Monday, August 27, 2012

Talking to Mike Birbiglia: Why Comedy is the New Punk Rock

Sleepwalk with Me, a first movie by comedian and now writer-director Mike Birbiglia, seems at first to be a string of funny anecdotes about his (or his alter ego’s) early slog as a stand-up comic and this really weird thing he’s had to deal with: a form of sleepwalking that has caused him to do some serious damage to himself while sleeping. But it turns out to be a pretty heartfelt and very likeable story about holding onto a relationship longer than you should because you really, really like each other, even if you aren’t quite in love. I talked to Mike this week at the Crosby Street Hotel, where he was promoting the film, about movies versus other formats, what dreams are really like, and why comedians make great directors.

I have this theory that times of great technological changes make for periods of creativity in filmmaking, because a lot of people start playing with the new toys before things have time to solidify into a rut. And one trend I see coming out of how cheap and easy it is now to shoot and edit something and get it out there, if only on the internet, is that there’s a groundswell of comedians making really good movies and TV shows. I’m thinking Bernie Mac and Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham and Tina Fey and Jon Stewart on TV, and Judd Apatow and the people he’s helped spawn, including Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, in the movies. Do you feel like that’s a trend you’re part of?
Yes, I do. That’s really true what you say about technology. But comedians have always made movies—back to Buster Keaton, Woody Allen.

Right. In fact, speaking of new technology, back when movies were brand new, in the silent era and just afterward, a lot of the people who were making movies were comedians: Buster, like you said, W.C. Fields –
Charlie Chaplin.

Harold Lloyd. They made some great stuff.
Some of the best movies ever made were made by comedians. I think it’s because we love to be in control. [laughs] Comedians are control freaks because we know what works.

That’s true. Look at what happened to Buster when the studios quit letting him make his own movies and started putting him in that junk they were controlling.
Ugh! A disaster! I heard Jerry Seinfeld recently say in an interview: When you’re making a movie with a comedian, you need to let the comedian be in charge. Because we know how to make people laugh. That’s not easy. And you want to make people laugh, don’t you?

It seems like comedy was a lot more schtick-y, or anyhow kind of lightweight and intentionally irrelevant, in the ‘80s and ‘90s. You just mentioned Seinfeld, and if you think of his show as the ultimate sitcom from that time, it’s interesting that its aim was to be “about nothing.” But sometime in the last decade or so, it seems like a lot of comedians are doing well by doing the kind of comedy that’s funny because it’s true. I think your movie is part of that.
Yes, I think it is. I was talking to Judd Apatow recently and he said something really interesting. He said that comedy is kind of like the punk rock of today. Because all these comedians are saying things that nobody really wants to hear, but they’re doing it in a way that’s engaging enough that they hook you in.

The notion of being funny by telling the truth is actually a theme in Sleepwalk with Me, which is partly about your character finding out that that what works best for him is being truthful about what’s going on in his private life, not just making generic jokes. Is that something you learned about yourself as you were developing as a comic?
Yes, definitely. I grew up loving comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Steven Wright, and when I first did comedy I was just imitating them. And then I realized that it wasn’t working – it seemed very generic. Not that what they were doing was generic, but when I imitated them it was. So then I discovered that I could talk about my own life, and it was really freeing. I was in all these clubs in the middle of nowhere, and there was nobody around who knew me so, I could say whatever I wanted. I just went with it big time, and it worked.

Not to get you in trouble with any of your comedian friends, but who are some of the comics that you think are doing really groundbreaking stuff these days?
You mentioned Louis C.K. Judd Apatow.

Kristen Schaal? She's in your movie.
Kristen, absolutely. She is so odd and so funny. I’ve known her for a long time, and she has been doing amazing work all along. It does feel like she’s being really brave, really out there sometimes. There have been times when I’ve just watched her and gone [mimes mouth dropping open] “Did she really just do that?” Coming out in a Superman cape, or whatever.

Lena Dunham is brilliant, obviously. Lena is a friend of mine, and she was a real help to me when I made this movie. First because she just told me: “Go ahead, you can do it. Just make it!” And also as inspiration. Tiny Furniture was the first movie I’d seen done with that low a budget that was that funny and that emotionally honest. I love Woody Allen’s movies and Judd Apatow’s movies, but I know what kind of budgets those guys are working with, and there’s no way I’m ever going to get that kind of money.

Woody Allen said recently that he wouldn’t get that kind of money either to make the movies he’s made if he were starting out now.
Oh, absolutely not. No way.

Sleepwalk with Me started as a one-man show off Broadway at the Bleecker Street Theatre, and a thing you did as performance art in The Moth, and then it got onto radio on This American Life, and now it’s a movie. Way to milk your experience!
Yeah, really. Really.

Why did you think this story would make a good movie after doing it in so many other media? And now that you’ve made that movie, do you think you were right?
Well, people kept telling me I should make it into a movie. Any time you do a Broadway show, everybody tells you that. But after a while, I’d heard it from so many people that I decided to see if it could work. So I sat down and started plotting out how I’d make it into a movie, and I really liked where it was going.

What could you do with this story as a movie that you couldn't do in those other formats?
Just show what sleepwalking really is. Sleepwalking has not been shown accurately at all in the movies. You mostly see people with their arms out straight in front of them, walking into walls or whatever.

Real sleepwalking isn’t anything like that, and you can’t really show it right on stage either. But in the movies, I could. I also liked the idea of showing my dreams. Dreams in the movies are usually so dramatic and weird. My dreams aren’t like that at all. They’re just like my regular life, where stupid stuff happens and I get frustrated, and then I get in trouble because I start thinking it’s real.

Do you want to make more movies?
I do. I’ve got one I’m working on now called My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. Ever since I started this movie, I’ve been keeping notes for my second movie. I have a Word document on my desktop called Instructions. Practically every day I write down a new thing that I think of: “Oh yeah, I gotta make sure I don’t box myself into festival deadlines.” Or “Oh yeah, I gotta make sure I hire my department heads earlier in the process.” “Oh yeah, I’ve gotta make sure I shoot coverage of each person just having kind of a listening stare.” I’m making a book for myself.

Written for The L Magazine

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