I first learned about Mike Birbiglia when my aspiring-comedian husband Mike encouraged me to listen to Birbiglia’s one man show entitled Sleepwalk with Me. I was not familiar with the one man show concept at the time, but instantly took a liking to the extended narrative style of this brand of comedy/monologue (although the show isn’t always strictly comedic). I listened to Sleepwalk with Me on my commute to and from work and was quoting Birbiglia by day’s end.
Throughout the course of Sleepwalk with Me, Birbiglia relates stories from his first few years as a road comic when he also began to sleepwalk. Interwoven with this quirky tale of disordered sleep and painful-to-remember comedy gigs are anecdotes taken from Birbiglia’s family life and his relationship with college sweetheart Abby. Among my favorite bits are the portrait of Birbiglia’s father, a neurosurgeon who experienced random outbursts about snack foods; Mike’s gig hosting a college’s lip syncing contest; Birbiglia’s interpretation of the TLC show “A Wedding Story,” in particular an episode featuring a Jersey Shore-esque couple with alliterative names; and his dream of placing in the dust buster Olympics, which in reality, coincided with catapulting off a bookshelf and onto a TiVo. Birbiglia seamlessly moves from past to present as he relates a series of unbelievable incidents from his waking and dreaming life into a brilliantly absurd story. So when I learned that Birbiglia was taking the Sleepwalk with Me story (which was already available as a book) to the big screen, I was excited to see how the stories would translate to film.
With plenty of promotion in conjunction with This American Life’s Ira Glass, Sleepwalk with Me the movie has done quite well for itself, even winning a prize or two at Sundance. The film version of Birbiglia’s story does stay true to much of what he relates during his one man show, although I’m still a bit puzzled as to why he changed the protagonist’s name to Matt Pandamiglio. Mike as Matt narrates directly to the camera in a conversational style that works quite flawlessly throughout the movie. Though plenty of the anecdotal incidents that make Birbiglia’s one man show so memorable are referenced, this is ultimately a film about a struggling stand up comedian attempting to find balance in his career, his health and his relationship with girlfriend Abby (portrayed by Lauren Ambrose who, after watching the movie, I think was perfectly cast).
Mike/Matt tries to find his footing in the world of comedy, working as bartender at a club and filling in on stage whenever he gets a chance. He gets an in with an agent who sends him to gigs all over the eastern seaboard. Under the stress of traveling and trying to win over new audiences, Mike/Matt’s relationship with Abby predictably suffers. The strain of it all leads to the emergence of Mike/Matt’s strange and dangerous sleepwalking habit. It all comes to a head when Mike/Matt jumps out the window of his second floor room at a La Quinta Inn mid-dream, an experience that plays rather funny on screen.
There is something very honest and relatable about Sleepwalk with Me (although I may partially feel that way because I’m married to an amateur comic myself), much of which I would attribute to the way Mike as Matt narrates. Birbiglia/Pandamiglio’s world is easy to slip into and audience members are openly invited to act as voyeurs on a lot of pretty personal stuff. But Sleepwalk with Me strikes the perfect balance, handling some at-times serious content with the perfect touch of levity. The audience roots for Mike/Matt throughout, in spite of the obvious mistakes he makes, largely because it feels like he’s a friend telling us a great story – and he constantly keeps his audience laughing. From classic situational humor to Mike/Matt’s funny interpretations as narrator, Sleepwalk with Me is freshly and consistently hilarious. It doesn’t hurt that the film is also well-written, well-acted, and well-edited and includes a few great comedy cameos.
Though I have yet to read Sleepwalk with Me in book form, I think it a worthwhile decision for everyone to partake in Birbiglia’s story through their medium of choice. Though the main elements of the storyline remain the same across the different forms, there is something new to gain in each telling of the story. I found the film (especially the unexpected Backstreet Boys montage) deeply satisfying in spite of having listened to the one man show CD multiple times. Birbiglia’s story isn’t just one for the comics – there is a universality to this film that gives me hope that it will continue to do well.