Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia turns his intimate anguish into painfully funny art

2012-12-13T08:00:00Z 2012-12-29T21:33:52Z Mike Birbiglia turns his intimate anguish into painfully funny artBy Dan Craft dcraft@pantagraph.com pantagraph.com
December 13, 2012 8:00 am  • 

Smile, and the whole world smiles with you. 

Sleepwalk through a second-floor hotel window, and … uh … sorry … no … the whole world does not sleepwalk with you.

But it will keep on smiling.

Just ask Mike Birbiglia.

It was his (non-suicidal) leap from the second floor of the La Quinta Inn in Walla Walla, Wash., that inspired one of the painfully funnier one-man reveries of the past half-decade, “Sleepwalk With Me.”

Sleepwalking through second-floor windows became a perfect-pitch metaphor for an array of his life’s other pitfalls.

The resulting theater piece definitely has surer legs than Birbiglia, whose own required 33 stitches after he met Mother Earth, up close and personal.

Credit all that to the chronic but manageable sleeping disorder that continues to this day (rest easy, you nervous B-N hoteliers — “I only take first-floor rooms now”).

Birbiglia’s free-falling opus has been a success in virtually every medium known to 21st-century man: stage, screen, print, radio, television, recording and — this just in — “as of today, iTunes on demand,” notes Birbiglia.

And, lest we forget, there’s still the DVD/Blu-ray release, scheduled for Tuesday.

What’s left?

“Maybe the artisanal cheese plate version?” he offers. “The cereal?”

Luckily for his many admirers, he’s all healed and better now, as his one-man, wide-awake encore to “Sleepwalk,” “My Best Friend’s Girlfriend,” spills that Birbiglia brand of “intimate anguish” across the stage of the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts (7:30 p.m. Saturday, and headed for a sellout as of press-time).

Along the way, the 34-year-old Massachusetts native is offering us a fairly unique opportunity — one that may, in fact, be something of a first hereabouts.

The award-winning film version of “Sleepwalk With Me,” co-written and co-directed by Birbiglia in full Woody Allen/Albert Brooks mode, played the Normal Theater last month.

Emerging from screen to stage in less than 30 days flat, we get to see live and in person what his website trumpets as “the last performance of ‘My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend’ of 2012!”

In fact, Birbiglia goes on to reveal that the BCPA show is one of the last of the six or seven performances remaining in the stage version’s lifespan (a la “Sleepwalk,” a film version is in the works).

But instead of petering out, as some might suspect of a performance piece hatched more than a year ago, “I think it’s now better than it’s ever been, which is pretty exciting to me.”

Oh, he knows the drill: “Usually, you try to see a show at the beginning of its tour,” when, he adds, all the ingredients are still fresh.

“In this case, I’ve been adapting the script into a screenplay, and, in the process, I’ve stumbled across other stories that I’ve integrated into the show. So tell your readers that the last performance in Bloomington of the year will be THE BEST PERFORMANCE THAT EVER EXISTED.”

Done.

The performance piece sees the self-deprecating star chart assorted coming-of-age hurdles, his self-image vis-à-vis his sex appeal and up to his first date — the consequences of which are his first marriage, which continues apace, despite the show’s title.

Unlike “Sleepwalk With Me” and its conquering of all media extant, Birbiglia says he has no plans to turn “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” into a book because he doesn’t want to taint the screenplay in progress.

“I want to make it forward moving, with a cinematic feel — a one-man romantic comedy. That sounds dirty, I know, but it’s well-intended, and will be good for couples and kids. Bring your grandparents. My material is very much all-ages.”

And it’s true: Birbiglia is one of the rare contemporary humorists who can put smart, adult concepts across without the standard graphic embellishment.

Having studied screenwriting in school, a film career along the lines of his hero Woody Allen would suit him just fine, thanks: “I want to make comedies where you laugh along the way, but are also made to feel something. I was very uncertain about directing … it’s a huge task, and you’re acting at the same time. Doing it was like getting to go to grad school, and I’m trying to get better at it.”

