The sleepwalking standup: Mike Birbiglia expands one-man show into big-screen lead acting and directing debut

“Before we begin, I just want to ask you to turn off your phone. I say that because I was at a movie recently, and the guy next to me answered his phone during the movie, and he answered it by saying—and I quote—he said, ‘Who dis?’ Which means not only was he willing to talk to someone, he was willing to talk to anyone. He didn’t care who it dus. I’m not sure what the past tense of dis is, but he did not care who it dus.”

The standup comic who delivers these opening lines from Sleepwalk with Me is neither standing nor walking at the time. He is sitting down, behind the steering wheel of his car, pulling up to a tollbooth and fishing out the necessary change while giving his complete attention to you—the movie patron in the passenger seat next to him.

Mike Birbiglia has been a film director/actor/writer for two seconds, and already he has broken down the fourth wall and brought you up-close and personal like the kind of person he normally entertains in nightclubs and small off-Broadway houses.

This ingratiating, accessible intimacy is identical to what Birbiglia does on stage. In fact, this particular much-told tale has journeyed from standup routine to radio episode (NPR’s “This American Life”) to book (Sleepwalk with Me: and Other Painfully True Stories) to one-man play to feature-length film, growing like Topsy at each stop. What’s the next frontier? “Action figures? Videogames?” he suggests.

Actually, he is glad to finally get this story to the cameras at last before it solidifies on him. It is all true—based on his own bizarre sleep disorder and his more human, relatable aversion to relationship commitment—only here, Mike Birbiglia operates under the name of Matt Pandamiglio (same thing, really), and there’ve been name-changes for the more innocent characters in his life: his supportive sweetheart (Lauren Ambrose), his push-pull parents (Carol Kane and James Rebhorn), his marrying sister (Cristin Milioti, once of the Once musical, now of Scorsese’s next) and his doting aunt (Marylouise Burke), plus a bunch of club comics for atmosphere.

Opening up a one-man monologue to the plausible population of a major motion picture is no easy proposition—here the casting call ballooned from one to 45—so Birbiglia got a little help from his friends: specifically, his brother (Joe, also a standup comic), his producer (NPR’s Ira Glass) and his co-director (Barrow Street Theatre artistic director Seth Barrish, who helms Birbiglia’s one-man stage shows).

One wonders why, given their history of both having been down the same road before, that Birbiglia did not allow Barrish to direct the film version by himself.

It has to do with vision—and television: “I did a TV pilot for a network in 2008. I was the star, and it was based on source material from my life, but my vision was lost in it because I wasn’t the show-runner and I wasn’t the producer. A film is all about a director’s vision, and so I felt I needed Seth to guide my performance but I wanted to keep everything else in the film within my vision. He was, as he is with all of the shows, fully committed and focused and calm. It was great to work with someone who has such a wealth of experience. He has probably directed some 30 or 40-odd plays, and some of them are among the best plays I’ve seen in New York.”

Eleven pages of stale comedy material and eight years of a stalled romantic relationship are the twin forces dominating the life of Pandamiglio/Birbiglia, keeping him at the bottom of the comedic heap. He tends bar in comedy clubs, hoping to snag a set here and there when an act cancels. It’s not until an agent flings him to out-of-the-way clubs along the Eastern seaboard that his comic skills crystallize. Far from home and heart, he starts making fun of what’s really on his mind—impending marriage—and this finally connects him to the audience’s laugh box.

Of course, he must pay for his sins: His extreme sleepwalking (rapid-eye-movement behavior disorder) spins dizzily out of control. Not only does he sleepwalk, he acts out his dreams. He steps up to accept an Olympic medal and falls off his bedroom chest. Imagining that he is being chased by a jackal, a man-eating siren or a pistol-packing rival comic, he can wind up under a blanket or in a refrigerator or, worst-case scenario, in the parking lot of a Walla Walla, Washington motel, bruised, bloodied, perforated with glass shards after leaping through a second-story window.

“I think at a certain point in my journey in comedy,” he notes, “I realized that what was resonating with people the most were the things that were the most vulnerable and the most painful in my life—so that’s the direction that I decided to go in.”

Movies are better suited for this assignment than a mere monologue. Visualizing the danger that his malady places him in is more suspenseful and sympathy-winning than just hearing him talk about it. And Geoffrey Richman’s quick-cut editing, yanking us out of fantasy and into an unexpected reality, has authentic shock-effect.

Frenetic editing also produces a funny effect in the reluctant proposal scene, which is relayed in the same spurts and spasms that it is played in. “We collaborated on that,” says Birbiglia. “That was an idea I had, but his execution was really creative.”

Birbiglia’s remarkable rapport with the camera can’t be taught. (“What’s that school? Where’s that university? Talk to the Camera U?”) Affable and unobtrusive, he addresses the camera/you directly at one point midway through the picture and prepares the audience for a bit that’s ahead that is unflattering even by his self-depreciating standards: “Remember, you’re supposed to be on my side.”

How does he account for this filmic ease his first time at bat on both sides of the camera? “I think Seth Barrish is instrumental in that. He and I have this mutual interest in performance that doesn’t force audiences to feel a certain way. You relax into a performance, let them come to you versus hit them over the head with things.”

