Random Questions With: Mike Birbiglia

Apr 3, 2014
Originally published on December 11, 2014 11:03 am

Comedian Mike Birbiglia has a knack for molding his own extremely personal follies into hilarious stories. He's weaved autobiographical tales of his awkward childhood, his love life and medical mishaps into the fabric of his stand-up specials and frequent contributions to The Moth and This American Life.

Perhaps his most notable work, Sleepwalk With Me, is his most painful — and painfully funny. In the one-man off-Broadway show (which he also turned into a book and a feature film), Birbiglia shares his struggles with his comedy career, his girlfriend's desires to get married, and living with a severe sleeping disorder, which culminates in him sleepwalking through the second-story window of a La Quinta Inn hotel room. Recently, Birbiglia arranged to have a plaque placed outside that very hotel room to commemorate that event.

Birbiglia joined Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg to chat about the stigma he's faced when telling people what he does for a living. He recounted a recent party at which someone said to him, "You're a comedian? Then how come you're not funny now?" Birbiglia's response? "Well, I'm gonna take this conversation we're having, and then repeat it to strangers. That's the joke. You're the joke, later."

Although Birbiglia has said he'd considered becoming a priest when he grew up, we were still pretty surprised when he requested that his Ask Me Another Challenge be about Catholicism. Find out if he knows which dishes Catholics are allowed to eat on a Friday during Lent, and the origin of the "Hail Mary pass."


Interview Highlights

On life after Sleepwalk With Me

The [La Quinta Inn] very recently did a very exciting thing ... there is now a plaque on the door of the room. I swear to God. In fairness, Ira Glass and I created the plaque and sent them the plaque, and they didn't put it up for a long time. Like, they didn't put it up for a year, I think until [Sleepwalk With Me] was on Netflix, and then they're like, "Oh, I guess it's a thing."

But basically, the plaque says, "In this room, comedian Mike Birbiglia on February 3rd, 2005, jumped through the window, and he made a show about it, and a book about, and a movie about it, Google it." And now I get people tweeting at me photos of them in the room with the plaque. Honestly, that is the proudest achievement in my life is that plaque.

On trying new material on Ira Glass

Everything that I've done on This American Life has basically been from me going into Ira's office. ... I was first on the show with Sleepwalk With Me. We became friends, and then I don't know, a few times a year, I'll go in and pitch a story. And he'll be like, "No ... that's our process." And he'll say, "No, no, no, no, that's happened to everybody." And then he usually kind of asks for the story under the story. Like, "Where were you when that happened? What about that?" And typically, I'll be like, "Well, this thing happened, but there's no way I would talk about that on the radio 'cause it's too personal. It's comfortable." And he's like, "Yeah, yeah, that's the story. That's what it'll be."

On why he thought he was going to be a priest

I liked how the priests get so many laughs. It's not even that the priests are funny. The parishioners, they don't have that high of standards for priest jokes. So priests will be like, "Matthew, Mark, Luke ... and John Boy!" And people will be like, "Father Paterson's hilarious." And I'm like, "He's not funny, I'm funny. I should be the priest."

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OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

You're listening to ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR and WNYC. I'm Ophira Eisenberg and joining me is our Very Important Puzzler. Please welcome Mike Birbiglia.

(APPLAUSE)

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: Hello. Thank you. Thank you, Ophira.

EISENBERG: Yes, Mike.

BIRBIGLIA: Thanks, Will. Julian. Everybody.

EISENBERG: So we know a lot about you because your shows and your material is autobiographical.

BIRBIGLIA: Sure. Yeah.

EISENBERG: So we get to learn about you and, you know, your one man show that became a feature film and a book, "Sleepwalk with Me." Yes.

(APPLAUSE)

BIRBIGLIA: Oh, thanks.

EISENBERG: It's about a struggle with comedy and your girlfriend and with a sleeping disorder.

BIRBIGLIA: Sure. Yeah.

EISENBERG: And it climaxes with you crashing through a window.

BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, jumping through it. Yeah. Right.

EISENBERG: Of a second floor of a...

BIRBIGLIA: Yeah. Through the glass.

EISENBERG: ...of a LaQuinta.

BIRBIGLIA: It's true. I always have to explain that part.

EISENBERG: It's amazing. Yeah.

BIRBIGLIA: People are always like, oh, so you then kind of stepped out? No, no. I jumped through. Like the Hulk.

(LAUGHTER)

BIRBIGLIA: And I always say that because that's how I described it at the emergency room. I was like you know the Hulk? You know how he just kind of jumps through stuff? That's like me.

(LAUGHTER)

BIRBIGLIA: It really is. And I'm alive. So things are working out great.

EISENBERG: So I'm just wondering how did the hotel respond to that?

BIRBIGLIA: The hotel very recently did a very exciting thing which is there is now a plaque on the door of the room.

EISENBERG: No way.

BIRBIGLIA: I swear to God. In fairness, Ira Glass and I created the plaque.

(LAUGHTER)

BIRBIGLIA: And sent them the plaque, and they didn't put it up for a long time. Like, they didn't put it up for a year, I think until the movie was on Netflix, and then they're like, oh, I guess it's a thing.

