the best stuff from Dogyears and other stuff in addition to that. I didn't feel that my performance when I released Dogyears was as good as I wanted it to be. I'm really happy with Two-Drink Mike and, in a way, have put all of that material behind me and am working on all new material for Sleepwalk With Me, which takes up my issues with sleepwalking, relationships, and fears. It's a whole new set of topics. Then again, sometimes I'll be in a show and a line I'd written a few years ago will come into my head and will feel relevant to what I'm talking about and I'll have no trepidation about talking about it.
How long have you been sleepwalking?
Since I was a kid, to some extent. It increased in my mid to late twenties to the point that I had to see a doctor about it.
Have you thought about going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival?
I've spoken to some producers that are interested in having my show there, as well as the Kilkenny Festival in Ireland. I'm just trying to figure out when I think the show is ready to take there. It's something I'd like to do.
Do you work on most of your material onstage or off?
I used to work out about ninety to ninety-nine percent off. I didn't even understand the idea of working it out onstage. I've read about comedians who work out a lot of material onstage and didn't even understand that concept. In the last year that I've spent developing Sleepwalk With Me, I've really come to understand that it's a very valuable too. Forty to fifty percent of Sleepwalk With Me has been working out onstage.
How do you feel about your two albums being available on file sharing networks?
I don't have a big problem with it. For me, the truly exciting thing is when people come to the show with a positive expectation of what it is that I do. In other words, if someone goes online and listens to twenty-minutes of my CD and come to the show because of it, I'm happy about that.
Are there some things that you know about stand up now that you would have liked to have known when you were starting out?
I feel like I learn things every week and will continue to learn things until the day I stop doing stand up because it's such a complicated art form. There are a lot of different facets of it that you're always trying to understand. When I started out, I was just experimenting with all these things. At first, I was mimicking Steven Wright because he was the first person I ever saw do stand up. I became this character. Even on my first Premium Blend I was this wide-eyed naïve kid character, which I suppose I was closer to being at the time, but it still wasn't exactly right. Right now, I'm trying to be myself onstage and to be honest. Maybe I'll learn something new next week.
Did you make any short films when you were in high school or college?
In high school I made a bunch of sketch comedy shorts and in college I made some film shorts. Now, I'm finishing editing a series of six Secret Public Journal episodes for Comedy Central's Motherload online content site. They're video blogs from my Medium Man on Campus tour. I'm definitely moving more in that direction. There are some films and TV stuff that I'm writing right now.
Are there any projects that you're able to discuss?
I shot an independent film called Stanley Cuba and hopefully it'll end up in some festivals. I play Stanley. It's a parody of the life and work of Stanley Kubrick.
What do you like to do after a performance?
Usually I just go back to my room. I'm not a big drinker or partier. I'll usually say hello to people who've come to the show. Then I'll go home and take notes on how the show went. It's pretty rigorous on tour because you have to get up at six or seven in the morning for radio to promote for shows, I write during the day, and then perform at night. Sometimes you have to set aside time to veg out.
You can visit Mike online atBirbigs.com.