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Mike Birbiglia’s Long Road To Comedy’s Biggest Stage

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Mike Birbiglia took a 13-year odyssey that finally landed him in his own backyard. The comedian speaks with BuzzFeed about his career, Letterman vs. Leno, and more.

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It’s been a good year and a half for Mike Birbiglia.

Now 34, the Massachusetts native has reached the summit of the comedy world after hustling for nearly a decade and a half, when he worked as a doorman and last-minute fill in at the DC Improv. When he arrived in New York in 2000, he saw Jon Stewart play Carnegie Hall and decided right then and there that performing his own one-man show at the legendary Midtown theater would be his goal. Now, 13 years later, it’s happening; on June 2, he’ll be staging the final performance of his show My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, a hit that had already earned him a Drama Desk nomination for its Off-Broadway run in 2011.

He’s gone through breakups, trekked on shitty road trips to dreary cities, and even walked through a second-floor hotel window, living a life that has made for stage gold.

His résumé also includes several albums, televised specials, and This American Life appearances. Birbiglia made the elusive comedy leap last year, when the big-screen adaptation of his hit one-man show Sleepwalk with Me — which he wrote, co-directed, and starred in — wowed Sundance and enjoyed a solid theatrical run (thanks in part to help from his co-writer/producer Ira Glass and buddy Joss Whedon).

Birbiglia spoke with BuzzFeed late last week.

How many shows and stand-up appearances do you think you’ve done in between starting out and when you play Carnegie Hall?

Mike Birbiglia: Since I moved to New York in 2000? I’d say I probably did about 300-350 a year, for 10 years, so what is that?

I’m not good at math.

MB: About 3,500 shows, maybe I’ve done 4,000.

Not to jump ahead, but this is the last time you will do the material from My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, and so you’ve got to change it up, find new stuff. I imagine your life is much different now since Sleepwalk with Me the movie came out, so will that change the approach to writing?

MB: It’s really interesting. I feel like it’s the first time in my career that anyone’s paying attention to what I do. Where before, I could do anything. I’ve always had my 20,000 — well not always, for the last five or six years, I’ve had my 20 or 30,000 people who will buy my album when it’s released, and they’ll come out when I go to D.C. or Chicago or Seattle. And I’ve always been really appreciative.

But in the last year, because of the movie and because of This American Life, I’ve had this thing where people have started to go, “We already know that story, you already put that out on This American Life.” And I’m like, I didn’t put it out — say, the Scrambler story, they’d say they already know it — and that’s not “putting it out,” that’s not releasing it, that’s an excerpt of a piece on a radio show. And they’re saying, “We already saw the excerpt.” And I say, “Well that’s your fault for listening to the excerpt, I guess,” I dunno.

Media is so weird, everything is so accessible now. It used to be this thing where, if you did something on This American Life, this predates me, but when David Sedaris did it, for example, it would just play, people who heard it heard it, and then the book would come out a year later, and people would be like, “Ahh, I kind of remember that.” And now people have podcasts, they own the track. So it’s like they own my Scrambler bit audio, so when I come out with an album, they’re like, we already have that as an album, that track. Which I have to say, that’s a really strange phenomenon.

So now I have to be really careful with what I do. Same thing with talk shows. It used to be, you go on Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon, and it’s gone forever. And people who saw it saw it, and people who didn’t, didn’t. And now it’s like, it’s on the internet. You really have to be cautious of what material you’re doing, where. And then people have camera phones at the shows. Chris Rock talked about it on the Daily Show, and you’re basically filming people doing the rough draft of something, and then you’re publishing their rough draft, which is such a rude thing to do. I thought that was so offensive, when, I didn’t see it but I heard this is true, one of the news sources got a copy of Lena Dunham’s book proposal and published it.

Gawker put it online.

MB: I was like, have some dignity. Aren’t you guys writers? Have some respect for another writer having privacy about something they don’t want to release yet. So that’s just the struggle, I think right now, with media, and everyone’s trying to navigate it.

What did you think about The Tonight Show moving back to New York?

MB: I love Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel. I think it’s kind of nice that those two people are going to be at the 11:30 hour. I think they like each other too. It seems like they have mutual respect. And I love Letterman. I guess I watch all three; increasingly I watch Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon. The thing that’s cool about those shows, Kimmel and Fallon, is that they just both bring it, night after night, and I feel like they both are pushing the envelope in some ways. I feel like they’re not pulling punches, they’re trying to put out great shows. The Leno show, I don’t know that I’ve watched it straight through ever [laughs].

I remember when that Letterman event happened, when he went to CBS and the whole debacle went down with the Tonight Show with Leno, in ‘93 I was like 13 years old, I was such a big Letterman fan that every night, when he went to CBS, every night I would watch Letterman as though it mattered that I was watching. From my television in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, it was part of this grand campaign, this piece of comedy activism happening in America where we were all going to watch Letterman because he was the funny one and he was the edgy one and he was the interesting one. And I really thought that it mattered and I watched every night for a few years there. And then you get older and you realized, oh, no one notices. I didn’t have a Nielsen box or anything, no indicator.

When people mention Leno, in this city or even comedians in L.A., when he’s mentioned, there’s an instinctive hate. But he’s number one, so he’s watched. I’ve tried to figure out who his fans are, and they’re not online, so they’ve got to be somewhere else.

MB: I’ve never quite understood that. But then again, it’s on at 11:30 at night. That’s late, if you think about it, and I think Letterman’s show really makes you think… and Leno’s show, I don’t know if you’d describe it as — it makes you feel okay about going to sleep [laughing]. Where the Letterman show, at its best, puts the world on its head.

