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Comedian Mike Birbiglia on the Worst Kinds of Hecklers

Comedian Mike Birbiglia, famous for his hilariously revealing tales of first-person awkwardness, built a following beyond the club circuit when portions of his act were broadcast on the star-making public radio show "This American Life." He gained wider acclaim with his 2009 one-man, Off Broadway show Sleepwalk With Me, produced by Nathan Lane, which led to the inevitable book deal. Birbiglia's comic memoir, Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories is out Tuesday. He's currently on tour, so we decided to grill him on the ups and downs on comedy-club life.

How’s the tour going?
I’m driving to Cincinnati right now in my van. I’m not driving myself. My brother Joe is driving. We converted our van, which used to be painted like the A-Team van, into the book mobile to celebrate the book. It’s turquoise with a white stripe and it says, “Mike Birbiglia’s Book Mobile” on the side.

I was going to ask you to tell me the worst comedy-club names in America, but you wrote that piece on your own site yesterday. So instead, could you tell me about the different types of people who go to comedy shows?
The people on dates. They always look at each other for approval to laugh. That can be a little touch-and-go. Sometimes, occasionally, people will make out in the audience, completely not aware that there’s a human being onstage just yards away from them, who can see them. Sometimes people think that you’re on television while you’re onstage, so you’re not even a person.

Is a comedy club a good place for a date?
I think it is a terrible place for a date, but many people think it is an excellent place for a date. It certainly is a conversation starter. And possibly a conversation ender, depending on how the show goes and what kind of topics come up.

Who else?
There’s also the heckler who thinks he’s funnier than the comedian. That’s very common.

Have you ever come across a heckler who’s actually funny?
Every now and then, someone will say something that’s witty. But that is a needle-in-a-haystack situation. Sometimes you’ll have a heckler who’s actually attempting to be supportive, but you don’t realize it. Their way of expressing it is kind of confusing. I was doing a show once in St. Louis at a comedy club called the Funny Bone. There was a guy shouting, “You got a girlfriend?” and I would say, “Yeah, I do,” and then I would do a bit about my girlfriend. Middle of the show he says, “You got a girlfriend?” and I did another bit about my girlfriend just to try to segue out of the whole thing and quiet him down. He’s relentless. At the end of the show, he’s [screeching,] “You got a girlfriend?” By then I was just like, “Dude, you’re ruining this show. You are the worst person imaginable. You are the person who comes to a show and derails the show and makes it about you. You’re just the worst type of person.” I was just furious. And then he goes, real sad, “I’m crazy. Crazy girlfriend,” which is a reference to a bit on my first album. ["A lot of times you’ll date someone and the first two months will go great and then she’ll be like, “Maybe this weekend we could … I’m crazy!” She eases you into the crazy.] He was actually requesting that joke the whole time and I didn’t realize it. So in fact I told my biggest fan that he was the worst person in America. I felt terrible about it. Usually it’s people who are drinking so much they often don’t realize that they’re speaking externally. They think they’re just having an inner monologue, but in fact it’s being broadcast externally.

What about the obsessive fan or the comedy groupie?
That’s not as common as people perpetuate that to be. Seems like the only groups of women who come to the shows are bachelorette parties. You know, they have the dildos on their heads and cakes with penis candles and things. Those are generally not your desired audience members, either. The majority of the audience are great people with great senses of humor. Those are the exceptions.

Are there people who are so familiar with your act that they “sing along” to it?
I actually witnessed people lip-synching along with bits as they go. That’s actually kind of problematic because I don’t do my jokes verbatim as I did them when I recorded. Sometimes I’ll be doing one and see someone lip-synching and think, “Oh, I’ve gotta remember exactly how I did it on the album.”

You wrote a book, but you’re known as a performer. What’s it like to be a writer?
I started out as an aspiring writer. When I was in college, I wanted to write for Late Night With Conan O’Brien and I was an intern there. I asked all the writers how to become a writer. They basically said, “Do stand-up so you can showcase your writing.” And then I did stand-up, and then that went well. In terms of writing the book, it was actually very arduous style-wise. Writing prose is just a lot more time-consuming than writing just stand-up-comedy jokes. In a way, jokes are just the poems of comedy. They’re based on an economy of words. Prose is all about embellishing and describing. In jokes, you don’t really spend a lot of time on things.

But don’t you spend a lot of time performing them and finding out what works and what doesn’t?
Yeah, but also you’re whittling it down to something that’s very, very, very short. You’re trying to express an idea that could take ten minutes to express in as short as 30 seconds.

Photo: Patrick McMullan