Plenty of comedians present themselves as regular Joes, the kind of average citizens who report back from the same bizarre yet utterly familiar situations we all encounter. But Boston’s Mike Birbiglia is that true rarity: an everyman you can actually identify with. Onstage, he’s humble and soft-spoken. He smiles a lot. His jokes are diamond-polished, but come from an unflaggingly positive place. You can just as easily imagine saying hello to him after a show as the two of you going to see a matinee of Avatar together.
Birbiglia is also rare in that his material is unusually well suited to the printed page. Over the years he’s moved from a standard set-‘em-up-knock-‘em-down format to longer, more expansive storytelling. Instead of doing observational comedy, Birbiglia has increasingly looked inward: to his parents, to his childhood, to his own psyche. As such, his first book, the comic memoir Sleepwalk with Me, contains mostly old material—culled from multiple CDs, a DVD, and a hit off-Broadway show of the same name. In many cases the jokes are identical, down to the word.
Amazingly, though, it doesn’t feel like a repackaged greatest-hits collection. Birbiglia has written a winning memoir in the strangest way possible: by spending over a decade driving from town to town, telling it to roomfuls of drunk strangers one small piece at a time. He must’ve been amazed to sit down at his computer that first day and realize the book was basically already done. It was road-tested and refined. All it needed was to be transcribed.
Sleepwalk with Me is arranged thematically, with touchstones that any comedian will recognize: a youngest-child syndrome that left Birbiglia mugging for attention, struggling to express himself within a conservative family, and maintaining a general state of self-delusion—one that enabled him as a teenager to get up onstage for a 30-minute set with maybe four minutes’ worth of jokes prepared.
Throughout, Birbiglia is buoyed by his earnestness, curiosity, and willingness to barrel through adversity with a goofy shrug. He was bullied in school, but doesn’t try to solicit the reader’s pity; instead, he’d rather talk about the time he got caught taking a shit in his backyard, or when he pleaded with his Catholic school teacher to let him perform an anti-drug parody of “Bust a Move” at a DARE seminar. This, despite not really knowing how to rap, or even having access to an instrumental version of the song.
It’s Birbiglia’s resiliency that one suspects has come in most handy. He nearly died as a toddler from a vicious gastro-intestinal virus. At 19, he was diagnosed with a malignant tumour in his bladder—which he says is actually funny, because he was also a hypochondriac, and getting cancer confirmed everything he’d ever suspected. He told his family, “See? I told you! Remember last week when I was overtired and thought I had rickets? I was probably right about that too. There are gonna be a lot of changes around here!”
In 1998, Birbiglia started walking in his sleep. For years he shrugged it off, never seeking serious treatment, despite unconsciously acting out more and more extreme behaviour. Eventually, in 2005, he dreamed a missile was pointed straight at him, so he jumped out of the window—except he did this in real life, too. In his hotel room. On the second floor. Through a closed window. “Like the Hulk,” he kept telling staff at the hospital later.
You could hardly blame someone for wanting to keep this kind of event, both embarrassing and legitimately dangerous, to himself. That’s precisely what his father advises. Birbiglia, however, decided to embrace it, to work it into his onstage routine—and it really can’t be overstated how brave an act this is. It’s hardly the kind of joke that most stand-ups tell, and for good reason. But it changed Birbiglia’s whole trajectory as a comic. It made him stronger and more honest, and it gave him a brand new direction. This is the real climax of Sleepwalk with Me, and while Birbiglia may not spell it out as such, you’d have to be asleep yourself not to feel it.
And if you were wondering, he’s not at risk anymore, either. Now Birbiglia sleeps wearing mittens, inside a sleeping bag that’s zipped all the way up to his neck.
Simon & Schuster, 208 pp, $27.99, hardcover
(review also appeared in Vue Weekly, December 16, 2010)Dec 7, 2010