Your material has always been about your everyday life, your wife/girlfriend, and family and friends. Now you’re in a bit of a different world, with more of a spotlight — and, I imagine, bigger “industry” people. Are you going to talk about that or keep it very tight?

MB: I try not to [laughs], it’s certainly not the most relatable thing. I was actually talking to Marc Maron yesterday about this exact thing. I called him yesterday, the first time in a while that we caught up, and he and I are both commiserating about how you spend so much time traveling and performing these shows that you sometimes just run out, you don’t have enough time to live, to experience life in a way that you can describe on stage.

My wife and I always comment that our lives are relatively mundane. She’s a writer as well, I’m a writer, we spend most of our time writing and kind of going to yoga in Brooklyn. I travel for my job. That’s kind of it. And then what happens is we’ll go to events and then there will be a lot of celebrities at events being photographed, and then our friends will see photographs, and be like, “You’re living this fast life with all these celebrities.” It’s like, “No, we just went to a thing and some people took a photo of it; I don’t even know the other people at the event.”

That’s why I’ve always avoided Los Angeles. I’ve found, being in Los Angeles, it’s like living in a live-action Planet Hollywood. Everyone is so famous all around you, and I think that what happens is that sometimes when people who are in kind of a natal stage of an artistic process, they move out there and all of a sudden, they think, Oh, I’ve made it, because Bruce Willis is at the same restaurant. But that doesn’t have anything to do with anything [laughs]. I think that town is so filled with celebrities that it tricks you into thinking you’re a celebrity.

So when real comedians who’ve made it big, when they hang out together, is it nice to not have to be “on” and impress people, or is it a game of chicken where you have to be funny or else?

MB: Yeah, I think it’s nice that you don’t have to be funny. It’s kind of a pleasant surprise [laughs].

I think people have a dream that comedians hang out and go joke-for-joke and go on wild romps.

MB: I think the one thing that’s cool about hanging out with comedians is that you’ll definitely see the darkest version of that comedian. So the comedian where you’ll say, “Oh, that guy doesn’t curse or talk about anything controversial or political,” that person will say the most super-dark sexual innuendos, and it’s just funny because it doesn’t fit with that person’s “persona,” so they would never say it on stage.

In your 2008 special, What I Should Have Said Was Nothing, you tell an anecdote about not going to class all semester and then missing your final. I didn’t do a lot of going to class, and I still have nightmares — nonstop — about totally forgetting about a class and then the final. Do you have nightmares about it?

MB: All the time. I have it all the time. I always have this nightmare that I’m not going to graduate from college, because I’m going to fail a class and I’m not going to graduate and then I’m going to be stuck in college.

When does this go away?

MB: I think it never goes away, because it’s just symbolic.

Of what? What is the real terror?

MB: I think the symbolism, although I’m not an almanac of dream interpretation, I do think it’s something to do with, just this inherent fear of no matter what I do, I will fail. I will be stuck in this situation that I don’t want to be in. And of course I have that as well. I think a lot of people have that.

You’re also making a movie version of My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, right? How’s that going?

MB: Well, I mean, I have to say that the other night when we shot the concert film of it, it really gave me pause, because I was like, I’ve written three drafts of the screenplay adaptation. But we shot [the concert] on the Alexa, which is what we shot Sleepwalk with Me on, and we lit it really nicely, the design is really nice, the camera selection is really thoughtful and thought through, and I’m curious to see how it looks. Because I feel like, I don’t know what’s going to happen, there’s a universe where maybe we’ll release it in theaters or maybe we’ll release it on TV. I honestly don’t know how we’re going to release it yet. And so that’s going to kind of dictate what the next movie is. Because if it’s too big, like I was saying earlier, if it becomes a really good special, I don’t think people will want to see the adaptation of it in a film. They’re gonna be like, “No, we saw that already.”

At what point did you think, I could do this for a living, that it was a real option?

MB: I worked at the Washington, D.C., Improv. I worked the door, just seating people and bringing quesadillas to people’s tables. And I just started opening for people, basically when acts wouldn’t show up, that was my M.O. I remember this thing where, for a while, I worked for this one guy, who isn’t there anymore, but he had a thing where he never said no to anything. And I’ve never told this story before, and I’m not going to name the guy, but he’d never say no to anything, he’d always say yes, so I’d be like, “Hey, do you think I could be the Thursday night MC?” And he was like, “Yeah, sure, let’s do that.”

But then I would show up every Thursday night and someone else would be booked. I’d be like, “I’m the Thursday night MC,” and they’d say, “No, no, no, I’m booked for the show.” And I’d be like, “I was supposed to do it.” And they’d say, “My name is on the wall,” and sure enough, their name would be on the office calendar. And then every week, as though it didn’t happen the week before, this guy I worked for would say, “Oh, sorry, I double booked,” and it was like he had never said that before. Every week. And finally I figured out that I needed to get on the calendar. I needed to be in the room when a pen was picked up and he wrote my name on the wall.

And it was pretty much like, because I worked in the office, I could see that these headlining comedians who were coming through were making a living, and I could see how much they were being paid. And even though my parents didn’t want me to do comedy, and made that very clear, I could see that there was a way to do this. And I’d talk to my brother Joe and I’d be like, “This other comedian makes $7,000 for the week,” and my brother would say, “Yeah, you’re not that person.” And I’d say, “Yeah, but I could be.” Because the MCs made $300 a week, and my estimation was that I would be comfortable with that for the rest of my life, I would be completely fine — not realizing that was less than people made on unemployment.

And then just like in the movie, I went on the road in my mom’s station wagon. She made me pay for the station wagon, actually. Even though it had 90,000 on it, I paid to $2,000 for it, because my mom just didn’t see it going anywhere. She said, “I’ve got to get out of this while I can, with the short money.”

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