This weekend, the tireless and incredibly versatile Mike Birbiglia returns home for a weekend — Thurs – Sunday — of six headlining shows at Carolines, a venue that played a large role in his early success. We thought now would be an excellent time to catch up with Birbigs, if only for a short while. If you’re in the tri-state area, get thee to the venue’s website now and buy yourself some tickets. If you’re not in the area or are unwilling to travel, well, then, just read our chat with Mike below and get yourself some heavy comedy scoops — he’s in the process of writing a book! — you can share with your friends.
How have you adjusted to writing in book form as opposed to writing as a means to end, which is presenting what you’ve written onstage. Now, writing is the end.
It is strange, yes. But it’s actually been a great way to mine for new stand-up material. That was kind of a happy accident. In the short term, it’s definitely tougher to write for the page because you don’t have the immediate gratification of going on stage that night and seeing how it goes. I talk through it with my editor Sarah and my brother Joe and Seth Barrish- who directed Sleepwalk With Me. We figure out what works and find ways to improve the stories, to make them funnier and more satisfying. But at the end of the day, it’s a lot of hours alone at a Starbucks.
During the writing process, a lot of first time book writers say they suffer from “why is anyone going to care what I have to say?” syndrome. Do you feel that way at all? Does it help that some of the material has been done onstage and is already a proven success?
I suffer from that even conversationally. I’ll be in a conversation and think, ‘Why am I talking?’ With the book, that’s heightened. But when Seth and Joe and I talk out stories, one of our litmus tests for whether something is worth its keep in the book is answering the question, ‘Would I say this on stage?’ Not will I, but would I. It’s a good way to weed out stuff that’s just funny for me.
Can you tell me a little about the structure of the book?
Well, the book is called Sleepwalk With Me and Other Stories and it really is that. The “Sleepwalk With Me” story is only about 1/5 or 1/6 of the book. The rest of the book is entirely new material. As for the material, if there is any overlap, (for example I reference the Joe Bags story from the My Secret Public Journal Live CD) there are new flourishes and observations. But really a majority of the book is new material. The format is not unlike Sleepwalk, the one man show or the pieces I’ve done for [NPR's] This American Life, where they are kind of comedic stories that take the shape of essays.
Working with Ira Glass and the other TAL producers on those pieces has been a real education in storytelling. I feel like I approach storytelling now in a completely new way. I feel like I’m much more focused on what’s underneath the story I’m telling, digging deeper for the universality, even if the story is about throwing up on a carnival ride called “the scrambler.” (That’s a story from the book).
Will there be any graphic element to the book?
No. I was talking to Jeff Garlin about this actually. He wrote this great book recently called My Footprint. It’s hilarious. And he was saying that he didn’t want to use pictures because he thought of that as cheating. I tend to agree. People can Google image me if they want that. I certainly have.
If you had to use a ghostwriter for the book, whom would you choose?
I honestly don’t understand this concept of a ghostwriter. It wasn’t until I started working on this book that I learned that many of these best-selling books are ghostwritten. I could never do that. If I buy a book by Sarah Palin, I expect it to be written Sarah Palin. Or at least someone as dumb as Sarah Palin.
After the success of the off-Broadway version of Sleepwalk With Me, are you looking to create another thematically driven, theatric piece of comedy? Or was that a one-time deal?
I definitely am. My director Seth and I have been working on some ideas and i may be doing a new one person at Just for Laughs festival in July. I’ll keep you posted.
Do you treat headlining shows in New York City any different than your road gigs?
Absolutely. Since it’s my home, I feel a real pressure to put on something new and strong. About 35,000 New Yorkers saw Sleepwalk With Me so I’m going to try to not touch that material at all. Also, Carolines is a very significant place for me. It’s a club that gave me a break early on. So I want to make them proud as well.
If you want more Birbigs interview action, check out an episode of our web series A Tight Five, this one shot in 2008, as Mike was prepping Sleepwalk with Me for the stage.