Also, Matt Pandamiglio is only two degrees of separation from Ferris Bueller. Because Nathan Lane “presented” (like, produced) Sleepwalk with Me at the Bleecker Street Theatre, Birbiglia had access to Lane’s co-star in The Producers, Matthew Broderick, so he called him up. “I said, ‘Because you did Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, do you have any tips for talking to the camera?’ He said they actually reshot a lot of that because John Hughes didn’t like how it turned out. He told Matthew, ‘When you talk to the camera, you need to maintain eye contact with the camera because, otherwise, the audience won’t trust you. Like, in a conversation, if you don’t keep eye contact, it’s ‘Why is this guy looking at his shoes?’ So that was very helpful.”

Matt has an even closer kinship to Alvy Singer, Annie Hall’s standup-comic lover of sorts. What both couples have, as Alvy diagnosed it, is “a dead shark on our hands,” because relationships—like sharks—must move forward or die. Consequently, everybody opts to bail at the end, and their movies wind up with a melancholy incomplete in the romance department. Matt is left to realize that he and Abby had clung together all those years out of fear of hurting the other person’s feelings.

“That was real,” Birbiglia acknowledges. After the film’s premiere at Sundance, it opened the annual BAMcinemaFest in Brooklyn earlier this summer (on Birbiglia’s 34th birthday), and his ex-girlfriend—the Abby character—attended and attested to the truth of what he filmed. “She was really moved by it and said that was precisely how she felt,” he reports. “She was worried when we broke up. We both were. I was worried about her, what would happen and would she meet someone, and she worried, ‘Is he even going to be alive?’ more than ‘Is he going to be okay?’”

Birbiglia finally did make it down the aisle four years ago—with Jen Stein—and she, being a big “Six Feet Under” fan, was the one who suggested Lauren Ambrose for the role of Abby. “Jenny and I knew the most important thing was that you should never feel bad for the woman playing the girlfriend. And Lauren has this quality of strength and humor about her, where you can’t really feel bad for her. She just seems like she’s going to be fine. You can’t buy that quality. You can’t learn quality.”

Another Annie Hall echo is Birbiglia’s employment of Dr. William C. Dement, the world-renowned sleep physician and author of The Promise of Sleep. Just as Alvy Singer pulled Marshall McLuhan out a movie queue to silence a blowhard mangling McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” theory, Birbiglia has the good doctor in the passenger seat reading his audiobook to a somewhat-asleep-at-the-wheel Matt.

The only real sleep slip-up that Birbiglia has had in recent years occurred during the filming of Sleepwalk with Me, he admits. “When I was directing the film, I was doing precisely all the things that Dr. Dement told me not to. I was having high anxiety. I was sleep-deprived. I was on my computer all the time, of course. And I’d have incidents where I was directing in my sleep, walking around the room, adjusting lights in our bedroom. My wife would come in and say, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘We’re shooting.’ She’d say, ‘We’re not shooting.’ I’d say, ‘I’m sorry, but we are.’ I was patronizing to her. How could she not think we weren’t shooting at that moment?”

The Birbiglias just moved into a new apartment in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens and, inveterate second-story man that he is, their bedroom is on the second floor. “But we’ve taken precautions,” he hastens to add. “We put in shutters and arranged furniture in front of windows.

“Also, my sleeping habits are wildly different than they were when the incident happened. I used to be so cavalier about the time of day. It’d be four in the morning, and I’d be eating pizza or surfing the web as I fell asleep. Hey, it happened when I was 25 years old. I think there are certain things you do in your 20s that are more cavalier than when you’re aged. You do get a little wiser—just marginally, I think.”

There is no representation, fictional or actual, of the real Mrs. Birbiglia in Sleepwalk with Me, but she will be depicted “in some way” in her husband’s next opus, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, which is being enlarged from his second one-man show.

“Basically, it’s about how we decided to get married, despite the fact that we didn’t agree with the idea of marriage,” he explains. “I say at the beginning that I don’t believe in the idea of marriage. Not only do I not believe in it, my friend Andy and I will try to stop other people we know from getting married. We’ve stopped, or put on hold, three to five marriages. We’re pretty good. We’re not the best in the world—I’m sure they’re better in Europe—but we’re pretty solid about it.

“Then I have this whole series of stories about how we met, how it escalated, how it became clear she had another boyfriend she was seeing off and on and I had people I was seeing off and on. We couldn’t let go of the lives we had before we met each other. At the end of the show, I say, ‘We decided to get married. I still don’t believe in the idea of marriage, but I believe in her, and I’ve given up on the idea of being right.’”

That project occupies most of his time, but he’s still susceptible to occasional acting assignments. Jennifer Euston, who cast Sleepwalk and was just Emmy-nominated for TV’s “Girls,” recently threw him a guest role on the show—Lena Dunham’s prospective employer. “That was the first time I’ve played a part on television. My agent likes to say she’s trying to get me out of parts where I wear uniforms. In Going the Distance with Drew Barrymore, I was a waiter at an Italian restaurant. Then, in Cedar Rapids, Miguel Arteta’s movie with Ed Helms, I was the hotel desk clerk.

“But I’m definitely being cautious about what I accept in the acting world right now, just because I have in my mind what these next few films that I want to make are.

“I’m interested [in an acting career], and there are a few directors who can still get my attention for that. If Judd Apatow, James Brooks, Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese asked me to do anything—if they wanted me to play a bus driver in a 14-second scene—I’m there. But I want to make sure that I make these films I’m trying to make. I’m more interested in being a storyteller where I can execute what I’m writing.”