Few comedians of late have been more vulnerable than Mike Birbiglia, who puts the lessons he's hilariously learned the hard way on stage for all to see. More and more people have been seeing him, too. His one-man show, My Girlfriend's Boyfriend has been a hit pretty much anywhere he's taken it, and his other one-man show, Sleepwalk With Me, was developed into a movie that's packed many an art-house movie theater.
On Friday, January 11, Birbiglia will perform My Girlfriend's Boyfriend to a sold-out crowd at The Paramount Theatre. We recently caught up with Birbiglia to discuss the artistic and strategic elements of being an actor, playwright and comedian.
Culture Map: You've got two successful Off-Broadway productions under your belt. Are you aiming for "On-Broadway" with your next one?
Mike Birbiglia: That’s a good question! I’ve never been asked that. We actually talked about doing My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend on Broadway, and there was a lot of interest from backers, but I decided to make my movie version of Sleepwalk With Me instead of that.
"For the next show, Broadway is definitely a possibility," says comedian Mike Birbiglia
But for the next show, Broadway is definitely a possibility. I just saw a great Broadway show this week, Once, the musical.
The lead actress, Cristin Milioti, who plays my sister in Sleepwalk With Me, puts on one of the best Broadway performances I’ve ever seen.
CM: What are the key differences between a one-man show like My Girlfriend's Boyfriend and the more standard stand-up sets?
MB: Well, I try to kind of straddle the line between a stand-up comedy show and a one person play. My roots are in stand-up comedy, so my one-man shows are very joke-dense. They have as many jokes as my regular stand-up shows did, but the jokes add up to something that’s more emotional and hopefully more impactful.
CM: Stand-up comedy seems to be a very competitive field. Everyone wants better gigs and higher pay. Is the one-man show a good way to find a niche that helps you stand out?
MB: Again, really good question... But to answer your question, I didn’t intend it that way. It’s just sort of what happened.
I studied screenwriting and playwriting in college, and I started doing stand-up comedy at the same time. I always wanted to create things that were a blend of those things, which is why I started working with Seth Barrish, the theater director on this show and Sleepwalk With Me. And I started working with Ira Glass of This American Life and with The Moth, which is this great storytelling series and radio show out of New York.
What's evolved is this thing where, basically, it’s a series of stories that add up to a single story and there’s an arc and it’s emotional and it builds. I’m very proud of it. And it’s oddly not higher in pay because there’s a set, and lighting design and all of these expenses that come with it, but it’s very gratifying because I feel like the audience is getting a full meal of comedy.
CM: Were there any artistic obstacles for you in turning Sleepwalk With Me into a movie from a one-man show?
MB: It was a two year writing process. The most challenging thing about turning a one-man show into a film is that there’s all these characters in a film and there’s only the one narrator in a one-man show.
When you’re performing a monolog, you can always kind of bring the audience back if you sense their minds are wandering. With film, you shoot it and you hope that the audience is going to follow the narrative, and that they’ll be engaged and think it’s funny. Then you get into the edit room and you realize, “Oh, they’re not as engaged here, or here,” and you try to clean that up in creative ways.
Our editor, Geoffrey Richman (The Cove, Sicko), is brilliant and he did a really extraordinary job of coming up with creative solutions with parts of the story that didn’t feel as concrete. We did a bunch of test screenings in New York, so in a way, those screenings are kind of like "open-mic-ing" new comedy material in the sense that you could see what was and wasn’t working.
CM: Your stories are as funny as they are relatable. Do people make a point to unload the details of their own love life to you when they see you after a show or out in public?
MB: People don’t unload on me that often. But the last show of 2012 was in Bloomington and a guy asked if he could propose to his girlfriend at the show and so I obliged him. He proposed in front of a sold-out crowd of 1,000 or 1,500 people, which is an exciting way to do it.
I fear even telling you this because now I feel like I’m going to get requests from people to propose... That said, I am open to it. But I’m proud of that aspect of the show. It’s kind of a cynical, but at the same time, optimistic comedy show about love. And in some ways it’s romantic. It’s good for couples, girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, wives. It ultimately packs a pretty optimistic statement about love.
Mike Birbiglia performs a sold-out show on Friday, Januar 11 at the Paramount Theatre.