Few comedians can mine their own life’s humiliations to reach comedy gold like Mike Birbiglia. His battle with REM behavior disorder — a potentially dangerous sleep disorder — evolved from a stand-up bit to a segment on Ira Glass’ This American Life to a one-man show, a book and finally an independently produced film, Sleepwalk With Me.
The Boston native narrated his romantic failings in My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, a show that he toured extensively, made into a Netflix special and is currently working on turning into a film as well. Though the acting gigs keep coming in — among others, he has had roles in The Fault in Our Stars, Girls and in the upcoming remake of Annie — Birbiglia is not done turning his own life into laughs.
He brings his latest batch of hilarious tales in his new show Thank God for Laughs to the Adrienne Arsht Center on Thursday. Birbiglia chats with Miami.com between takes on the set of Season 3 of Orange Is the New Black, in which he has a role that he unfortunately — and uncharacteristically — must keep quiet about.
You have gone from regular stand-up to a kind of one-man-show/comedy hybrid. Talk about the evolution of your brand of comedy.
I think it happened really organically. When I started out, people I admired were like Mitch Hedberg and Jerry Seinfeld, sort of observational comedians. As I went through the years I started making myself the punchline, I started using my own life and the stories started to stretch into longer pieces, and then started doing pieces for The Moth and This American Life.
How is Thank God for Jokes different from your other comedy specials?
The show that I’m doing right now is much heavier on jokes and lighter on the narrative. I’ve done four albums: Two Drink Mike; My Secret Public Journal Live; Sleepwalk With Me and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. And Two Drink Mike was just all jokes and I always thought I’d like to try that again, knowing what I know now.
As a writer I feel like I know more and so I’m able to do more. I thought why don’t I do like a Two Drink Mike with my current experience and in the process a narrative emerged about jokes themselves and about how in my life jokes are like an ever-present theme. They’ve gotten me in trouble and they’ve also made me come closer to people I care about like my wife, my parents and my brother. So ultimately I think they’re worth it even though jokes are risky.
It’s not as dramatic as Sleepwalk With Me and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. They both open on cliffhangers and as the show goes on I explain how I got there. Thank God For Jokes doesn’t have that, but I think it’s a funnier show in terms of laughs per minute. I get a lot of comments on Facebook and Twitter saying “My face hurts from laughing.”
Your shows are much more formal than comedy club shows, but do you ever have hecklers?
It’s not heckling as much as it is, like, in the middle of the show drunk people will just shout “Mike Birbiglia!” I’m like, that’s super-helpful. I know who I am, I’m not having any identity crisis on stage. I wasn’t thinking, “Well, wait a minute. Who am I?” That’s always the case where they’re selling alcohol.
I have a story in the show about being asked not to eat a chicken salad sandwich on walnut raisin bread because the woman next to me has a nut allergy and I kind of go into detail about why I think that’s funny. And I’ve had a few people walk out in the middle of that story, but then I’ve had the inverse where I’ve had people with nut allergies come up to me after the show an asking me to sign their EpiPens [allergy medication injectors].
Your previous tour My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend had an epic run of 70 cities. How did you keep the stamina to put in those kind of miles?
70 cities in four countries: Australia, U.K., Canada and America. This tour is actually a 100-city tour. When it’s all done it’s going to be 120 to about 130. I may even go to Scandinavia or other European countries.
It’s challenging, but it’s also exciting. I like to play in as many different types of places as I can because I want to find out what is universally funny. I feel like my shows are like a quest to find out what is funny everywhere. What works everywhere and why.
What have you discovered that is universally funny?
Well, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is a show that can pretty much play anywhere. I actually got approached by a Brazilian comic who wants to translate it into Portuguese. That’s one of the most exciting things that’s happened to me, besides the big financial windfall, but it’s exciting that halfway across the world someone is trying to perform this story that I wrote in another language and it works.
It’s exciting because that’s why you write in the first place. You want to make stories that make people feel closer together and not alienated. But that play deals with universal themes of love and how awkward young love can be.
You closed out your My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend tour at Carnegie Hall. What was that like?
That was one of the most thrilling nights of my career. Just the other night Amy Schumer played Carnegie Hall and we were texting and I was recalling. It’s a thrilling room. It’s got perfect acoustics, perfect sight line and an audience of people who are thrilled for the idea of it and proud to be New Yorkers, so there’s an energy in the room that’s sort of electric and really carries the show itself. It’s almost like there’s a third party involved which is the history of the room. And as an homage to Andy Kaufman, Ira Glass and his dancers and I handed out ice cream in the streets after the show. Which I think made the audience have a great time even if they didn’t enjoy the show.
You landed a new role in Orange is the New Black. Are you going Hollywood on us?
Technically, it’s filmed in New York, which is where I live. And it’s a pretty indie sensibility. My wife and I were huge fans of the show before I got cast on it which is part of the reason why I auditioned for it. It’s interesting, it’s a very dynamic and bold piece of TV. It’s a really smart group of people. I don’t feel like that’s all Hollywood. But if you really wanted, I think you could dig about me being in the movie Annie.