This American Life
Sleepwalk With Me
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 doesnât believe heâs 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 donât know if I should even say. Oh, I can say, who cares? Iâm staying at the Riverâs Edge Hotel. Generally what I have to find when Iâm touring is either a ground-floor room or a second-floor room that has a roof that juts out so thereâs 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 donât use the mittens anymore because I find they make me too hot, and I get overheated and then I canât sleep. Thatâs a losing strategy. I do sleep in the sleeping bag. To be honest with you, in the winter itâs not the worst choice.
Tell me about this new show.
Iâve been developing it for about two years. Itâs all new material, all new stories. Itâs theories about stories where I inadvertently make awkward situations more awkward. Itâs probably about seven or 10 new stories. Iâm 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. Theyâre 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. Thatâs what Iâm trying to create with this show: this moment where weâre all in the room at the same time, itâs about 1,000 of us here, and weâre all laughing at the same thing at the same time. I think itâs really special. It kind of borderlines a religious experience, and thatâs why I called it Thank God For Jokes.
Are you at all religious or spiritual?
I donât think so. Not that I know of.
Not that you know of? You mean youâre subconsciously religious?
Iâm open to it happening to me, but I donât really go to a church or anything. I was raised Catholic. I went to Catholic school as a kid. Iâm glad the new pope seems reasonable. Thatâs a nice recent religious development for my people. My mom is very Catholic. I went to church at Christmas with my mom, but I donât 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, âMatthew, Mark, Lucas, Johnboy...â And people would be like, âFather Patterson is hilarious!â And I was like, I donât know if he should be getting a laugh. Itâs just a setup; itâs 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, âYou guys should leave with your hookers.â One guy, in an unexpected twist, looked at me straight in the eye and said, âIâm gonna fucking kill you.â He wasnât kidding at all. Itâs not like when my wife says, âIâm gonna kill you,â because I left a wet towel on the bed. It was like, âIâm gonna kill you,â and next week at the funeral, your parents will come and then theyâll 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, âYou canât do that. You canât call peopleâs dates hookers.â But youâre onstageâyou 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, âYou guys looking for dates?â And they were the women from the front row of the show and they were hookers. And all I could think was, Iâm lucky to be alive. Thatâs the thing thatâs crazy about jokes. Youâre 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 donât 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 didnât stay in touch like we promised we would. When you traffic in jokes, you really run the risk of hurting peopleâs feelings or offending people. But thatâs one of the reasons why jokes are so great: When they work, itâs this unlikely victory for everybody in the room.
Tell me something people wouldnât 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 thatâs nearby.
My wife got me into it like a year ago. Thereâs 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 Iâll 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 itâs 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 hasnât made it into the show?
The majority of people donât know who I am. I ride the subway, I ride the bus, Iâm very out there. But sometimes thatâs not so convenient. The downside of having a niche following is that sometimes people donât believe Iâm a comedian, like they think itâs 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, âHey, sorry to email you, but Iâm worried I should come to the emergency room.â I was like, âI have this pins-and-needles sensation in my urethra when I have sex.â Thatâs the most graphic thing Iâve ever written in an email to anyone. He wrote back and told me not to worry about it. But then he CCâd another person on the email, somebody I donât even know. God knows, maybe he BCCâd someone else. When I went to see him this week, I was like, âHey, maybe next time we email, donât CC somebody because Iâm a comedian and I donât really want my personal email out there like that.â And he goes, âYouâre a comedian?!â He didnât believe me! And when we went to check out at the receptionist, he was like, âThis is Mike Birbiglia, heâs a comedian,â and he used air quotes. And I was like, "No! No air quotes! Iâm an actual comedian." Itâs times like those where Iâm like, Iâve got to get a bigger platform so my urologist knows who I am.