On Self-Inflicted Wounds

I’m crazy for all things Aisha right now. I first knew Aisha Tyler (as many people did) as Ross’ black girlfriend on the sitcom Friends. Little did I know back then, Ms. Tyler is a lady of very many talents (podcaster, comedian, writer, actress, TV host, writer), vast intelligence, and unparalleled quirkiness. My husband recently got me into her excellent interview podcast, Girl on Guy, on which she speaks with mostly male comedians and entertainers about their origin stories and always finishes up with a tale of their worst self-inflicted wound (Chris Rock’s is pretty epic and can be heard here). I’ve even gone so far as to make my husband suffer through rampant applause breaks and painfully shallow gossip during the 2:00 hour on snow days by watching The Talk, the panel-style afternoon talk show that Ms. Tyler co-hosts along with Cheryl Underwood, Sharon Osbourne, Julie Chen, and Sarah Gilbert. I just can’t get enough of this lady.

So I also picked up her second book entitled Self-Inflicted Wounds” Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation. Not truly a memoir, nor really an essay collection, the book defies any kind of classification. Ms. Tyler first explains the concept of the self-inflicted wound, essentially an event of supreme pain, humiliation, shame, failure, etc. for which you have no one to blame but yourself. She then goes on to recount a series of said wounds experienced in her own life, from childhood up to now. The stories are humorous, well-told, and surprisingly (well maybe not too surprisingly because after all my girl did go to Dartmouth) ripe with wisdom and intelligence. They run the gamut from literal wounds, broken bones, and physical scars to emotional and psychological injuries. Unlike most of us, Aisha owns these shameful incidents with pride, never afraid to make fun of herself, point out her flaws, and pass on a good lesson learned. She fuses the funny with the sage, always coming up with some insight from each tale, no matter how silly and impractical or universal and true. This book even brings in the motivational/self-help genre, as Aisha pushes her readers and fans (as she loving refers to them, her army) to pursue their dreams and be okay with failing in an effort to achieve success (like she did). Really this book couldn’t challenge the boundaries of any single literary category more and that made me like it all the more.

Aisha’s playful idioms kept me smiling and her prodigious footnotes kept me in stitches – and I rarely, if ever, laugh aloud while reading. Since she’s a comedian for a living, I expected the book to be humorous but it takes a lot of smart to be this funny. And Aisha won’t let you forget her wit and wisdom, for as soon as she talks about doing something as stupid as lighting her own kitchen on fire or breaking her arm and then snowboarding down a mountain three more times before seeking medical attention, she turns around and composes a heartfelt, well considered essay about the homeless community of San Francisco or references a quote from a brilliant philosopher to remind you that there is some substance behind the wackiness. Tangents and asides are ripe in this one, but whenever Aisha gets off track, she comes back around to draw connections between the various topics knotted up in one little essay that are at once logical and hilarious. Highly pedantic, Aisha resorts to the type of vocabulary and references that prove her intellectual prowess more than a few times, although she never alienates readers with her smarts because it’s all in the service of humor. The girl can write and she does so with great care and personality and pizzazz.

On Sleepwalk With Me

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.