Interview with Mike Birbiglia | By Damian Burford
“I’m barely awake, so this might make for a good interview,” comedian Mike Birbiglia says with a laugh. It’s 7:30am in Denver and Birbiglia has good reason to be tired. The filmmaker and comedian has been crisscrossing the country personally promoting his newest film, Don’t Think Twice.
After a late night of Q&As and comedy club drop ins, Birbiglia clutches his coffee and straps himself in for a day of interviews and appearances to promote the film. While Birbiglia is visibly exhausted, if he is tired of talking about the film he shows no signs or wear. Instead, Birbiglia speaks like a father who is very proud of his child, and there is a lot to be proud of in Don’t Think Twice.
Birbiglia stars in and directs a star studded cast of characters led by Key and Peele star Keegan-Michael Key along with Gillian Jacobs (Community, Netflix’s Love), Kate Micucci (Garfunkel & Oates, Raising Hope), Chris Gethard (Broad City, The Chris Gethard Show) and Tami Sayger (Inside Amy Schumer).
Together their characters make up The Commune, the UCB/Groundlings-esque improv comedy group and school in New York City. The film follows the group of best friends as they navigate the murky waters of creativity, while searching for stardom in the comedy world. What happens when one of the group makes that jump into the prime time TV world, and leaves the other behind?
You might groan at the idea of watching a film about improv, but Birbiglia expertly crafts a story that is not about improv. The film is instead about growing up, getting older and holding on to the ideals and passions of your youth. It’s a film about creativity and following your dreams, while trying to figure out if your dreams are actually worth following.
Birbiglia himself has followed his dreams, first as a stand up comedian, who you may have seen on any of your favorite late night shows. Following those dreams lead to a failed sitcom pilot that sparked the fire needed for Birbiglia to create his one man show, Sleepwalk With Me.
Sleepwalk With Me follows Birbiglia’s very real battle with rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder. Appearances on This American Life, brought about a partnership with TAL host Ira Glass, who produced the film adaptation of Sleepwalk With Me, which was critically acclaimed in 2012 (and is now streaming on Netflix).
Mike Birbiglia’s career might not have happened had he not stuck with his own dreams, but for every person who gets to be a star, there are countless other talented people who work in the world of music, comedy or art who never reach those successes and with Don’t Think Twice, Birbiglia takes that very real tale and tells the story of what happens when a group of best friends who have been chasing their dreams slowly navigate their own turning points and deal with their own adulthood.
It’s east to see why it is so important for Birbiglia to hand deliver this film to most cities. It’s a small, personal film. It’s a very sweet, raw & emotional journey, not just for the characters, but for those watching. He’s taking a piece of himself and putting it on screen. By taking the film on tour, he’s showing the audience just how much he believes in the film and more importantly the audience watching.
As we sit back and the coffee kicks in, we chat with Mike Birbiglia about Don’t Think Twice, and we also about the creative endeavors of following your dreams, finding your voice and “growing up.”
Your sleepwalking disorder was well documented in the Sleepwalk with Me film and one man comedy show. I was curious, what are you dreaming about while you are out here on the road promoting this movie?
I think the other night I had a nightmare that I was being interviewed by Howard Stern. I always dream about my heroes. I use to dream about David Letterman. I would have dreams where I would go on a walk with David Letterman and he would tell me I was doing it all wrong. You know, that kind of thing. [Laughs] It’s always disapproving heroes.
With Stern, I show up and he asks, “What is this movie?” I’m pitching it. I’m fumbling my words. “I’ve never heard of this movie. Why are you here? BaBa Booey, why is he here?” [Laughs]
That’s a pretty great dream! Have you ever met Stern?
I met him once. I was never on the show, but I met him.
But you have worked with some of your heroes like Letterman, right?
I was on Letterman’s show like five times. So I didn’t meet him. [Laughs] Then I did a USO event at Andrews Air Force Base with Jon Stewart, Judd Apatow, John Mulaney & David Letterman and some other folks.
I talked to Letterman for seven minutes or something, which was the most I’ve ever talked to him. He says to me, “You were on the show, right?” ‘Yeah, yeah. I was on the show four or five times.’ He goes, “Did it get ya any work?” ‘Yeah It got me a lot of work and it really helped me!’ “Well I’m glad to hear it.”