(LAUGHTER)

BIRBIGLIA: But basically, the plaque says, you know: In this room comedian Mike Bribiglia like in, you know, February 3rd, 2005 jumped through the window and he made a show about it and a book about it and a movie about it. Google it.

(LAUGHTER)

BIRBIGLIA: And now I get people Tweeting at me photos of them in the room with the plaque. And it is - honestly, that is the proudest achievement in my life, is that plaque.

EISENBERG: That's amazing.

BIRBIGLIA: Isn't that great?

EISENBERG: That's amazing. I wonder if people are like, hi, I'm checking in. Can I stay in the Mike Birbiglia room? Like, you know...

BIRBIGLIA: It's a suite.

EISENBERG: Oh, the suite. The suite. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

BIRBIGLIA: Things are going pretty well.

EISENBERG: So your current show, "Thank God for Jokes" is about your relationship with comedy. Yes?

BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's kind of about - it's kind of about jokes and how they can get you in trouble and how they can make you feel closer to people also. So - yeah.

EISENBERG: How do they get you in trouble?

BIRBIGLIA: Well, everyone has a sensitive subject and so...

EISENBERG: Button pushing, you mean.

BIRBIGLIA: Exactly.

EISENBERG: Oh, yeah.

BIRBIGLIA: And so ultimately, whenever you make a joke - one of the things that's odd about being a standup comedian for example, and you've probably run into this too, is that you don't even want to tell people you're a comedian, like, socially. Because it just makes things terrible.

EISENBERG: It's terrible.

BIRBIGLIA: It really is stigmatizing. Because I was at - like, I was at a party last week. This guy goes, oh, yeah, you're a comedian? Then how come you're not funny now? And I want to just feel like, well, I'm just going to take this conversation we're having and then repeat that to strangers.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

BIRBIGLIA: And then that's the joke. You're the joke later.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Is it true that you try new material on Ira Glass?

BIRBIGLIA: On this audience right now? Yes.

EISENBERG: Yeah, that.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: On Ira Glass?

WILL HINES: Everything that I've done on "This American Life" has basically been from me going into Ira's office. I was first on the show with "Sleepwalk with Me." We became friends, and then I don't know, a few times a year, I'll go in and pitch a story. And he'll be like, no.

(LAUGHTER)

BIRBIGLIA: That's our process.

EISENBERG: All right.

BIRBIGLIA: And he'll just go no, no, no, no, that's happened to everybody. Yeah, a lot of that kind of stuff. And then he usually kind of asks for the story under the story. He's like, where were you when that happened? What about that?

And typically, I'll be like, well, this thing happened, but there's no way I would talk about that on the radio because it's too personal. It's comfortable. And he's like, yeah, yeah, that's the story. Yeah, yeah. That's what it'll be.

(LAUGHTER)

BIRBIGLIA: You know, and then I'm like, oh. OK. Very good.

EISENBERG: There we go. OK. So Mike, we're going to subject you to your own ASK ME ANOTHER challenge a little later in the show.

BIRBIGLIA: Right.

EISENBERG: Right now we're actually going to find a little bit more about you through a game and we'll be talking to our next contestant on the phone. Hello, caller. This is ASK ME ANOTHER.

KATHY GURTOWSKY: Hi. This is Kathy Gurtowsky from Bristol, Connecticut.

EISENBERG: Hello, Kathy Gurtowsky.

BIRBIGLIA: Hi, Kathy.

(APPLAUSE)

GURTOWSKY: Hi.

EISENBERG: Now, Kathy, you're a big Mike Birbiglia fan, I hear.

GURTOWSKY: I am.

EISENBERG: Have you watched everything?

GURTOWSKY: I think so. And I've read the book too.

EISENBERG: Oh.

BIRBIGLIA: Oh, nice.

EISENBERG: All right. And I believe you work in a sleep lab.

GURTOWSKY: Well, for years I've worked in a hospital and I've done all the typing for the sleep lab and I work for the neurologists too.

BIRBIGLIA: She did all that because she's a fan of mine?

EISENBERG: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Kathy, this game is called Random Questions with Mike Birbiglia and let's see if you can channel your inner Birbiglia and all the knowledge that you have of him from consuming all of his fantastic comedy. For example, we've asked Mike some questions, random questions, like Facebook or Twitter and you have to try to figure out what you think he answered.

So in that case Facebook or Twitter, Mike?

BIRBIGLIA: Oh, Twitter.

EISENBERG: Twitter. Right?

GURTOWSKY: OK.

EISENBERG: That's what you would've said?

GURTOWSKY: No. But let's go.

EISENBERG: Oh, all right.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Well, that was just an example so it's no problem.

GURTOWSKY: OK.

BIRBIGLIA: No penalty.

EISENBERG: And Kathy, if you get enough questions right you are going to win a special ASK ME ANOTHER prize.

GURTOWSKY: Wonderful.

EISENBERG: OK. Before Mike was married if he was on a first date that wasn't going well, at the end of the date would he still go in for a kiss or would he just do a little hug and/or handshake?