And that’s with a little help from his friends, among them Ira Glass of NPR’s “This American Life,” the show where Birbiglia has found a home away from home.

“We’re very close friends, and Ira’s also my mentor, and one who knows a great deal more than I do about storytelling,” which is why Glass pitched in on the script, co-produced and cameos as the “wedding photographer.”

Glass isn’t Birbiglia’s only admirer in high places.

Take the case of Tony-winning Broadway star Nathan Lane, who is billed as the “presenter” of “Sleepwalk” in its original off-Broadway run.

“That was just a fluke,” the show’s star recalls. “He came to one of my shows while he was doing ‘November’ on Broadway. He already had my albums. We went to dinner and he said that maybe it ‘would help’ if he put his name on the show as a presenter …”

And that was that.

“There was no contract, no money — he just said, ‘here, take my name,’ and that kind of legitimized me in the world of theater in New York City.”

That was then, and this is now: Birbiglia’s star has risen to the point that his name is legitimizing things these days.

“Yeah, I’m thrilled with where things are right now. The trick now is how to continue to improve and grow.”

Recalling his first pass through B-N — as a largely unknown comic in a free Illinois Wesleyan Show back in 2004 — he said those were the days when people wandered in to performances, often by accident or “because it was, you know, free — ‘hey, there’s a free thing going on with a guy doing comedy!’”

That was then, this is better.

“I feel very fortunate now,” he says eight years later, “because people seem to be coming to my shows, and on purpose.”

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At a glance

What: Mike Birbiglia in “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend”

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, 600 N. East St.

Tickets: $20 to $35 (close to sellout)

Box office: 866-686-9541

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Mike’s maturation

Local comedy fans have had the unique opportunity of witnessing the evolution of comedian Mike Birbiglia’s career in each of its three key phases to date. Here’s the official trajectory:

August 2004, IWU Hansen Student Center: Birbiglia’s first pass through B-N is at a stage where he’s racked up some career points, but not to the level where the venue can ask people to pay for the privilege of finding out how many. It’s a free show for both IWU students and public alike. He’s just made his network TV debut as a guest on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and “Last Call with Carson Daly”; taped his own half-hour Comedy Central special; won a slot on HBO’s “U.S. Comedy Arts Festival”; and been branded by Seventeen Magazine as one of “Seventeen New Voices for a New Generation” (alongside Chelsea Clinton, Josh Hartnett and Venus). “You probably heard lots of one- and two-minute bits,” says Birbiglia of the IWU show.

October 2006, BCPA: Several years later, Birbiglia has carved out a niche as one of the stable of regulars on radio’s “Bob & Tom Show,” and is sent out regularly on assorted “B&T tours,” including the one that hits the BCPA, “The Five-Hour Energy Drink Friends of Bob & Tom Tour,” in which he shares billing, and splits the ticket fee, with Auggie Smith, Greg Warren, Henry Phillips and Mike Macrae. Also via the radio medium, MB will go on in a year or two to forged a key alliance with humorist Ira Glass, whose “This American Life” on National Public Radio becomes another regular forum for his fast-evolving performance style. “Now I was telling stories instead of jokes, running between five and 10 minutes,” Birbiglia says of his first BCPA pass.

December 2012, BCPA: Oh, what a difference six years can make. In his return to the BCPA, he’s the marquee-commanding headliner of his own one-man show with an off-Broadway pedigree, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.” It’s the hit follow-up to 2008’s wildly successful “Sleepwalk with Me,” MB’s first one-man theater piece, which, in turn, also became an award-winning film and a best-selling book. “Now I’m telling one single story with each show,” he says. And getting more return on his investment: from a free show in 2004, to splitting the pie five ways in 2006, to taking the kitty home in 2012.

— Dan Craft

Copyright 2015 pantagraph.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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