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Mike Birbiglia has a confession to make and a joke to tell

  • Author: Matt Sullivan
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published April 18, 2013

One time Mike Birbiglia jumped through the second-story window of a La Quinta Inn in Walla Walla, Wash. He was sleepwalking and ended up with 33 stitches in his leg.

The story eventually became part of the comedian's stand-up routine. Then it became a one-man, off-Broadway play called "Sleepwalk With Me." Then it became a popular segment on public radio's "This American Life." Then it was fodder for the book "Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories." Last year it became a movie, with Mike Birbiglia playing the mostly autobiographical role of Matt Pandamiglio.

"One of the things about 'Sleepwalk With Me' is that, when you pitch it to people, they don't laugh," Birbiglia told Cowbell magazine before the movie hit theaters. "But when you tell them the story in a certain way, they laugh."

Birbiglia's certain way of making comedic hay is to be as confessional as possible, especially if it's embarrassing. In "Sleepwalk With Me" the stage show, there are poignant moments as he grapples with being diagnosed with bladder cancer and then the realities of having REM behavior disorder, a condition that leaves him with a tendency to act out his dreams while still unconscious. He ran through that window in Walla Walla because a guided missile had its sights set on him.

"I'm running and I'm slowly realizing that I'm on the front lawn of La Quinta Inn in Walla Walla, Washington, in my underwear, bleeding," Birbiglia recounted in a story he wrote for The Observer. "And I'm like: 'Oh no.' But at that moment, the only thing I can think is: 'I'm so relieved that I haven't been hit by the missile.' "

In "Sleepwalk With Me," Birbiglia falls off a dresser while acting out an Olympic medal ceremony in his dream; he wages war with an imaginary jackal. In the movie, the stress in Birbiglia/Pandamiglio's relationship with his girlfriend provides the fodder that finally gets laughs onstage ("I've decided I'm not going to get married until I'm sure that nothing else good can happen in my life"), but also pushes his sleep disorder into dangerous territory.

In mixing theater and stand-up, Birbiglia moved beyond his early days as a comic delivering one-liners and became more of a storytelling comedian. His current one-man show is called "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend," which he described to Time Out London as a "sort of cynical look at marriage and a series of events in my life that led to me getting married despite those views."

Next month he'll perform three sold-out tapings of "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" in Seattle, and he'll perform another sold-out version of the show two days before taking the stage at the Wendy Williamson Auditorium.

"When I told a story for the first time (onstage), I was like, 'Oh, I'm better at this,' " Birbiglia told Cowbell. "This is closer to what it's like to hang out with me in real life."

By Matt Sullivan

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