How Mike Birbiglia Turned a Trip Through a Window into One of the Year's Best Films

AUSTIN, TX: Mike Birbiglia told the sleepwalking story for the first time at the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. That was the first time he told it to a big audience, anyway: “I had told it on the road — I was on this Comedy Central Live tour, and I had come out with an album called Two-Drink Mike, and I found that for the first time in my career, I showed up in places and people knew my jokes. So I couldn’t tell those jokes anymore. Comedy’s not like music: once you’ve heard it, you’ve heard it, you’re done. And people were like, ‘Ha ha, what else?’ And I had been developing this one-man show, Sleepwalk with Me, and I just started telling stories from the show, that I had written never imagining that they would be in stand-up.” The centerpiece was the true story of how his sleepwalking condition go so out of hand that it led to him jumping out of a second-story window at a La Quinta Inn in Walla Walla, Washington. The injuries sent him to the hospital, which was enough for him to finally see a specialist.

At Just For Laughs, he says, “I told the story and it just killed, in this way that was getting kind of monstrous laughs, and was really connected with the audience. I came off-stage, and Doug Stanhope said to me, ‘Do you tell that story on stage?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m trying to.’ And he said, ‘You should tell that.'”

And so he did. He told it on stage at the Moth, which became a segment on This American Life. And then it became that one-man show, which had a wildly successful off-Broadway run. And then it became a book. And then it became a movie. That movie (also called Sleepwalk With Me) was made in association with This American Life (Ira Glass co-wrote the screenplay and co-produced the film), and it won the NEXT Audience Award at Sundance, where it was this author’s favorite film. I haven’t seen a better film than it at South by Southwest, so I guess that makes it my favorite film here too.

Birbiglia says the movie version is, in fact, the final iteration of this story. “Unless we make Sleepwalk 2: 2 Sleepy 2 Furious. Or Sleepwalk 3-D, of course. And then the video game is obviously on the way, and then the line of pizzas and pizza pillows,” he adds, alluding to one of the movie’s more memorable sight gags. But of all of permutations of the tale, the film “was definitely the hardest. Writing a book is hard. Making a movie is unimaginable.”

In some ways, however, making a film was the endgame all along. In addition to starring and co-writing, Birbiglia directed the film (his feature debut), the realization of a longtime dream. “I had wanted to make a film since I was 18 years old, and I directed shorts in college, but I found it to be prohibitively expensive. It’s a money pit, making films.” He accumulated hours of master tapes in closets and basements, “films that aren’t done, shorts that aren’t done, and will never be done. And that’s discouraging. I veered toward stand-up comedy around that time, because there’s no overhead. I was able to perform my writing, and I was able over to time to sculpt my writing from something that was kind of short and jokes-based into something that had more of an arc to it — just on stage, with no cost, really.”

Strangely, in spite of its long and storied history, the film doesn’t feel “adapted”; it seems organically cinematic, with Birbiglia’s twisty storytelling style (he has a tendency to tell stories that start, pause, drill down to another story, pause, drill down again, and so on, before working his way back up) transforming into a non-linear construction reminiscent — in the best possible way — of Annie Hall, another comic-turned-filmmaker’s breakthrough picture. Four screenwriters are credited (Birbiglia, his brother Joe, his stage director Seth Barrish, and Ira Glass), but it doesn’t have the patchwork feel of a screenplay with that many fingerprints. “That’s because those guys didn’t do anything,” Birbiglia jokes. “You heard it here!”

Though Sleepwalk with Me has those echoes of Allen’s films, it is also very much of a piece with the current movement in film, television, and stand-up towards comedy that is more raw and autobiographical (and often painful) in nature. On this point, Birbiglia is reflective. “I’d like to think that we’re part of a comedy movement right now that’s moving away from observational comedy and into something that’s more personal and real. It’s what I prefer because I feel like it has more heart to it. It’s got more teeth.

“And I feel like in some ways it’s a response to the Seinfeld-ian era of comedy, which was observational to a point of brilliance. I mean, Seinfeld did it so well, and there were so many mimeographs of that style, and then at a certain point, those mimeographs became so boring. And it was just like, not only do you see it in stand-up comedy, you see it in TV commercials. I think that’s kind of the ultimate way that you know when something’s done: if you see it in a TV commercial, it’s over. I feel like observational comedy’s a little bit over right now.” For him, “it’s actually more difficult to just tell your story, and tell it honestly, and admit that you’re wrong about things in a way that’s entertaining. Because chances are, the first two drafts of that aren’t entertaining, and that’s definitely the case with this story.”

Sleepwalk with Me is screening this week at the South by Southwest Film Festival. It was recently picked up for theatrical distribution by IFC Films.