GURTOWSKY: I do think the hug and handshake.

EISENBERG: Hmm.

BIRBIGLIA: Yeah. I think a hug and a handshake. That one's a gimme, I think, because is anyone going on bad dates and then just like, yeah, let's just make out?

(LAUGHTER)

BIRBIGLIA: That's how this is going to go down.

EISENBERG: I've done it. I do that. Yeah.

BIRBIGLIA: Geez.

EISENBERG: Well, sometimes you're just like, well, let's just get something out of this.

(LAUGHTER)

BIRBIGLIA: Who's like that?

EISENBERG: Nothing. Nothing.

(LAUGHTER)

HINES: Ophira wrote a book called "Screw Everyone."

(LAUGHTER)

BIRBIGLIA: Will, what's your answer to that? Because you're a...

HINES: I go with a hug/handshake even if it goes well.

(LAUGHTER)

BIRBIGLIA: No hug or handshake.

HINES: Yeah, yeah.

BIRBIGLIA: Just a stern stare.

HINES: Yeah.

EISENBERG: We asked Mike is it OK to wear sweatpants to a restaurant. Hmm.

(LAUGHTER)

GURTOWSKY: I know he would want to. So he'd probably find a way.

EISENBERG: So the answer is yes.

GURTOWSKY: Yes.

BIRBIGLIA: Oh, Kathy, you read my mind.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Now, wait. Is there like a grade of restaurant that you think that's OK? Or just any restaurant?

BIRBIGLIA: Oh, I think that the fancier the better with sweatpants. With sweatpants you really want to get in their face and make it clear that this is not a dress code society.

EISENBERG: It's true. If you wear sweatpants to somewhere really fancy it confuses them, right? Because they're like, oh, he's a crazy gazillionaire.

BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, that's my angle. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

BIRBIGLIA: That's what I do at LaQuinta Inn, at least.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Which holiday does Mike like less - New Year's Eve or Valentine's Day?

GURTOWSKY: Valentine's Day.

EISENBERG: Hmm.

BIRBIGLIA: Kathy, I love you.

(LAUGHTER)

BIRBIGLIA: No, she's right again. I hate Valentine's Day because it's just...

GURTOWSKY: Pressure.

BIRBIGLIA: ...100 percent fictional. Whereas New Year's Eve is just fictional as of about 10,000 years ago.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Valentine's Day. How does your wife feel about that?

BIRBIGLIA: Oh, she hates it too.

EISENBERG: She hates Valentine's Day?

BIRBIGLIA: Yeah. We hate it. We don't celebrate our birthdays, either.

EISENBERG: What?

BIRBIGLIA: I swear. We don't believe in holidays. We believe that every day should be really OK.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Every day should be equally...

BOTH: OK.

BIRBIGLIA: Yeah. Every day should be, eh, pretty good. That was nice. High voice. That was nice. Every day should be that.

EISENBERG: Which one would you pick for yourself, Kathy?

GURTOWSKY: I do like New Year's Eve.

EISENBERG: Oh. She likes New Year's Eve.

BIRBIGLIA: That's nice. Well, every New Year's Eve it's me and my wife Jenny and Kathy and we go on a drive.

(LAUGHTER)

BIRBIGLIA: We go on a drive to a Cracker Barrel in Kentucky and we just do it the quiet way.

(LAUGHTER)

BIRBIGLIA: We sit out on the benches out front, on the rockers after dinner, and we have a nice time.

GURTOWSKY: Yes.

BIRBIGLIA: Remember, Kathy?

(LAUGHTER)

GURTOWSKY: Oh, you have no idea how I feel about that place.

BIRBIGLIA: No, I really don't. I do have no idea.

GURTOWSKY: No. But you're pretty close.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: OK. This is your last question, Kathy. We asked Mike to resolve a hugely important issue. Thin crust pizza or deep dish. Think about your answer, Kathy.

GURTOWSKY: Well, I feel like Mike are one on the same plane so I'm going to say thin because that's what I like.

EISENBERG: Thin?

GURTOWSKY: Yes.

BIRBIGLIA: Kathy, if I weren't married...

(LAUGHTER)

BIRBIGLIA: I would marry you on this phone call right now.

EISENBERG: We have an ordained minister.

BIRBIGLIA: Because I think that - yeah. Well, I'm open to also a double marriage. I think if Kathy's open to a multiple partner marriage, I'm completely in. Because thin crust is the only pizza.

GURTOWSKY: Exactly.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Kathy, congratulations. You got enough questions right to win an ASK ME ANOTHER special prize.

(APPLAUSE)

GURTOWSKY: Thank you.

EISENBERG: We will arrange your post nuptial reception with Mike. Thank you, Mike. We'll see you later again in the show for your own challenge.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: We know that unfortunately, not everyone lives in Brooklyn. But fear not, now you can compete on ASK ME ANOTHER from the comfort of your own town, village, or hamlet. So if you're on a trivia quest and would like to be a phone subject, just send us an email to ASK ME ANOTHER@npr.org.

(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.