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Mike Birbiglia's litany of romantic failure



Mike Birbiglia first vaulted beyond the standup world with Sleepwalk with Me, a wonderful one-man show dealing in part with his sleepwalking disorder. The production was a major off-Broadway hit, winning awards and leading to a touring show, a book, a CD and a feature film (due in theaters this fall.) Birbiglia brings his follow-up to Sleepwalk, the hit off-Broadway show My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, to Clowes Hall on Saturday. During a morning phone conversation earlier this month, I asked Birbiglia if he had been concerned over the prospect of creating a second one-man show that didn't have such an attention-getting central topic.

"Yeah, that's definitely true," he said. "It doesn't have as much of a hook or a main event as sleepwalking. It doesn't have the circus quality that Sleepwalk with Me had (laughs). But what I always wanted to write was ... every since I saw those middle Woody Allen films - Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters and Manhattan — was to write something that was about romance. I always related to those movies and I always thought that I had a lot to say about those topics, because I felt I had a lot of romantic failures in my life, and that whenever l told people stories of the romantic failures, they got big laughs.

"The thing I'm the most proud of with this particular show is that it's kind of deeply cynical — in the sense that jokes are inherently cynical, because jokes are basically taking something people accept as true, which is the premise, and then undercutting that. And that's why my wife will sometimes say, 'Why don't you say really nice things about me on stage?' and I say, 'Well, nobody wants to hear about that (laughs). Nobody wants to hear that my wife is fantastic and our marriage is perfect — it's just not funny.' But I actually feel like with this show ... I feel like she's right in a way and it's reflected in the show, where it is cynical and it does have a lot of jokes about the struggles of a romantic relationship, but ultimately it's optimistic in the end. And I think because of that, the audiences on the tour have gone away feeling pretty good ... people are happier when they leave than when they come in."

With so many means of expression - movies, one-man shows, stand-up comedy, books, recordings - I wondered what avenue Birbiglia would next pursue. He said, "I think, though I'm not sure, that I'm going to write a screen adaptation of My Girlfriend's Boyfriend and direct that. Because I've found my experience directing the film version of Sleepwalk with Me to be completely invigorating and challenging and exciting. You know, it's like I talk on the album and in the book about how, to be a comedian, you have to be delusional starting out, because you have to tell yourself that it's going well when it's not really not going well. And I feel like with the movie I had to channel that same kind of delusion in order to do it. I had to channel the delusion of my early 20's and really convince myself it was going well when we were in some really rough patches. I found that to be invigorating and exciting, and you know, we ended up winning an award at the Sundance Film Festival, the Audience Award and all this stuff, but it was after so much duress and so much anxiety of 'Oh my God, this is a disaster!' and 'What are we going to do!?' which is really just based on inexperience.

Birbiglia is a frequent poster to Twitter (@birbigs) and Facebook. His remarks are so good that I asked if he has considered putting a collection out in book form. He hasn't. So, have any of his online musings evolved into on stage comedy pieces? "Lately I've been using my Twitter almost as a notebook to jot things down. Things that happen at the time I think are funny or thoughts that occur to me. But I think I've yet to sculpt anything into a full-on bit. (After a pause) I'm looking at my recent ones ... last night I wrote, 'My signature move when cleaning the closet is to take a nap in a pool of shoes.' And I wrote, 'Why is Garfield so mad about Mondays if he doesn't have a job?' I think that's a long overdue observation (laughs).


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