When he's on stage, it may appear that Mike Birbiglia is, in his words, "just talking." However, the preparation and passion he puts into telling stories about his own life have garnered him fans around the city and around the country. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.
To be a comedian, Mike Birbiglia believes you have to lie, to yourself.
"You have to be delusional," says Birbiglia. "You have to tell yourself it's going well when it's really not going well. Because otherwise, you wouldn't get on stage again. You'd be like, 'Well, I guess human beings don't like me.'"
Actually, it seems that human beings do indeed like Mike Birbiglia. A lot. He’s played to sold out crowds around the world with his standup. He’s a best-selling author and regular contributor to public radio’s “This American Life.” And he’s the rare comic who has transitioned to theater.
In his hit 2008 one-man show “Sleepwalk With Me” and his latest, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” he recalls personal trauma and romantic embarrassments.
"There's so many stories I think we all have, where we're like, 'Well, fortunately, no one will ever know about that.' And I find that, with my comedy, the more I can dig those out, the more comedy I have," says Birbiglia.
Birbiglia has a severe sleeping disorder, that led to one of his most memorable stories, the focal point of "Sleepwalk with Me." Birbiglia survived a fall from a second floor motel window in Walla Walla, Washington, ending up in the hospital with 33 stitches.
"I'm proud of what the sleep walking chapter kind of symbolized because what the show was about was opening up about the most personal, most embarrassing thing you could possibly open up about," says Birbiglia. "And for me it was sleep walking through a second story window. And so on a larger level that is what it symbolizes. A lot of times people just push aside the thematic stuff and say, 'Whoa you jumped out of a window, whoa.' You know? And that's all they take away."
Birbiglia is constantly writing and rewriting, either at the Upper West Side apartment he shares with his wife Jenny or backstage at the Barrow Street Theater with his director Seth Barrish.
His career is based on revealing personal details, very personal details of his life. But he says he's not revealing everything.
"When you're a personal storyteller, you're hiding a lot, as well, because you're choosing what stories to tell, ultimately. You're telling the narrative of your life, but you're really deciding what the narrative of your life is," says Birbiglia.
Birbiglia knows that certain stories about his family are off the record. But even if his wife Jenny has given the okay, he may still not be in the clear.
"There were things where Jenny saw an iteration and said that's what you thought happened, I say, 'Yeah, what happened?' She'll tell her version. And I'll go, 'Oh, I'm going to do a rewrite on that scene,'" says Birbiglia.
Occasionally, a member of the audience might create a problem. At a show near his old hometown outside Boston, Birbiglia talked about a junior high crush who had many suitors.
One of the many suitors, now all grown up, was in the audience with his wife, and he was not amused.
"Even though that was a story from 7th grade, it was completely not okay, because I guess his history with Lisa Bizetti continued on, closer to the present than I'd realized," jokes Birbiglia.
Birbiglia's stories are seen on television, heard on the radio, read in his book, even posted on YouTube, much to his chagrin.
"You're putting it on the Internet and as though it's a new TV special. And you shot it with a camera the size of an apple?" says Birbiglia.
Mike Birbiglia showed some early signs as a writer growing up in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.
He says his mom was a good storyteller, but his father's motto was "Don't tell anybody."
"It'd be about insignificant things like I wouldn't make the soccer team. And he'd be like, 'Don't tell anyone.' And I was like, 'They're gonna know when they show up to the games and I'm not on the team and I'm crying,'" recalls Birbiglia.
Birbiglia was the youngest of four.
"It forces you to be a little funnier when no one is really listening," says Birbiglia.
But when he was 16, Birbiglia saw another Boston guy, comedian Steven Wright.
"Anyone who's ever fallen in love with a hobby or kind of a life passion like, in a moment, can relate to this idea of seeing something and going, 'How come no one told me about this?' Ya know what I mean? 'This is exactly what I want to do,'" says Birbiglia.
He won a funniest person on campus contest at Georgetown, and after college starting driving all over the country doing standup, often in the lounge of a Holiday Inn or Best Western. Birbiglia loved it.
"You'd say this is terrible. Your career is in the worst place it could possibly be. And in my mind I was like, 'This is the best case scenario,' recalls Birbiglia. "It was the equivalent of being a movie star."
Birbiglia works with his brother Joe, and it was Joe who perhaps saved his brother's first shot on David Letterman.
"The production assistant says off handedly, 'Do you want a cue card or anything that says your jokes, bullet points?' I go, 'I don't think I need that.' My brother says, 'Yeah he wants that.' Cut to I'm on stage and I come out and do my first joke, it goes pretty well and I go completely blank," says Birbiglia. "And then literally there is zero in my brain, there's nothing on deck. And I just look at the cue card and I'm like, 'But the thing about hippos is...'"
The importance of that first Letterman appearance extended far beyond the Ed Sullivan Theater, perhaps proving a point to Birbiglia's father about his son's career choice.
"He'd try to be positive, but his way of being positive was like, 'Ya know, this might parlay nicely into advertising.' And I was like, 'No, this is it. This is the plan!' And when he saw me on Letterman, I think he was kinda like, 'Oh, I guess this is his job,'" says Birbiglia.
But might a performer whose work revolves around the funny and poignant stories of his own life eventually run out of material? Citing a fall this winter down some subway stairs, Birbiglia says, not to worry.
"Flew in the air, landed on my left shoulder, fractured the ball of my shoulder," recalls Birbiglia. "And I think there's a lesson in that, which is that every time when you think you're life is going great, you'll fall down the stairs of the subway."