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The Comedy of Comedian Mike Birbiglia

Updated on June 23, 2013

Mike Birbiglia is an American comedian whose comic style is to tell autobiographical stories.

As example, he has an comedy CD called "My Secret Public Journal Live". A journal is defined as a "record of events", supposedly true ones. This CD was listed by AV Club as the best comedy album of 2007. AV Club describes his album as ...

"Birbiglia took tales garnered from his family, his childhood, and cringe-worthy stand-up gigs, and retold the shocking details in the calculated style of a master campfire storyteller, peppering them with conversational asides."

You can hear excerpts of My Secret Public Journal on Amazon.

If you rather watch him, then take a look at his DVD: "What I Should Have Said Was Nothing - Tales From My Secret Public Journal"

Mike Birbiglia's Book

He continues to tell true stories about himself in his autobiographical book "Sleepwalk with Me: and Other Painfully True Stories". Although Mike admits that he was never too good at reading (page 143 of his book), he did get his first book published in 2010.

In the book, Mike talks about his childhood stories and about how his Dad kept telling him (Mike) that he (Mike) needs some "reality testing". I'm more familiar with the phrase "reality check", as in "he needs a reality check". But I guess "reality testing" means the same thing.

Mike writes about the harsh reality of being a comic. And he talks frankly about his sleepwalking problem.

You might ask if all these stories are true. They are. It says so in the subtitle of the book. Mike also says so inside the book -- right on page 1 in fact. He writes ...

"Well, the reason I'm writing this is that I want to tell you some stories. And they're true. I always have to point this out because whenever I tell stories, people ask me, "Was that true?"

If you don’t have time to read the whole book, at least read the front flap. It’s funny. If you have more time, read the back flap also which is about Mike Birbiglia. That’s funny too.

What is not so funny is that Mike has a sleeping disorder that nearly killed him. But he tells it in a way that makes it sound funny.

Mike Birbiglia's Sleepwalking

Birbiglia's story of his sleeping disorder appeared on the radio program This American Life on episode 361 "Fear of Sleep". You can hear Mike's story when you stream the episode on and jump to 7 minutes into the program.

The story was an excerpt from his one-man off-broadway show called "Sleepwalk with Me". In the story, he tells of how during an sleepwalking episode he jumped through and out a window on the second story hotel called "La Quinta Inn" in Wala Wala, Washington.

Sleepwalking is a dangerous disorder and what happened to Mike could have seriously injured or killed him. But since his job is a comedian, Mike managed to tell the story with a lot of humor and the audience was laughing (not at him, but with him).

The story may sound crazy. But it's true. There is such a La Quinta Inn in Wala Wala, Washington. And from the pictures on the hotel website, it does have a second-floor.

We know the story is true because in the performance, Birbiglia talked about the book The Promise of Sleep by Dr. Dement (which as Birbiglia pointed out is "not the most calming name for a sleep doctor"). But in fact, there is such a book. And it indeed was written by Dr. Dement.

Birbiglia also explains that in normal people, the brain paralyzes the body so that what is in your head does not become action. This is also true; Wikipedia says so:

"REM atonia, a state in which the motor neurons are not stimulated and thus the body's muscles do not move. Lack of such REM atonia causes REM Behavior Disorder; sufferers act out the movements occurring in their dreams."

The story made it to television when Birbiglia and a sleep doctor was featured on an CBS morning television show where Mike tells the story to the host.

There is an happy ending to this story. The jump from the second story "woke him up" -- literally and figuratively. He might have been in denial before about his sleep disorder. But this event caused him to finally go see a sleep doctor for treatment. He says he now takes a very strong pill and sleeps in a sleeping bag with mittens (so that he can not unzip out).

He makes a point at the end of the story saying that sometimes denial can kill you.

The Moral of the Story or Stories

Birbiglia often likes to make some point at the end of his stories. And this next one is no exception. It just so happens that it is another story where he could have been killed.

Mike Birbiglia tells the story of about being T-boned by a drunk driver. However, the accident report got it mixed up and said that Mike was the one at fault and that he had to pay $12,000 for damages to the other guy's car. This frustrates him to no end.

Intermixed into this story is another parallel story about how his girlfriend wanted to get married while he didn't believe in marriage.

How are these two stories related? There is a moral to both stories. And the moral is the same in both. I'm not going to ruin the punchline by telling it here. This story is one of my favorite of his stories, because the point he makes at the end is so true (and profound). Mike tells it much better and you can listen to his story on episode 379 of This American Life (Mike starts at about 10 minutes into the episode).

This episode of This American Life happens to be a live show where Mike performed on-stage.

Mike Birbiglia on "This American Life"

This American Life radio program first featured Mike on episode 361 where he tells his sleepwalking story. Since then he was featured on the radio program again and again. Here are some of the episodes that he was on...

  • Episode 384: Many of Mike's story has a point to it. He often makes his point at the end of the story. Here is a story of him being bullied in an all-boys school. You may or may not agree with how he solved his problem. But at least he's got a point.
  • Episode 411: Mike tells of his first kiss with a girl in "Act One: Error At First Base". (Mike starts at 9:45 into the episode)
  • Episode 374: Mike tells the story of his "girlfriend's boyfriend" and about meeting his girldfriend's boyfriend's parents. (He starts at about 47 minutes to the episode)
  • Episode 370: Hear Mike talk about his worst performance ever (at 35 minutes into the episode).


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