Failing Really Well

Illustration by Andy Friedman

At the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal earlier this year, two strangers—a man and woman who looked to be in their thirties—came up to comedian Mike Birbiglia after a preview of his next one-man show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. The guy told Birbiglia that the performance had meant a lot to them; they had seen it twice that week. He then got down on one knee, produced a ring, and proposed to his girlfriend. Birbiglia watched as she tearfully said yes. “I wanted to do more—like, can I hug them?” Birbiglia, 32, says. It wasn’t the first time he had provoked a marriage; others have contacted him on Twitter to share similar experiences, either at or surrounding a Birbiglia show. “That’s the most impactful thing I’ve done, and I don’t even know if I believe in marriage.”

Birbiglia, who is, in fact, happily married, has built a career on exposing his vulnerabilities with affable awkwardness: in his acclaimed 2008 one-man Off Broadway show, Sleepwalk With Me (built around a sleeping disorder that once had him walk out a second-story motel-room window while on tour); in his new book, Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories; and in his multiple appearances on “This American Life.” My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, slated for early 2011, has Birbiglia detailing his insecurities about women and marriage. In the title bit, he describes meeting not only his high-school girlfriend’s other boyfriend but also the guy’s parents, and how he felt strangely compelled to make a good impression.

The Upper West Sider (by way of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts) first performed stand-up at 19, and his early style—scattershot punch lines and spacey, metered delivery—was, he admits, a little too much like that of his hero Mitch Hedberg. Seven years ago, he shifted to longer narrative, and that’s when he found his voice, moving from talking at the audience to having a conversation with them; he slowed the tempo way down and let the laughs build. Like Demetri Martin, he has a mathematical sense of the absurd, but unlike Martin, those absurdities are attached to a person with an emotional life. “At a certain point, I realized I was better at [storytelling] than just telling jokes, and it felt like there was something here that wasn’t happening at other comedy shows,” he says. “Telling stories is like showing someone your balls. You can’t go back. And at a certain point you go, ‘You know what? I’m the guy who shows people his balls.’ ”

Birbiglia road-tests his material with a trio of trusted advisers: older brother Joe, who serves as his manager and co-writer; Seth Barrish, director of Sleepwalk With Me; and Ira Glass, host of “This American Life.” “If a minute goes by without laughs, Mike’s learning to quiet the part of him that says, ‘This is sucking’—those minutes in a story that are there just for the feeling you’re not going to get a laugh,” says Glass, who discovered Birbiglia through the “Moth” storytelling series. The two are working on a film adaptation of Sleepwalk With Me. “He’s learning the more specific and personal a story is, the more universal it is,” adds Barrish, who speaks to Birbiglia several times a day, “so he can say, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking.’ Mike thinks and dreams big, but not in a way that’s remotely obnoxious.”

In 2008, Birbiglia wrote a script for a CBS sitcom loosely based on his blog, Mike Birbiglia’s Secret Public Journal. It had a Seinfeld conceit, only this time the comedian lived in Brooklyn with his girlfriend. It got as far as the pilot stage. “I can’t even begin to describe the degree to which I had no control; it’s the reason I haven’t attempted to do a TV show since,” he says. “They didn’t want all of me, they wanted this part they perceived to be likable, which ended up being wrong. I tested unlikable. Can you imagine a worse scenario? I tested poorly in something that few people on Earth can quantify, yet was quantified for me, and I failed.

“In a way,” he adds, “my whole career is an accident. I tried to sell out, then when they didn’t buy it, I decided to be artistic.” Birbiglia credits failure with the comedy renaissance going on now. “Few people are above selling out, but the difference between the highest and lowest bidders isn’t much anymore. People are like, ‘Fuck it, if I’m not going to make a lot of money, I might as well do something I’m proud of.’ ”

Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories
By Michael Birbiglia.
Simon & Schuster. $24.

Failing Really Well