Talking to Mike Birbiglia About How Comedy is the New Punk Rock

08/27/2012 9:30 AM |

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Sleepwalk with Me, the first movie by comedian—and now writer-director—Mike Birbiglia (which opened at IFC Center on Friday), 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. But it turns out to be a heartfelt and likable story about holding onto a relationship longer than you should because you really, really like each other, even if you aren’t in love. We talked to Mike last 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 with 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.