He only thought about it in relation to the work it yielded. It’s not wrong. It’s not wrongheaded.
What is it like to meet guys like that? Guys who have been your heroes?
Always disappointing. No, it’s fine. I’ve really over the years tried to lean away from meeting people who I admire, who don’t want necessarily to meet me. I feel pesky in their lives. I feel like I’m just another annoyance in their day from what their agenda is and what they want to do and get done.
Let’s talk about the movie some more. With Sleepwalk with Me, it’s literally about dreams and how those dreams relate to your real life. In Don’t Think Twice, deals with dreams, but instead they are dreams of stardom. They are such real and raw movies, that hit close to home. I’m not into improv, but Don’t Think Twice hits home with the search for creative success. Why do you think more people are not making movies about dreams and creative struggles?
I think there’s not a path to financial victory with studios for a film like this. I was even lamenting, while listening to Marc Maron’s podcast with one of my heroes, James L Brooks, the other day. You look at these films, Broadcast News, which is one of my favorite movies; Terms of Endearment or you even look at one of his more recent films, As Good As It Gets. It made a 100 millions dollars or a zillion dollars. Whatever it made. They don’t make movies like that. That’s not an experimental film. That’s a movie that made a lot of money, based on really strong characters and an interesting story with complex characters.
Studios just don’t make it because it’s doesn’t seem like a sure thing that they are going to ten times their money like they are on a comic book movie.
You’re someone who followed your creative path, and Don’t Think Twice is a movie about people following that creative path. How important is it for people who have that creative itch to follow their own path and see where that road leads?
When it comes to pursuing your passion… I’ve been [working] along side Liz Allen, who coached our fake improv group, The Commune. Liz is a brilliant improv guru & author. We’ve been doing these free improv workshops in all the cities we go to, like Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, ect.. I usually speak for about a half hour about the improv rules, “Say Yes,” “It’s all about the group,” & “Don’t think,” all relate to all my creative pursuits; writing, directing acting.
What I would say, and I said this last night, you have the ability to effect people when you perform for 20 people or 50 people or 200 people. You can make people laugh when they didn’t think they were going to laugh. I’m 38 years old and it’s taken me years and years to arrive at this script and a film about the idea that you do not have to succeed in this one specific way.
You don’t have to be Terry Gross or Marc Maron, to do great interviews and be a great journalist. You don’t have to be Bob Dylan to be a great musician and effect people with your music.
I feel like in this country, we have this false sense that, a lot of times, success equals exposure or visibility. In fact, success just means helping people, connecting with people and just being a good person while trying to contribute in some way.
Do you think you would still be in pursuit of your dreams if you had not experienced the level of success you have already achieved?
I don’t know. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do what I want to do and I have arrived at conclusions based on that. I can’t say what my conclusions would have been otherwise. I will say that, in retrospect, in my twenties, I was very misguided. I feel like I was very much chasing this dangling carrot that maybe wasn’t the carrot that I wanted or needed after all.
And there is the quote in the movie…
“Your 20s are all about hope, and your 30s are all about how dumb it is to hope.”
I just turned 35 and I actually feel more full of hope now than in my 20s…
It’s a different kind of hope. It’s a more grounded sort of, Oh I can see my whole life ahead of me! I feel like there is something about your 20s, where you don’t even fully conceive of the idea of what the duration of your life might be. When you’re in your 30s, your parents get old or sadly in some cases, pass away. Your grandparents might be gone at that age… You start to realize that this is finite. You sure as hell better do something that you like and are contributing to society or else… You know. Time’s up at a certain point.
You probably had that feeling hit you at an earlier age, when you had a cancer scare at 19? [As told in the stage version of Sleepwalk With Me.]
I did. That was my biggest turning point in life, when I had a cancer scare when I was 19. It really focused me on what I wanted to do. I had to do it fast.
That feeling hits a lot of people when a family member finally does pass, but you don’t have to wait till someone is dead to make something happen for yourself. The other line in the film that hits close to home was from Chris Gethard’s character Bill, “I don’t want my father to die, thinking I’m a failure.”
