The nicest guy in show business talks about mean people on Twitter, making fun of his parents and why he won’t eat a pot cookie
Mike Birbiglia’s a nice guy, and he really wants to talk to me. He’s just really busy right now.
The comedian, storyteller and filmmaker wrote, directed and starred in the 2012 award-winning, critically acclaimed film, Sleepwalk With Me about his reluctance to get married, his entrance in to comedy and Rapid Eye Movement Behavior Disorder – the dangerous sleep disorder that almost cost him his life.
His hilarious, yet thoughtfully honest and emotional storytelling resonates with audiences everywhere. He jokes about his own failed relationships. He can make you laugh about cancer. He hits on universal themes like love, marriage, religion … and pizza.
Birbiglia is gaining steam. He’s in the midst of a nationwide 100-city tour performing his latest show, Thank God For Jokes, which hits York’s Strand-Capitol tomorrow night. He’s wrapping up an acting role in Judd Apatow’s latest movie, Trainwreck, which stars fellow comedian Amy Schumer and is due out next summer. He’s got a recurring role in the next season of the Netflix comedy-drama “Orange is the New Black.” He’s got upcoming appearances to make on “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” and about 500 different podcasts.
We’ve had to reschedule our interview with him five times. He’s been really busy, but he wants to talk.
Birbiglia finally got a chance to give us a call and chat as he took a taxi ride through the streets of downtown New York City, to his home in Brooklyn, and then into his kitchen, where he ate some leftover Thai food.
ike Birbiglia: Sorry to have to move around our interview so many times. I’ve had so many things going on, and we had a miscommunication with your number. I called the wrong number.
Fly Magazine: You called the wrong number?
MB: Yeah, I was off by one number, which is a crucial number. They’re all crucial.
FM: So you did a phone interview with a random person?
MB: Exactly. I just spoke into the darkness.
FM: You blew up Twitter recently with your #BrooklynNeck hashtag.
MB: There was an article that I retweeted from Brooklyn Magazine. They were like, “Mike invented a new word.” I don’t think so. That’s not going to stick. It’s so stupid. You can make journalism out of anything. That’s the ephemeral nature of Twitter.
FM: What do you think social media is doing to the human race?
MB: I don’t think it’s so good. I definitely think we’re not able to memorize things as well. You can look up anything. That’s the Internet in general. I don’t know what’s going to happen to these kids that don’t necessarily know anything.
FM: That might be a problem.
MB: Yeah, I think that’s going to be an issue. The other thing is that people are so mean on the Internet. It gives people a license to be mean. Jimmy Kimmel has a great bit called Mean Tweets, where he has celebrities read tweets about them that are mean. That’s a good bit if you every have a chance to look that up on YouTube. People say the meanest things and don’t realize that the actual people read those things.
FM: What’s the meanest tweet you’ve read about yourself lately?
MB: I don’t think it was a tweet, but someone wrote on their blog that they enjoyed my show, but that I was pudgy and awkward. I didn’t know that was something we were evaluating in a comedy show. I guess I’m p’awkward. That was sort of a phrase I coined. I get Google Alerts, and that was a Google Alert that I got. It was like, “BAM! You’re p’awkward.” And I was like, “Thanks for the heads up, Google.”
FM: There’s a great moment in Sleepwalk With Me where you’re on stage and you heckle a guy and immediately apologize. Is it hard to be a nice guy in the entertainment industry?
MB: Yeah, I think so. But jokes ultimately have to have a target. Whenever you tell a joke someone’s going down. What it comes down to is “is the joke funny enough that it’s worth offending someone?”
FM: Is it hard to joke about someone that you know personally?
MB: I talk about my parents a lot in Thank God For Jokes, and a few weeks ago I performed in Cape Cod, where my parents live. And they said it was their favorite of all my shows, which is good, because I was definitely nervous about that.
FM: Are you sleeping better these days?
MB: I sleep okay. I sleepwalk a couple times a year, but I still sleep in a sleeping bag. I take medication. I go to a doctor regularly.
FM: Do you still hate getting up in the morning?
MB: Yeah, waking up is not my forte. Fortunately I work at night. I try to write in the morning to mixed results.
FM: I saw an episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” with Larry David and Jerry says, “one of the things a comedic mind requires is laziness.” Do you find that to be true?
MB: I saw that episode too. I think it is some combination of laziness and a manic quality. Where you’re obsessively neurotic about something – similar to Larry David – like constantly thinking or worrying about something. And then you have to have the motivation to write it down and the insanity to say it in front of people.
