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MInd-Body Split

Date: Nov 18, 2008


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As a standup comic with a new Off-Broadway hit, Mike Birbiglia may be "living his dreams," but it's likely that he'd choose a different metaphor for acheiving success. That's because, as Birbiglia details in his moving and funny solo show, Sleepwalk With Me, he's got a sleep disorder that has caused him to be a lifelong sleepwalker—so he's used to "living his dreams" in a much more immediate and disturbing way.

"Sleepwalking is a terrifying phenomenon," relates Birbiglia, whose condition is called rapid-eye-movement behavior disorder (RBD). "Your mind is like, 'We're going to rest for a while,' and your body is like, 'We're goin' skiing!' "

Birbiglia recalls having vivid dreams about "wild animals" as a child. "As I got older, I started to act out those dreams," he says. "It was a trend that got increasingly worse. I kind of knew it was an issue. I would sometimes think, 'Maybe I should see a doctor,' and then I'd think, 'Maybe I should have dinner,' and I'd forget about it.' "

That all changed after one hair-raising night at a hotel on the road.

"The show builds to a story I told on This American Life with Ira Glass," says Birbiglia. "It's basically a story wherein I was very close to my death in my sleep and I had an incident that was death-defying." Though he can't say exactly what it is that transpired—you'll have to see the show to find out what it was exactly—suffice to say his sleepwalking had endangered his life, which he says he discovered when "came to and did a mini-investigation, and surmised what had happened."

As he bluntly sums it up: "The brain is a can of worms. The laundry list of fun brain diseases is quite short."

If that doesn't sound like typical comedy-club fodder—well, that's why Birbiglia is telling the story as part of an Off-Broadway show at the Bleecker Theatre, and the reason he studied the finest exemplars of solo show craft he could find, including I Am My Own Wife, Bridge & Tunnel and, perhaps most influentially, Martin Moran's The Tricky Part, directed by Seth Barrish.

"I kind of stalked Seth Barrish for a while, and got him to read my show," Birbiglia recalls. "He basically said at the time, 'It's not a play, but it's very funny. I'll be happy to work on it with you.' "

It's a reaction he's gotten used to.

"When we were sculpting this and doing it in comedy clubs, people would come up and go, 'That was a play,' and some people will say, 'It's not a play but it's very funny. Neither Seth nor I are that obsessed with how people classify the show."

Indeed, though he's now doing Sleepwalk With Me in a proper theatre, he first started trying out the material in clubs, while promoting a pair of earlier comedy albums.

"Comedy is not like music, where people wanna hear the same songs over and over," Birbiglia points out. "Once people have heard the jokes from your album, they want to know, 'What else do you have?' So as an experiment, I started telling stories from Sleepwalk With Me, which are a lot more personal and longform than my standup. And found that I started to connect on a deeper level than with the material from my comedy records."

While in the midst of shaping the play, Birbiglia—who points out that he did study playwrighting at Georgetown—had the chance to work on a television pilot earlier this year. While that meant he had to shelve other projects for a time, he's glad he didn't cancel all his live engagements.

"One of the only shows I didn't cancel was at Caroline's, where I did some of Sleepwalk and Nathan Lane happened to come one night," Birbiglia recalls. "He really liked it and wrote me a nice note." Lane is now among the presenters of the Off-Broadway run, along with independent filmmaker Eli Gonda (American Teen).

As receptive as comedy club audiences were to his longer-form material, Birbiglia notes one important difference between club and theatre audiences.

"Standup comedy audiences come and listen to hear what's the funniest thing you have to say," Birbiglia explains. "Theatre audiences come to hear what you have to say. It's a different thing. In fact, a lot of times theatre audiences are not laughing because they want to hear what you say."

For a comic who thrives on the oxygen of loud and frequent laughter, that kind of attention can be disconcerting, but Birbiglia has come to embrace an audience that's "not out celebrating their bachelorette party. You can see people focusing."

Click here for more information about Sleepwalk With Me.