Tales From the Road: A Conversation with Mike Birbiglia

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Mike Birbiglia is one of the best storytelling comedians around. He recently turned a successful run of his one-man show Sleepwalk With Me into an excellent book of the same name (you can read an excerpt from it here). He was nice enough to talk to me about the book, some of the weirder experiences he’s had on the road and advice he’d give to comics just starting out.

In “Going Places” (in Sleepwalk With Me) you described one of those awful road experiences every traveler dreads, being broke and sitting in a broke down car inches from death. Have you ever had a similar, repeat experience while touring?

Travel tends to allow for trouble. Probably about 7 years ago few years ago I was booked in DC to perform as a feature act, so I headed out of New York City with my mom’s old Volvo wagon, and it just stopped working around Cherry Hill, New Jersey. And I called the headliner, and I said, “Uh, my car broke down and I’m not going to be able to make it to the show.” And he said, “You expect me to believe that?” I didn’t know what to say. I was like, “Yes?”

You’re very open as it is about many of your experiences as an itinerant comic, going to colleges and comedy clubs in out of the way, bizarre places. Outside a tough audience, how spooky can it get?

It’s generally not spooky, as much as it’s often odd for unexpected reasons. On one occasion I was booked to perform at a religious venue, and I requested a bottle of water. And they brought me a 2-liter bottle of Coke, and the Coke had been consumed, and then the bottle had been refilled with water. And I don’t think I’m being a snob thinking that was not what I was asking for. But I did not say that, I just said, “Oh, thank you.”

You performed at a religious venue, like a church? What’s that like? You’re not really a dirty comic, but do you tailor your act to the audience in cases like that?

I have, yes. I’ve performed at a synagogue, and recently at a bar mitzvah. It’s a little more daunting, especially with kids. Even a lot of universities I perform at give performers guidelines. No one wants to know THE TRUTH! (I’m kidding. they just don’t want to get in trouble with their bosses.)

Every performer (regardless of art form) who has to tour seems to respond to it in different ways. I knew an opera singer who treated every non-New York gig like he’d moved to the city where the job was: made friends with people at the grocery, developed his favorite local radio stations, dated local girls (in spite of having a wife back in New York), etc. If you’re in a place for a week or so do you try to settle down a little or are you always ready to get up and go?

I think I’ve made friends with some cities, Boston, Cincinnati, DC, and Seattle come to mind, and some cities I regard more as work sites, and I spend the day working in my hotel room. There are a number of American cities where the downtown is just very non-people friendly; they’re all about business.

The other situation like that is playing colleges in your twenties and early thirties. At first you think, I’m like a college kid, it’ll be like going back to college. And then I met the college kids, and I realized, either college kids got younger, or I got older. And I’m pretty sure I haven’t gotten older.

Did it take you going to a few college parties after shows before you realized it was getting awkward? What were they like?

Sure. A couple. At first I was like, “College parties, awesome! College will never end for me!” And then I went to a few of these parties, and I was like, “Why is everyone at college so young? Oh wait, I’m old. Oh wait, I always was old even when I was young. Oh wait, goodnight.”

Is there any place you’ve played that you just refuse to go back to for any reason?

There aren’t any cities or towns I wouldn’t return to (except five-eighths of Texas), but I am now able to turn down shows where comedians are asked to perform for people ordering sandwiches, or performing to people walking around a gymnasium as they complete an indoor walkathon. (I reference these in the book in detail.)

If you were gonna give a young comedian one piece of advice about handling the hobo aspect of the job, what would you say?

It’s not a job you do because of the money. I also encourage young comics to treat standup comedy like a real job, and to invest the same hours into it that they would invest in anything they wanted to become good at. It’s almost like you have to pretend you have a boss when you don’t. And that boss is an asshole.

Steve Huff trained to be gingerdom’s answer to Pavarotti but discovered about 6 years ago that writing was a better fit for his paralyzing form of congenital laziness. He has been a true crime talking head on NBC’s Dateline and CBS’s 48 Hours and written for TruTV’s Crime Library, Radar, Village Voice Media and the New York Observer. Follow his desperate self on Twitter, where Steve has been tweeting the equivalent of a two-year bout of hysterical giggling after 5 years covering mostly murder and mayhem.