Every night before dozing off, comedian Mike Birbiglia climbs into a sleeping bag spread out across his bed, and binds himself and his wife inside a cocoon of fitted bedsheets. Birbiglia takes no chances now, even if a decade has passed since he sleepwalked out the window of a second-story La Quinta Inn and nearly killed himself. (He received 33 stitches for gashes in his legs.)
“I sort of look like a more relatable Hannibal Lecter now,” Birbiglia says of the “fitted sleep sheet” he says he invented recently to prevent sleepwalking-related injuries. “I’ve even cut out a hole [in the sheet] for my head. There are details in my life that are both complete setups and punchlines. This is a completely true thing I’m describing to you, and yet on stage people will just laugh.”
Speaking by phone from his in-laws’ home in Palm Beach, Birbiglia says the “sleep sheet” is invoked during his one-man show “The New One,” appearing Friday, May 11, at Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale. For those familiar with Birbiglia’s brand of storytelling — sheepish, intimate monologues, delivered with about 20 minutes of sidesplitting detours — these painful sleepwalking episodes are well documented. His struggles with REM behavior disorder, a dopamine deficiency in which sleepers literally act out their dreams, were first chronicled in 2008 on the public-radio series “This American Life.” It spawned the movie “Sleepwalk With Me” (co-written and -produced with Ira Glass), an insider’s view about Birbiglia’s disease but also about how standup comedy demands true mettle.
The craft of joke-telling is not only a pillar of Birbiglia’s comedy, but an obsession. “Sometimes, when you tell a joke, someone will punch you in the face,” Birbiglia says matter-of-factly in “Thank God for Jokes,” his 2017 Netflix comedy special, which tackles the power of jokes to detonate. “And the people standing around you will go, ‘Yeah.’ ” In the special, he recalls the minor flap he caused at the 2012 Gotham Awards, when he recited director David O. Russell’s infamous tirade against actress Lily Tomlin on the set of 2004’s “I Heart Huckabees.” Russell had been sitting in the audience.
“All jokes are offensive to somebody. Comedians are not our friends. They’re social satirists,” Birbiglia says during our interview. “As comedians, we find a grain of truth in things, and then spin it into a punchline. But we’re living in strange times now with our current president, where the setup is so hyperbolic that the punchlines have to be even stranger.”
Birbiglia points to Michelle Wolf’s controversial hosting gig last month at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, at which she was accused by some of attacking the appearance of press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
“Comedians aren’t ones to be outdone by politicians, so when the president turns the shock dial up to 11, we have to deliver a 12 or a 13,” Birbiglia says. “Would we even be having the conversation right now if it was [Don] Rickles? I definitely defend Michelle’s right to say whatever she wants.”
Birbiglia will reveal few details about “The New One,” a deliberate move on his part to market the show. (But first-time parenting will be a strong theme, he says. His daughter, Oona, is 3.) Birbiglia’s popularity has soared since the release of his acclaimed 2016 comedy film “Don’t Think Twice,” which means marketing the shows with scant details has gotten easier, he says. To promote his current tour, which will culminate with a string of off-Broadway dates in July and August, Birbiglia released a podcast series last December titled “The Old Ones With Mike Birbiglia.” On it, he revisits old comedy albums, mainly his own, with the help of Judd Apatow, Glass, his wife, Jen Stein, and other friends.
“When I was in my 20s, like 30 percent of my time was spent working on comedy material, and 70 percent was spent marketing it,” he says. “Now, it’s flip-flopped because people are more aware of what I do.”
Birbiglia is also working on a new comedy film, partly inspired by ideas from his wife, who has “tolerated and sacrificed a lot” over their past decade of marriage, he says. And that includes sleeping in the same bed as Birbiglia.
“She’s a saint, and she’s a huge part of ‘The New Ones,’ ” Birbiglia says. “She’s a poet, and she’s in the corner quietly writing masterpieces, which is the opposite of me, in the sense that I’m begging for attention.”
Mike Birbiglia will perform his one-man show “The New One” 7 p.m. Friday, May 11, at Parker Playhouse, 707 NE Eighth St., in Fort Lauderdale. Admission is $32.50-$43. Call 954-462-0222 or go to ParkerPlayhouse.org.
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