FM: Mitch Hedberg had that great joke about how if he was in bed and thought of something funny and the pen was too far away he’d have to convince himself what he thought of wasn’t that funny.
MB: That’s one of the greatest jokes of all time about writing. He had some great lines.
FM: You’re a fan of Mitch Hedberg. Have you ever tried to write really short jokes or have you always preferred storytelling?
MB: When I started out I was really mimicking Mitch Hedberg. Mitch’s style is infectious. It’s fun to speak like that. His album Strategic Grill Locations is one of the best comedy albums of all time. On my first album, Two Drink Mike, you can hear traces of Mitch’s delivery. It’s hard when you’re first starting out. There’s no college for comedy. I had to find my own voice over the years and that’s how I landed where I did.
If you’re sad just listen to Mitch Hedberg’s 3 albums on a loop.
— Mike Birbiglia (@birbigs) August 27, 2014
FM: Are you eating something right now?
MB: Yeah, I’ve been running around all day. I’m just snacking on Thai food.
FM: How long have you been married?
MB: I’ve been married for six years. My wife and I just had our anniversary a few weeks ago.
FM: Congratulations. So, after six years you thought it was time for a 100-city tour?
FM: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen on your tour of the U.S.?
MB: You start to see how similar the country feels to itself. People watch a lot of the same TV shows. They eat at the same type of chain restaurants. It’s seems to me that the American experience is kind of merging together. People have a really similar experience, with the exception of maybe Alaska where it’s wildly different from anything. One thing about touring is that you discover these towns that you didn’t know were great towns. Boise is a cool town. Charleston is a great town. There are a lot of great American towns.
FM: When you’re constantly retelling your stories does it feel like you’re reliving moments of your life on a nightly basis or are you just refining you act?
MB: I feel like the best versions of shows are where I leave it all out on the floor. I try to live it out and tell it the best way it’s ever been told. Every show I want to be better than the night before. It’s a lot of reliving.
FM: One of my favorite jokes that you do is about how you went to the doctor to get something checked out, and the doctor said they found something in your bladder. You remark how they never find anything good in there – like Yankees tickets. When you face a scary situation is your first reaction to make a joke?
MB: Yeah, I mean not always, but I think that’s the role jokes serve in life. They help you swallow some tough pills.
FM: Do you think comedy is better for people than religion?
MB: [laughs] No, no, I have no stance on that. But for me, if I go to see Doug Stanhope or Maria Bamford, it is sort of a religious experience because you’re in a room full of people laughing at these semi-insane thoughts and observations. There’s something about that that is sort of religious and special.
FM: Who is the God of Comedy?
MB: I don’t think there is one because comedy is so based on humanity. If you were trying to find the God equivalent in comedy, you’d point to someone who was a great comic but a very flawed human being. It’s like you don’t want to name that person a god because the idea is that God is flawless. It’s very murky.
FM: Who were some comedians that affected you?
MB: Well, like you could say Lenny Bruce was one of the greatest comedians of all time but then you look at his personal life and your think well I don’t want to call him God. Does that make sense?
FM: Ricky Gervais called you “the next Woody Allen”. I could see some similarities between Sleepwalk With Me and Annie Hall. Is that the direction you see yourself taking – the writer/director/actor type thing?
MB: It is, actually. I’m hoping to make my career by penning films. I look at Woody Allen, James L. Brooks and Noah Baumbach – those are guys I really admire. I really like those types of movies that straddle the line between drama and comedy.
FM: You just wrapped up shooting Trainwreck. What role do you play?
MB: I play Amy Shumer’s brother-in-law. It was a blast working with Amy. We play off each other really well. And Judd is fascinating to work with. It was a real thrill. I was just watching This is Forty with my wife last night, and we were just cracking up. That scene where they take pot cookies made me laugh so hard.
FM: Do you eat pot cookies?
MB: I’ve always been afraid of pot cookies and brownies. I have a sweet tooth, so I could probably eat like nine of them. And the next thing you know I’m on another planet or, like, driving a tractor in Alabama! There are a lot of bad possibilities.
THE MIKE BIRBIGLIOGRAPHY
YEARS AS A PROFESSIONAL COMEDIAN: 14
CAREER HIGHLIGHT: “Late Show with David Letterman” appearance at age 24
FAVORITE WOODY ALLEN MOVIE: Tie between Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Hannah and Her Sisters
FAVORITE BAND: The National
STANDARD PIZZA ORDER: Half cheese, half pepperoni
Mike Birbiglia brings his Thank God For Jokes tour to the Strand-Capitol (50 N. George St., York) on Thursday, September 11. 7:30pm. $39, $49. Click here for tickets.