Mike Birbiglia walks the line between stand-up comedy and plain old storytelling, regaling audiences with tales about personal failures, insecurities, and sleeping disorders. This Sunday, he brings his latest routine, "Thank God For Jokes," to the Charleston Music Hall. Doors open at 6:30, and tickets are $29 -39. As of 1:30 p.m. today, there were 200 tickets left for purchase.
Here at the City Paper, we're big fans of Birbiglia's act, particularly his recent stand-up special "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" and his autobiographical film Sleepwalk With Me (available for streaming on Netflix), which includes an episode in which he sleepwalks through a second-floor window at a La Quinta Inn in Walla Walla, Wash.
Mike Birbiglia makes us laugh. He gets us all emotional. He appeals to our inner schlub. Here's our interview:
City Paper: Hi, Mike. Good to talk to you. Really looking forward to the show.
Mike Birbiglia: I'm excited about coming to Charleston. The venue sounds like an awesome venue, the Charleston Music Hall. I tweeted something about how I needed to stay on the ground floor of a hotel in Charleston and does anybody know a place where I could stay. And then I got tweeted at by Wentworth Mansion, and — do you know that hotel?
CP: Yeah, that's a nice one.
MB: So they gave me a good deal, so now I'm staying at the Wentworth Mansion, which is hilarious to me. I have very high hopes when a hotel is called a mansion. Like, that better be good. But the photos are epic, so I'm very excited about it.
CP: It has to be ground-floor because of your history of sleepwalking out of windows, right?
MB: It's real, yeah. I think I wrote hashtag, like, sleepwalkerproblems. It's all too real.
CP: So I've always enjoyed your stand-up act because it's not so much a series of one-liners as it is this sort of cathartic storytelling session. How did you arrive at your confessional style?
MB: You know, it's been a long sort of windy road arriving to it. I started out in high school seeing Steven Wright, who was one of the great surrealist one-liner joke writers.
CP: That's like the polar opposite of what you do.
MB: Yeah, you know, it's funny that he's my No. 1 influence, which goes to show you, no matter how much you're influenced by someone, no one can ever really tell. He was my No. 1 influence, probably him and [Bill] Cosby. Steven Wright was the first person I saw live and I was like, "Oh, that's exactly what I was thinking," which is the great illusion of stand-up comedy, that they're saying what you're thinking without you being able to say it. And I was like, "I gotta do that," so I wrote a bunch of surreal one-liner jokes. And then I got up onstage in college, I won the funniest stand-up on campus contest, and I got to perform at the Washington D.C. Improv, and I said, "Can I perform here again?" and they said, "Here's a mop. You can clean and bring people's chicken fingers to their tables and sell tickets at the door," that kind of thing. So that's what I did for a bunch of years, and eventually I got onstage. You know, I've been a working comic for 14 years. I toured the country. Like in the movie, I drove my mom's station wagon basically to any town that would have me. And over time, I feel like — and Mitch Hedberg said this once in an interview — sometimes you think you're one thing, and then your life tells you that you're something else. Like, I thought I was a one-liner comedian, but then little by little, I told a story at The Moth, which is this storytelling series, and I did a few other storytelling shows in the early 2000s, and it dawned on me: "This is my calling, this is what I was meant to do." It comes much more naturally to me, and it doesn't feel as contrived.
CP: I first heard you through This American Life, and I thought you and Ira Glass were a great fit for each other — partly because you both have these really non-traditional radio voices, like you're not the sonorous old-school radio guy. Was there ever a time where you tried adapting your cadence to the stage or thought your voice wasn't right for this, or have you always just stuck with your normal way of speaking?
MB: Ira and I are a funny duo. We actually have that in common, which is why we enjoy each other. We both don't like it when people are putting on a voice, when they're forcing, like, "This is my radio voice," "This is my stand-up-comedy-joke voice." There's something about it that feels very contrived. And he's a journalist who has a really strong interest in comedy, I'm a comedian who has strong interest in radio.
CP: On "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend," you talked about how you initially didn't want to get married until you were sure nothing else good would happen in your life, but you eventually made peace with the idea because you believed in your now-wife. Now that you're a few years into a marriage, how do you feel about that decision?
MB: I'm thrilled to be married at this point. I actually talk about that quite a bit in the show. I actually say in the show that one of my favorite things about being married is that you share inside jokes with your wife or your husband that are funny to you and that person and perhaps your cat — because when you have a cat, your barometer of humor is out the window. But yeah, I was really afraid of it, and then once I was married, I felt a great sense of relief from it. I felt like it was a little bit like the movie The Squid and the Whale. You ever see The Squid and the Whale?
MB: Where I think you're more afraid of the idea of something than you are of the actual thing.