Thanks to medication and spending every night in a sleeping bag, comedian Mike Birbiglia has his sleepwalking episodes under control. Well, except during times of intense anxiety—such as when he co-directs, co-writes and stars in a movie based on his sleepwalking experiences.
“[While] shooting the movie I would have dreams where I was directing the movie. Because I was working these long, long hours, I was sleep deprived, which is terrible for sleep disorders,” says Birbiglia of making the Sundance hit “Sleepwalk with Me,” which is also the title of Birbiglia’s book, live show and album about the period in which his fledgling comedy career distracted him from a troubled relationship and increasingly dangerous sleepwalking episodes.
“I would get out of bed and I would be moving lights in my room, and my wife would come over and she’d go, ‘Mike, you’re not shooting.’ And I would be like, ‘Yes, I am. I am shooting. I need you out. You’re in my light,’” he said. “I’d literally say, ‘You’re in my light.’ And she would go, ‘Mike, you’re not shooting.’ And I would go, ‘I’m sorry, but I am.’”
In the film, Birbiglia plays Matt Pandamiglio, who may have a different name but goes through Birbiglia’s real-life experiences as he climbs his way up in comedy and neglects both his girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose) and sleep disorder.
At the James Hotel the night after participating with Sarah Silverman, Jeff Ross and other comics in a 30th Year in Comedy anniversary show for Jeff Garlin at Second City, the 34-year-old talked about what sleepwalking is really like, enjoying the Backstreet Boys and what Mitch Hedberg jokes say about the people who love them.
When you wrote the book “Sleepwalk With Me,” how much did you think about it becoming a movie, starring you?
When I was writing the book, I was also writing the movie. It was simultaneous. I’m trying to think of the timeline. I’ve been working on the one-man show since 2005, believe it or not. And it opened off-Broadway in 2008, and you know what it was? I wanted to make a movie and I had an idea for a film called “Waking Up Ben,” and I was working on the screenplay for that, but then people kept saying to me when they came to the one-man show, “You should just make it a film adaptation of this. It’s completely logical, and the characters are all there.” It was interesting because I hadn’t considered it but then I thought, “Yeah, that’s a worthwhile thing to try.” Because what became apparent in writing the screenplay, it was very visual. Dreams are visual, sleepwalking is very visual. You don’t really see sleepwalking in films that often. It’s weird; I feel like in popular culture we have the perception of sitcom, arms-in-front-of-your-body sleepwalking, and then maybe Olive Oil and Popeye when she sleepwalks through the construction site. But it’s all very cartoonish, in some cases literally. And so we thought, “This is an interesting thing to shine a light on. It’s not really in anything.”
Was there a small percentage of thought from you or anyone else that said, “Maybe it would be interesting to prompt an actual episode and film that and see how it goes, for authenticity’s sake?”
We’d talked about it before, but I actually went a lot off of my wife, Jenny, just describing it to me. Just to give you a sense of it (Birbiglia walks around the room), if I fell asleep in this room and I was sleepwalking, let’s say I had a dream that I had to make 100 ice cream cones. That would be a classic anxiety dream—if you have an assignment that you can’t fulfill. I’m just making this up; I’ve never had that dream. But what would happen is, everything around you, this would become a spigot for ice cream, and your eyes are kind of half open, so let’s say you bumped into this (bumps into chair), that would become like a person. “Oh, sorry.” It’s interesting how sleepwalking in a certain way becomes an accumulation of your outside stimuli that’s actually there and what’s happening in your brain.
In a dream, why do you think you were afraid of a jackal, of all things?
[Laughs.] That dream, in real life was from when I was in college ... I used to have this dream in college and I would say to my girlfriend, I would be like, “Abby, there’s a jackal in the room. There’s a hovering, insect-like jackal.” In real life it was clothing that was bundled up on top of a hamper. But like I said, the things in real life interact with what’s happening in your dream.