Feb. 15 2012 12:00 AM

Comedian Mike Birbiglia turns pain into pleasure at Wharton Center


Professional storyteller/stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia brings his hit one-man show, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” to the Wharton Center Sunday. His previous tour, “Sleepwalk with Me,” based on his real struggles with REM sleep behavior disorder, was adapted into an episode of the NPR show “This American Life,” a bestselling book, and a movie, which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. City Pulse had a chance to pester him recently with some questions by e-mail.

Welcome back to Michigan. How was your experience while filming "Cedar Rapids" in Ann Arbor?

I loved it. My wife went to college in Ann Arbor, so I know the area a little bit. I had a great time filming that movie. Ann Arbor is actually the location of a bed and breakfast that is also a Unitarian church that I tell a story about on my album, “Two Drink Mike.”

"My Girlfriend´s Boyfriend" did phenomenally well in New York, both critically and commercially, before you decided to take it on the road. Have you had to make any changes to the show to accommodate local tastes?

I usually riff a little bit about the city at the top of the show, but the rest of the show is mostly about relationships and heartbreak and love — a lot of things that are pretty universal. As far as I understand it, people in Lansing are sometimes in love and sometimes break up, so that stuff should be relateable.

This show seems to continue your penchant for self-deprecating humor.

Self-deprecating humor is age-old. We all feel self-conscious about whatever issues we have or think we have. And, you know, that never goes away. I never have a shortage of things to write about in [my blog] “My Secret Public Journal” because something is always going wrong. A few weeks ago I went skiing and I crashed and fell on my shoulder—the exact same shoulder I had fallen on in a New York City subway last year and spent months rehabbing. And I´m trying to remember exactly what my physical therapist had told me about skiing. Oh yes, she told me never to do it. And all I can think is, “I need a hot tub.” Nothing can go wrong in a hot tub. You can do things rappers do, like drink champagne and degrade women verbally. The only thing you can’t do in a hot tub, I learned, is have your cell phone in your pocket. I mean, you can do it, but your cell phone is really not cool with it. The point is, as long as there is pain there will be human comedy. A lot of the real masters like Cosby and Seinfeld can take the minutiae—something as mundane as going to the dentist—and turn it into an epic comedic story.

You´ve said that to become a successful stand-up comedian, you have to be delusional. Any current delusions about your career?

Certainly. This year I embarked on being a film director, something that people kept telling me I couldn´t do. And then I did it and now people are ok with it. People seem to like the movie—we won an audience award at Sundance and are headed to South by Southwest in a couple months. To do anything that´s difficult and that you really want to do, you have to convince yourself it´s going a little bit better than it is.

Your career seems to be working in reverse: by your own admission, you tried selling out, but only became popular after becoming more like yourself. What do you see as the logical next step in your evolution as an entertainer?

I [filmed] a network sitcom pilot, and I found that whenever people try to change what I do into what they do, it comes out watered down. I like directing and starring in films and I’m going to keep doing that as long as people let me do it. The thing about the film I made and the one-man shows I do is that ultimately I’m in charge of the creative content, which is really important to me. It’s about doing what I’m doing, and as long as people keep coming to the shows, I’ll keep doing it.

You said that you used to think you wanted to be a rapper or a poet, but after seeing Steven Wright, you knew you wanted to be a stand-up comedian. How do you think your life would be different if, instead, you´d seen Taylor Mali at a poetry slam that night or caught a 2Pac show?

I think hip hop is an example of a delusion in my life that had no basis in reality whatsoever. As for being a poet, I like to think that on my best days, I am one.

Now that you´ve successfully parlayed “Sleepwalk with Me” into a comedy act, a book, and a movie, are there any other media you´re thinking of dominating?

Right now we´re looking into video games and action figures, but it´s just in the exploratory phase.

Mike Birbiglia

7 p.m. Sunday

Cobb Great Hall

Wharton Center

Michigan State University, East Lansing 48824


Tickets available at Wharton Center Box Office

(517) 432-2000