You look at Mitch Hedberg, who passed away at 37, had no idea just how big he would be. I feel like he’s quoted around the world, as one of the great comics of all time.
You owe a lot to Hedberg as well right?
I loved Hedberg. I had to shake his voice from my brain to find my own voice.
How does one discover their own voice and talent?
A lot of comics; Jake Johannsen, Jerry Seinfeld, say it takes seven years or ten years to find your voice. I remember talking to Greg Giraldo, one of the greats, once saying that for years he sounded like [Dave] Attell. Then at a certain point he started sounding like himself. I think it’s like the thousands of hours on stage, eventually you just become less afraid of being yourself.
I’m probably projecting my own insecurities on the film, but when I’m watching I see a film about the fear of growing up.
Yeah, I think all these guys are all in an arrested development.
I know your daughter was born right before you started shooting the film, and while you were writing the script. What kind of influence did her impending birth have on the film?
I think it’s a film I couldn’t have written in my twenties. I didn’t experience life in that way. My wife and I decided we were going to have a child. It was a huge decision. It was a decision that was aided by me going to therapy and sort of grappling with Can I? Am I capable of this kind of love? Am I capable of this kind of selflessness? I decided that, Yeah, I’m going to go for this.
How rewarding is it being a father? Is it everything you expected it to be? Is it better?
It’s nothing you expected it to be. [Laughs] It’s all these amazing, lovely things that you don’t expect and it’s these awful,terrible things you don’t expect. It’s nothing like what they say, while simultaneously it’s all those things. All bets are off with having a kid. I don’t even know what to say about it.
I know you’re still working on getting Don’t Think Twice out into the world, but have you noticed her influence in the rest of your life and work?
It’s that thing… The cliché that drives me crazy, I remember being in birthing class and they would ask, “What are you most excited to have your child?” My wife and I would go, “We’re not excited, we just want to make sure it’s alive.”We don’t care about what’s going to happen. We just want it to be alive. That’s what we’re working on. People in the class would go, “I just want to see the world through the babies eyes!” Or baby eyes. People would take out the ‘the’ and just say baby and it was so annoying. We were always so irked by those people.
Then you have the baby and you go, “I just want to see the world through the babies eyes.” It really is true. You start to see things from a beginners perspective. Like the first time seeing a screen like that or a painting or a bottle of water like that. You start to look at things like, Oh, what is this? That’s glass. If I drop it on the ground it will have jagged edges and it will make me bleed.
You just start to construct these really simple things that you took for granted for so many years. It makes you take apart things more.
How has having a child effected the stress of your sleepwalking?
I just went to my sleep doctor the other day. I sleepwalk about six times a year. It’s usually times I’m most stressed and sleep deprivation. As we say at the end of Sleepwalk With Me, there’s no cure. You can face it. You can deal with it. I take medication. I sleep in a sleeping bag.
In some ways we all have our thing and it could be worse. People have terminal diseases. People come back from combat with missing limbs. People get hit by cars and are paralyzed for the rest of their lives. I sleepwalk. It’s just a thing I have to deal with. We all have our thing. I have my sanity. That’s something.
I wanted you to thank you for giving Chris Gethard, a star making role. Every time he was on screen, I was crying.
I kept telling him when we were making the movie, You’re one of the stars of the movie. He always kind of blew it off. I think now with all the acclaim he’s getting, it’s starting to sink in. He’s in Europe right now and we were texting yesterday and he says to me, “The response to the movie is unbelievable!”I’m like, ‘I told you this! I told you!’ It was almost like he was in denial of being a movie star for a period of time.
Why should people see Don’t Think Twice in a theaters?
It’s a film that is meant to be seen on the big screen. I feel like a lot of independent films, people see on V.O.D. or iTunes or that kind of thing. I think I can deliver on this promise that Scott Kuzio, Joe Anderson; our production designer and our [Director of Photography] and myself went to great lengths so you could experience it in a very specific way, on the big screen.
It’s also a movie where you laugh and cry. I personally like movies like that. I like experiencing them with strangers, in the darkness. If people go, I’ll get to make another movie.
Don’t Think Twice is now playing in select theaters. For more information, visit dontthinktwicemovie.com.