Since appearing on The Late Show With David Letterman back in 2002—one of the youngest comedic talents ever to take the Ed Sullivan Theater stage—Mike Birbiglia has made the requisite festival rounds and has been wooed into the Comedy Central fold, where he now frolics alongside the likes of Jim Gaffigan, Lewis Black, Stephen Wright and Dane Cook. A highly unscientific guess places him second only to the latter in terms of college-kid appeal, but as he eases into his 30s, the wide-eyed, half-Italian Massachusetts native's aw-shucks charm expands exponentially via the highly acclaimed Two Drink Mike, Secret Public Journal Live and What I Should Have Said Was Nothing. The big time may still elude him, but Birbiglia remains likable, original, hardworking and accessible—as evidenced by his Sept. 9 headlining gig at Zanies.
The Scene recently caught up with Birbiglia by phone from Los Angeles, where he discussed his upcoming off-Broadway show, the evils of cable news and what it's like to be almost famous.
Scene: What's been the biggest hurdle creatively or logistically, having your Sleepwalk With Me show evolve over the years and finally bringing it to off-Broadway this fall?
MB: It's the most specifically nitpicking I've ever gotten about a show. I'm holding a lot of stuff up to the microscope thematically. 'Cause it's a show. People will criticize it as a show, not as a series of jokes or stories. It takes hours to look at the text and go, "Well, how does this help the story move? Maybe this should be cut even though that's a good joke." And that's kind of painful and arduous, but the net result is pretty wild.
For example, last night I did it in L.A. and there was a kid in the audience who was, like, 13 there with his parents, and he loved the show, and there was a woman who was, like, 75 years old and she loved the show. That is really satisfying.... One of the things that's cool about this is I've attempted as much as I can to make it timeless.
Scene: It's also interesting comparing the evolution of the Sleepwalk show to the evolution of you the comic, from the "I'm awkward!" jokes to more of the storyteller and now the full-blown one-man show. It seems like you're doing so much so young, you're not going to have anywhere to go.
MB: Literally, since I was 22, people were telling me I'm going to be huge, and I'm 30 and I'm like, "Wait, am I huge yet? 'Cause it doesn't feel like it!" But no, I've had success; you're right. But if you ask someone on the street who Mike Birbiglia is, I'll bet you a few dollars that they won't know.
Scene: I wouldn't take that bet.
MB: Don't take that bet. I should backpedal and say I'm extremely fortunate that when I go on tour my shows are generally sold out, and it's people who want to see my comedy because it's really specific to me and to them, I guess. I don't even really have to explain what I'm like when I walk onstage. When you are truly unknown, when you are playing for cold audiences who are just going to a comedy club, it's hard because the first 20 minutes at least you spend convincing people you are funny. And I don't even have to walk on to any kind of pomp and circumstance.... But the hope is that I just kind of continue to evolve and try new things and kind of push myself and maybe along the way stumble across something that's great.
Scene: Do you see TV as a big part of that?
MB: My Secret Public Journal was originally purchased by Comedy Central and then dropped, and then NBC and then dropped, and then CBS and then dropped. So I give up. You guys win. You guys know what's best.
That's actually one of the reasons why I'm doing my show off-Broadway this fall. I left the CBS thing like, "I should just do what I'm doing with the best production values and publicity and marketing that I can." Because essentially, that's what you're doing with television...you're working with people who are taking big financial gambles. And because it's a gamble, there's a lot of hedging their bets.
Scene: In an election year, times of political unrest, is there pressure to be more political?
MB: I've been asked a bunch of times to be on Countdown With Keith Olbermann, but as I state in my show, I don't really like the idea of cable news. As much as I'm addicted to it, I'm not sold on the idea that cable news is helping the public dialogue. I think in a lot of ways, it's hurting it.
I delve into politics sometimes on certain albums. I actually had 20 minutes on Hillary and Obama and McCain. I should have put out an EP or something because it doesn't serve any purpose now. But yeah, the political stuff, it definitely doesn't have a place in Sleepwalk With Me. Maybe I'll pick it up again on the next album.
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Thanks so much for the fun read! Have a great summer.
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