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Comedian Mike Birbiglia Talks Sleepwalking And Jokes That Hurt

Mike Birbiglia is known as a comedian who tells personal, embarrassing stories. He became a public radio listener favorite when he told his funny but true story about dealing with sleepwalking on This American Life, which has since been made into a movie. He’ll be performing his new act, Thank God for Jokes, at the Knight Theater on March 29th and he joins us today.

Kevin: A lot of your comedy is a product of your own personal, sometimes embarrassing, stories. When and how did you figure out that making fun of yourself was going to be such a cornerstone of your comedy?

Birbiglia: I think somewhere in my mid-to-late 20s. I’d seen Steven Wright live. You know Steven Wright, the classic one-liner comedian? And I was like “Oh, that’s exactly what I want to do.” So I would write jokes like that for years. And then I got on stage, and at a certain point I just started telling stories about myself and I thought that this kind of actually fits better. And then I actually ended up telling my sleepwalking story, which became a movie, and then… I don’t know. I think sometimes you sort of end up figuring out what your best at while you’re doing it. While you’re doing the wrong thing, you figure out what the right thing is.

Kevin: Having shared a lot of your personal stories, do you ever feel like you’ve shared too much personal information?

Birbiglia: I don’t think so, do you? That’s a good question. Now I need to do some deep introspection. In some way, that’s what this tour is about. This tour is called Thank God for Jokes. It’s an all new tour, an all new show. And it’s all about jokes. And in some ways, jokes make us closer to people. Sometimes they alienate us and get us in trouble with people.

Kevin: Do you have an example of getting yourself in trouble telling a joke?

Birbiglia: Oh, yeah. Like when I was starting out in comedy, I wasn’t as good as choosing my words. Words can hurt people. I was performing at a casino, and there were these two guys in the front row that looked like maybe they were mobsters or organized criminals of some kind. They were just mean and wearing suits. And they just kept talking during the show, and I was like, “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t talk.” So they kept talking, and finally I was like, “Hey, you guys really shouldn’t talk.” And then one of the guys straight out just heckled me. He goes, “You’re not funny.” Which there is no real defense of. You can’t be like, “Yes I am!” You know? There’s just no good reply. And so I suggested that maybe they should leave the show with their dates, who I implied were hookers. And by implied, I said, “Maybe you should leave with your hookers.” Now I want to be very clear to you and all the listeners: that was not the right thing to say. I’m not going to stand behind that as something that was smart or funny or anything good. It was just something that I blurted out, in the moment, as a defense mechanism. And here’s why you shouldn’t do that: One of the guys looked at me with his dark black eyes with silver pupils and he goes, “I’m going to kill you!” And that wasn’t a joke… at all. No one was laughing. I was definitely not laughing. I was thinking about how maybe I could have been a great middle school English teacher. But then the addendum to the story strangely, enough is, that later in the night I was with my brother Joe, we were gambling at the casino, and at that moment these two women came up to our table and they go, “You guys looking for dates?” Well guess what? They were the women from the front row of my show with those guys, and they were hookers! And it made me realize that if they were hookers then those guys might have been mobsters and I was lucky to be alive! So yeah, that’s an example.

Kevin: Another way that people know of you is from the movie Sleepwalk with Me. Do you still have to deal with the sleepwalking issue? In the movie you have to zip yourself up in a sleeping bag. Do you still have to do that?

Birbiglia: I do. I woke up a short time ago, got out of my sleeping bag. Yeah, I take medication. I’m diagnosed with what is called REM Behavior Disorder. I went to a sleep physician. I sleep in a sleeping bag and when I go to bed at night my wife says, “It’s time to put you in your pod.”

Kevin: You’ve been featured quite a bit on public radio programs like This American Life, and have become kind of a favorite among public radio listeners. When you were a budding comedian, did you ever picture yourself appealing so much to the public radio audience or becoming the public radio comedian?

Birbiglia: Not really. I always hoped that I could get on This American Life actually. That was one of my favorite shows for years and years and years. And public radio listeners are great to have as fans, because they’re just a smart, literate bunch of people. They come to the shows and they listen. For years when I was performing at comedy clubs it was hard because you were performing on stage and people are ordering B-52 cocktails and broccoli poppers. You’re just like, “Hey! I wrote this thing!” It’s like you’re barely even there.

Comedian Mike Birbiglia’s Thank God for Jokes tour comes to the Knight Theater Saturday March 29th.