Mike Birbiglia is not a morning person. The 34-year-old comedian has compared himself to a bear when he has to wake up. He does the impression: a rather pitiful, yawning “roar” made while clumsily swiping at anything nearby. “Bear” by way of cowardly lion.
It’s understandable that Mr. Birbiglia has a tough time in the morning—he spends his nights running around in his pajamas. The baby-faced writer/actor/comedian—and now director—suffers from REM behavior disorder, a rare neurological dysfunction that causes him not only to sleepwalk, but to physically engage with the things he confronts in his dreams—for example, a menacing, hovering jackal.
“When I moved in with my girlfriend from college, that’s when I started seeing the jackal,” Mr. Bibiglia told The Observer early Monday morning at the Crosby Hotel. “It definitely freaked her out, but she got very good at talking me down. She would be like, ‘There’s no jackal, go to bed.’ And I’d be like ‘Are you sure?’”
Sleepwalk with Me, Mr. Birbiglia’s latest effort, is based on his New York Times best seller, which stemmed from a short monologue on This American Life. It tells the story of his night-bound struggle, which includes dream-state plot lines that range from participating in an Olympics ceremony for dust-bustering to saving his loved ones from a heat-seeking missile (an act of martyrdom that included a real leap from a real second-story window, requiring 33 stitches upon waking up, covered in glass, on the lawn outside the La Quinta Hotel in Washington).
Mr. Birbiglia told The Observer that he has been sleepwalking since his teens, but that no one in his family had ever thought much of it—he was simply a teenager going through the stresses of high school.
“That’s the first time I think I had real anxiety in my life. It had to do with grades, SATs and getting into college. It was the first time I realized, ‘Oh, my life has stakes.’”
But like Freud said, a pipe is never just a pipe, and as Sleepwalk and his life story go on, Mr. Birbiglia’s semi-fictional counterpart, Matt Pandamiglio, finds himself running scared from forces he feels are beyond his control. There are looming specters haunting, but they come along with the more mundane dread of everyday life: in commitment, failure, success, disappointed parents and overachieving siblings.
Hence the jackal: a giant hybrid insect/wolf that chases the somnambulist around his apartment until he finally destroys the creature—which turns out to be his hamper. In the movie, this is how we are introduced to Matt and his long-suffering girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose). As his life becomes more unmanageable, his dreams escalate in their violence. Finally able to get a couple of low-paying gigs, Matt spends all his time on the road and in hotels with newfound comedy-club friends and the ubiquitous subculture of underground female comedy groupies (women whom Seth Hertzog once unceremoniously dubbed “chucklefuckers”). He proposes to Abby in the middle of a drunken fight, partly to get her to stop crying and partly out of guilt for an unconfessed indiscretion. “Remember, you’re on my side here,” our less-than-heroic protagonist must remind his audience at one point.
While Mr. Birbiglia has said in previous interviews that the hardest part of translating his play to film was the dream sequences, it’s actually the addition of the extra characters. The story struggles in its transition from a one-man performance to an ensemble film. Almost all of the actors are friends and colleagues of the stand-up, including comedians David Wain, Wyatt Cenac, Kristen Schaal, Jessi Klein and Marc Maron all play supporting characters that resemble their public personas. At times, it can feel like the script is not so much the monologue rewritten but an compendium of influences of these other comics’ sets. (The exception being Girls actor Alex Karpovsky, who plays a caustic stand-up doing a gig at Matt’s bar. His routine is actually from an old Mike Birbiglia set.)
Mr. Birbiglia spoke of the collaborative effort that went into the script, with actors sitting around, doing table readings in his apartment and making tweaks and suggestions. That would explain why the script took two years to write, despite being essentially an adaptation.
Still, it holds together as a story that, like a particularly good episode of This American Life, is both laugh-out-loud funny and somewhat melancholic.
But the dream-states don’t end when the movie does: though the resolution of the (more or less) autobiographical Sleepwalk is bittersweet—Matt finally sees a doctor, mans up about his unhealthy relationship and gets a rather unusual prescription to prevent his nightmares from causing any more physical harm—the reality is harsher. Mr. Birbiglia continues to suffer from REM behavior disorder.
But did writing, directing and starring in his first feature film remedy his situation at all?
“Shooting a movie isn’t good for a sleep disorder,” Mr. Birbiglia laughed.
“I would direct in my sleep. It was very postmodern. I’d be adjusting lamps and stuff around me in my sleep, and my wife would come in while I was adjusting lamps and be like, ‘What are you doing?’”
Mr. Birbiglia’s disorder, strangely enough, allows him to interact with people while still asleep. “I would tell her, ‘Shhh! We’re shooting.’ And she’d be like, ‘No, we’re not shooting. You’re asleep.’”
“I would literally, like, patronize her,” Mr. Birbiglia said, as if this were a fairly normal fight for a couple to be having. “I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I’m sorry, but we are. And you have to get off the set.’ That’s the thing about sleepwalking, or any sort of sleep disorder where you think you’re awake. When someone interrupts you, you just kind of look down on them for not understanding.”
Mr. Birbiglia once said in an interview that it is a common misconception that waking up a sleepwalker is dangerous.
“Every sleep doctor I’ve talked to said it was an urban legend that you shouldn’t wake up a sleepwalker,” he said. “All that will happen is that you will get condescended to.”
CHICAGO PUBLIC RADIO’S PRECIOUS nerd-hunk Ira Glass, the film’s co-writer and executive producer, entered Mr. Birbiglia’s life in 2008, when he invited the comedian on This American Life for the first time. The story Mr. Birbiglia told then was a truncated version of what would become Sleepwalk With Me, a PG rendition with all the bad deeds removed and the lighthearted reckonings kept in for the tote-bearing listeners at home. The comic’s easy style of combining laughter with pathos earned him a spot as a regular contributor to the show, as well as a lasting friendship with its host.
Four years later, the two have developed an affectionate green-room rapport.
“Mike asked me to produce the film. He thought it would help him get meetings,” said second-time producer and first-time writer Mr. Glass in his clarinet tones as he joined us for coffee. He leaned back in his plush velvet armchair, glancing at a surprised Mr. Birbiglia.
“Sorry, Mike, I know we’ve never talked about this—but it’s time we told somebody.”
“I don’t think that’s what this was!”
“Are you sure?”
The improv scene adjourned, Mr. Birbiglia’s face broke out into a lopsided grin.
“Ira and I have a good back-and-forth, because he slashes me, and I like it.”
“I slash you?”
“Yeah. But I like being slashed.”
One got the sense that even without an audience, Mr. Birbiglia and Mr. Glass would have continued their “Fifty Shades of Grey by way of Statler and Waldorf” routine, just to keep themselves amused. But, luckily, it would seem that won’t be a concern.
Sleepwalk With Me opens August 24th at the IFC Center.
SLEEPWALK WITH ME
Running Time 90 minutes
Written by Mike Birbiglia, Joe Birbiglia, Seth Barrish, and Ira Glass
Directed by Mike Birbiglia
Starring Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose and Carol Kane