John Lamb, Published February 19 2014
Birbiglia takes unique approach to comedy
The storyteller has made a name for himself – as well as eight albums and a movie – by opening up about his life to crowds of strangers.
For proof, just flip through his albums and DVDs, with titles like, “Two-Drink Mike,” “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” and “What I Should Have Said was Nothing: Tales from My Secret Public Journal.”
The storyteller brings a whole new batch of anecdotes to the Fargo Theatre when he makes his Fargo debut Friday night.
So how often does he think he’s revealed too much information?
“Probably all of the best stories, that’s true of. Everything I’ve ever had on ‘This American Life’ was something where I was sitting in Ira Glass’ office kicking around stories, and the ones that will usually end up on the radio are the ones I preface by saying, ‘I would never say this on the radio, but one time …’ And Ira typically will say, ‘Yeah, that’s the story.’ ”
The 35-year-old has been a semi-regular on the show since first appearing in 2008.
Birbiglia started more as a stand-up, modeling his act after heroes like Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Wright and Bill Cosby, but knew he was meant to be more of a storyteller. Eventually that style became more prominent.
“If you’re lucky, at a certain point after five or 10 years, you start to become yourself,” he explains from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. “It’s hard to get to a point being comfortable with who you are on stage. Which is a strange concept – being comfortable with who you are.”
Even after he’d established his style, Birbiglia wasn’t always comfortable with how open he was. He recalls some anxiety over a story, “Beat It,” about how he got beat up in high school. The tale aired on “This American Life” in 2009.
“It was just so hard to put that on the radio because it was a story I was reluctant to say out loud to friends for probably about 10 or 15 years. The next thing I know it is being broadcast to millions of people on the radio,” he says. “It’s terrifying and also very freeing.”
He estimates about half of his crowd discovered him through “This American Life” and other public radio shows he’s appeared on, like “Fresh Air,” “The Moth Radio Hour” and “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!,” on which he’s scheduled for a return visit in the near future.
His relationship with “This American Life” led to his story, “Sleepwalk with Me” getting spun into a movie, produced by the radio show’s host, Ira Glass. Birbiglia directed and starred in the movie, based on a period in his life when he wasn’t dealing with his career, girlfriend and sleep walking.
Opening up about this “felt very right,” he says, adding that because the events were based in reality, the audience can better relate.
“Everyone has something like that. For me it’s sleep-walking. For someone else it might be drinking or a physical disability they have to deal with every day,” he says. “We’re only as sick as our secret.”
One of the secrets that came out is how he now combats sleepwalking. In addition to taking medicine before going to bed, he zips himself up in a sleeping bag.
“My wife makes a joke when we go to bed. She says, ‘Time to put you in your pod,’” Birbiglia says with a laugh.
Adding that making the film was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said he was definitely bit by the movie bug. As a result, he’s working on two screenplays, neither of which is as autobiographical as “Sleepwalk with Me.”
In the immediate future he’s most excited about being back on stages on the “Thank God for Jokes” tour.
“Fargo and Las Vegas are the two shows on this tour I was most excited about. I know that’s an unlikely combo,” he says, explaining that over the years he’s received lots of messages asking him why he hasn’t played Fargo.
“I always say to my agent, ‘How come we never go there?’ And my agent always says, ‘There’s not enough people,’” the storyteller explains. “This year he came to me and said, ‘Now we’re going to go to Fargo.’ So I guess there are enough people.”
If you go
What: Mike Birbiglia
When: 7:30 p.m., Friday
Where: Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway
Info: Tickets are $32, additional fees may apply. This show is for mature audiences. (866) 300-8300
Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533