has a style of storytelling that transcends mere comedy to hit a point of lovely—if often awkward—tenderness. He’s a master of the humorous aside, and he has a way of winning over the audience, even when he’s telling stories about bumbling messily through life. Birbiglia, 35, has worked his way up the comedy-club circuit, and he’s become a familiar voice on This American Life
. His 2012 movie Sleepwalk With Me
, about the time he ran through a second-story motel window—Birbiglia has REM behavior disorder, which causes him to act out his dreams—was an indie hit.
The Brooklyn-based comedian hits Portland this Friday with his Thank God For Jokes tour
. He spoke with WW
by phone about Catholicism, hookers, yoga and why his urologist doesn’t believe he’s a comedian.
Willamette Week: You wrote a tweet asking for recommendations for a suitable ground-floor room in Portland. Did you find one?
Mike Birbiglia: I don’t know if I should even say. Oh, I can say, who cares? I’m staying at the River’s Edge Hotel. Generally what I have to find when I’m touring is either a ground-floor room or a second-floor room that has a roof that juts out so there’s no dropoff.
In Sleepwalk With Me, you mention that you sleep in a sleeping bag while wearing mittens. Really?
I travel with my sleeping bag, but I don’t use the mittens anymore because I find they make me too hot, and I get overheated and then I can’t sleep. That’s a losing strategy. I do sleep in the sleeping bag. To be honest with you, in the winter it’s not the worst choice.
Tell me about this new show.
I’ve been developing it for about two years. It’s all new material, all new stories. It’s theories about stories where I inadvertently make awkward situations more awkward. It’s probably about seven or 10 new stories. I’m getting better over the years at doing this long-form storytelling. Thematically this show is really about jokes and how jokes make us feel closer to people and sometimes they get us in trouble. They’re kind of a risky social move in a lot of ways, but when they pay off they really pay off big, and they can lead to a euphoric moment. That’s what I’m trying to create with this show: this moment where we’re all in the room at the same time, it’s about 1,000 of us here, and we’re all laughing at the same thing at the same time. I think it’s really special. It kind of borderlines a religious experience, and that’s why I called it Thank God For Jokes.
Are you at all religious or spiritual?
I don’t think so. Not that I know of.
Not that you know of? You mean you’re subconsciously religious?
I’m open to it happening to me, but I don’t really go to a church or anything. I was raised Catholic. I went to Catholic school as a kid. I’m glad the new pope seems reasonable. That’s a nice recent religious development for my people. My mom is very Catholic. I went to church at Christmas with my mom, but I don’t really go on my own.
Actually, when I was a kid my mom thought I was going to become a priest. She thought I would become a funny priest. I thought I was going to also. I was an altar boy, and I was really into the whole thing. I was always a little bit jealous of the priest because I felt like he got really generous laughs from the parishioners for jokes that were not fully developed. The priest would be like, “Matthew, Mark, Lucas, Johnboy...” And people would be like, “Father Patterson is hilarious!” And I was like, I don’t know if he should be getting a laugh. It’s just a setup; it’s got no punchline. But for a while I really thought I might be a priest.
What else goes into this new show?
I talk about how sometimes jokes can be dangerous. They can sometimes get you in trouble. I found early in my career I would get onstage and if I was in a tough spot with an audience, I would say the wrong thing and then find myself sometimes in a bad situation. One time I was performing in a casino and there were these two guys with their dates in the front row who looked like they might be criminals, like mobsters or something like that. They were heckling me through the whole show and I kept asking them to be quiet, and finally I said they should leave with their dates, who I suggested were hookers. I said that straight out, “You guys should leave with your hookers.” One guy, in an unexpected twist, looked at me straight in the eye and said, “I’m gonna fucking kill you.” He wasn’t kidding at all. It’s not like when my wife says, “I’m gonna kill you,” because I left a wet towel on the bed. It was like, “I’m gonna kill you,” and next week at the funeral, your parents will come and then they’ll go out to McManus pub and have a pint afterwards. And then they got kicked out.
Later on my brother and I were gambling at this casino, and my brother was like, “You can’t do that. You can’t call people’s dates hookers.” But you’re onstage—you have to say something. You have to keep the show going. You have to break the tension in the room. It was all I could think of. And then these two women came up to us and they were like, “You guys looking for dates?” And they were the women from the front row of the show and they were hookers. And all I could think was, I’m lucky to be alive. That’s the thing that’s crazy about jokes. You’re always trying to come up with material that will make people a little bit uncomfortable or maybe a little bit angry but ultimately release the tension. If you don’t get to the joke part, sometimes people just want to murder you.
You take them up on the offer for those dates?
No, we said no thank you. That was it.
What about the hecklers? Did you see them again?
I never saw the hecklers again. We didn’t stay in touch like we promised we would. When you traffic in jokes, you really run the risk of hurting people’s feelings or offending people. But that’s one of the reasons why jokes are so great: When they work, it’s this unlikely victory for everybody in the room.
Tell me something people wouldn’t expect about you.
I spend a lot of time doing yoga. When I travel, the two biggest things I have to work on are finding a ground-floor room and finding a good yoga place that’s nearby.
My wife got me into it like a year ago. There’s so much insanity as a traveling comedian, and I feel like if I have this one constant, the theory is that it will bring me back to my center and I’ll be able to perform better.
Have you gotten more flexible in the last year?
Yeah, by about a quarter inch in every direction. I told this joke on Jimmy Kimmel a few weeks ago, but I said that Yoga is not designed for male humans. I think it’s designed for female humans and spiders and maybe cats, but not male humans. But I really do enjoy it.
Anything particularly funny happen to you recently? Maybe something that hasn’t made it into the show?
The majority of people don’t know who I am. I ride the subway, I ride the bus, I’m very out there. But sometimes that’s not so convenient. The downside of having a niche following is that sometimes people don’t believe I’m a comedian, like they think it’s in my head or something. I went to my urologist recently. Over Christmas I was having these symptoms, so I emailed my urologist, and I was like, “Hey, sorry to email you, but I’m worried I should come to the emergency room.” I was like, “I have this pins-and-needles sensation in my urethra when I have sex.” That’s the most graphic thing I’ve ever written in an email to anyone. He wrote back and told me not to worry about it. But then he CC’d another person on the email, somebody I don’t even know. God knows, maybe he BCC’d someone else. When I went to see him this week, I was like, “Hey, maybe next time we email, don’t CC somebody because I’m a comedian and I don’t really want my personal email out there like that.” And he goes, “You’re a comedian?!” He didn’t believe me! And when we went to check out at the receptionist, he was like, “This is Mike Birbiglia, he’s a comedian,” and he used air quotes. And I was like, "No! No air quotes! I’m an actual comedian." It’s times like those where I’m like, I’ve got to get a bigger platform so my urologist knows who I am.
Mike Birbiglia is at the Newmark Theater, 1111 SW Broadway, 248-4335. 7:30 (sold out) and 9:45 pm Friday, Jan. 24. $39. Tickets here