The men behind Sleepwalk With Me and This American Life on love, infidelity, and Terry Gross.
Mike Birbiglia is a stand-up comic who weaves confessional, emotional stories into his comedy, so it's no surprise that This American Life host Ira Glass would want to join forces with him. And join forces they did, turning Birbiglia's one-man show Sleepwalk With Me into a film of the same name, out this Friday. We sat down with Glass and Birbiglia for a freewheeling conversation about relationships, art, and the relative sexiness of Terry Gross.
The big relationship issue in Sleepwalk With Me (other than sleepwalking) is feeling pressured to get married. Mike, in real life, you’re now married. Was it just a question of finding the right person, or did something change in you?
Mike Birbiglia: My one-man show that I’ve been touring with, which is a one-man romantic comedy called My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, is all about how I met my wife and how we decided to get married despite the fact that I don’t really believe in the idea of marriage. The conclusion of it is basically, I still don’t believe in marriage, but I believe in her, and I’ve given up on the idea of being right.
There’s a part in Sleepwalk where your character says, “The best thing going in my life is my girlfriend.” For all of us who might be the… less successful partner in our relationship, how do we keep things level, or keep from getting bitter?
Ira Glass: That’s a really hard situation to be in. When I was in my twenties, I had two girlfriends in particular of whom I just thought, “Wow, you’re smarter than me, and way funnier than me, and more interesting than me, and you have better values than I have." And in one case, she totally agreed with me. The drama of our relationship was, “Am I good enough for her?” And that was her question and also mine. And I think that those are the relationships you just have to get out of.
MB: That’s probably what I would say, actually.
IG: It was really only when the relationship ended that my work got better and I felt a sense of confidence. After we broke up — because she was a better person than me in every way — she moved to Texas to do like, legal aid for migrant workers, and I stayed in New York to work on my dumb little radio stories. Another person infects your personality in ways you don’t understand, and until you can be with someone who infects you for the better, that kind of question — am I good enough? — can just rip at you.
Your girlfriend in the film, played by Lauren Ambrose, moved to New York to sing in a band, but ended up moving into a stable career. In contrast, your character is bartending and struggling to stick with being a comic. At what point does the struggle to be an artist vs. "getting a real job" start to affect the people you love?
IG: You are asking that question to the two worst people in the world capable of answering.
MB: Neither of us have kids. We’re both completely career-driven.
IG: And also totally delusional. Both of us spent years believing, “I am going to get somewhere with this thing I’m doing that no one sees but me,” and that delusion paid off. Basically, our motto was “Eliminate all other life responsibilities, keep expenses low, and do what I want to do.” We took the fundamentally selfish path.
NEXT: "Terry Gross. She’s got a sexy voice."
Ira, your mother was a psychologist who studied infidelity. When you were growing up, how did that affect your views on love and sex?
IG: Her research into infidelity didn’t affect my views on relationships growing up, but there were certain things that she said that really stuck with me. For example, before people begin an affair, before they cheat, the real transition begins when they confide in someone else. That’s where the betrayal begins. And there are certain scenes in the movie that totally reflect that: when Mike’s character is on the road, and stops talking to his girlfriend about his act —
MB: He doesn’t tell her that he’s doing jokes about their relationship in his act.
IG: And as soon as he starts having truths that he doesn’t tell to her but that he tells to someone else — an audience, in this case — that’s the beginning of the end for them. And when I saw that, I totally thought of my mom.
MB: Spoiler alert. You know, I talked to a psychologist friend of mine recently, who said that statistically, cheating among women is way up.
IG: My mother saw that too, and she said that the reason for this is that people are in workplace situations now where they’re getting much closer with each other. She said that she’d see it in her practice, and what was striking to her was how often a patient would say “I’m happy in my marriage. I never thought of myself as someone who would cheat, but I got close to someone at my job.” And surveys she did backed that up — something like half of all men who cheat and a third of women who cheat are happy in their marriages.
Who has the sexiest radio voice: Peter Sagal, Marc Maron, or Ira?
MB [incredulously]: Sexiest?
IG: I think Maron takes that for sure. I feel like it’s not even a competition.
MB: I’m not turned on by any of those people.
IG: Okay: Melissa Block or Terry Gross?
MB: My answer’s Terry Gross. She’s got a sexy voice.
Louis C.K. is doing really well with Louie, and Sleepwalk’s getting a nationwide release. Would you say emotionally fragile people are “having a moment” right now?
MB: I think that there’s a cultural shift happening right now. We went through a Seinfeldian period of comedy — which was awesome, and hilarious — but it seeped into everyday life, and suddenly you’d see observational comedy in commercials and billboards, and suddenly, everything had to be funny. And I hate that. And what me, and Marc Maron, and Doug Stanhope, and Louis, and Maria Bamford, and a few other comedians sort of arrived at on our own was the need to do something else. Just being vulnerable, and giving the audience something that feels more personal.
With a lot of stand-up comedy, there is a kind of remove or emotional distance; it’s hard to imagine Dane Cook or Daniel Tosh baring their insecurities or personal failings on stage.
IG: Yeah, and I can’t stand that. It’s interesting how what Mike and Louis are doing dovetails with, like, what Judd Apatow or Paul Feig are doing in comedic movies. I know that when Apatow walks into a writer’s room, he’ll ask, “What’s the most painful thing that’s ever happened to us, and how can we make a comedy out of that?”
MB: Absolutely. And Judd’s movies have, if anything, gotten more personal. And, you know, the pendulum’s going to swing back eventually. But right now, that’s where comedy seems to be, and I’m happy about it.
Any parting advice?
IG: The best thing for any couple, anywhere, would be to go see Sleepwalk With Me this weekend. They’ll be set.
Want to meet a sensitive, empathetic stand-up comic? Meet them on Nerve.