There’s something a little distasteful about humor for humor’s sake, something crude in trying to provoke laughter in strangers: I say this thing, you feel this way. The function’s just too simple. There’s a sense that one must justify their jest, and biography’s a good way to excuse the impulse to joke.
Comedians are always telling origin stories: why they’re funny, and – often – how they’ve gotten funnier. They usually self-identify with one of three archetypes: the nerd who discovered he could make girls laugh; the baby of family who used humor to get a word in edgewise; or the sufferer, who, in the face of tragedy, joked the pain away.
Mike Birbiglia – actor, comedian, writer – is all three archetypes compounded, and his new book, Sleepwalk With Me, based on his off-Broadway show of the same title, legitimizes his funny bone in every way. Birbiglia has appeared on David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brian, and Jimmy Kimmel; he’s contributed to This American Life, and he’s released three albums. But despite this success, he remains devoted to self-deprecation, as seems to be de rigor in all contemporary comedy.
But not in a tiring way! No, not at all. Much of the book is pulled almost verbatim from the acclaimed off-Broadway show, with narrative buildup and punchlines built into each of the sixteen chapters. It takes on Birbiglia’s social awkwardness; his loud, overbearing family; his mother’s illness and his first heartbreak. He alchemizes it all into a very human comedy.
Birbiglia traces his first comedic epiphany to the summer after eighth grade when a group of friends invite him to jump from a tall tree into the swimming hole far below. His skills, as of that summer, “included making English muffin pizzas, microwaving hot chocolate, and dipping English muffin pizzas in hot chocolate.” He was excited to be invited; never before had he been seen as a “jump-out-of-tree guy.” And jump he did – not gracefully, but to a painful splat: a “back alley colonoscopy.” His friends think this is the funniest thing they’ve ever seen. A masochist who retains a sense of proportion, Birbiglia concludes, “I enjoyed the laughs, but I knew there has to be an easier way.”
From here, he sets off to catalogue all the adolescent ways one could be funny: fat jokes; gay jokes; Eric Smart, the class clown, who would “pull his dick out in gym class and whack people with it.” To this, Birbiglia sighs. “He’s not hilarious. He’s elastic. That’s not a skill. That’s an attribute.” Mike’s own burgeoning brand of comedy was sillier, more surreal, and – crucially – targeted at a crush: crawling around on the classroom floor, impersonating Dana Carvey, yelling French imperatives.
At one of Birbiglia’s earliest shows, the emcee announced him as Mike… Ba… Hooski! His pride is wounded. He thinks to himself: “You didn’t even try. You just said B and then whatever you could think of and you made me Polish and that’s a really specific choice.” But things look up from here; his career takes off and, accordingly, the chapters roll on with a narrative purpose that provides structure to quips so frequent and so irresistible that it takes genuine willpower not to compulsively read them aloud to whoever’s nearby. He riffs on anorexic puppets (“I’m not sure if Cookie Monster is a great role model for kids. I mean, do you think this guy might have an eating disorder? He only eats cookies, and the back if his throat is sewn up. The cookies just kind of fall off his face. Who is that guy kidding?”), imaginary technology (“It’s senses I’m about to expound upon my personal theory of bisexuality and it vibrates out of control. I’d buy that app.”), hypothetical carnival ride operators (“Well, I have this nephew who’s sixteen years old and smokes pot twenty-four hours a day. I feel like he might be available.”), job postings for the role of Dad (“Screaming child seeks adult man to pay for his entire life.”).
Addictively readable, Sleepwalk With Me never falls flat, but the very best moments are when Birbiglia steps back from the riffing and shares his theories of comedy. “To be a comedian,” he explains, “you have to be delusional.” There’s nothing and nobody to blame if the set goes poorly: no hack scriptwriters, no uninspired set designers, no dead-eyed actors. To be a comedian is to always be on the line – alone. The anxiety that goes along with this seems unavoidable, and for Birbiglia, it comes to infiltrate even his unconscious. He develops a sleep disorder, which climaxes in him jumping out a second story hotel window, hence the book’s vaguely sinister title.
Astute observation is a prerequisite for funniness, but to render humor with soul is even more important, especially if you’re going to bother to publish a book. Birbiglia succeeds in painting a patina of sadness over what would be otherwise merely goofy banter. At worst, comedians exploit their lives and the loved ones who people them for the sake of a drunken audience of strangers. At best, comedians tell sympathetic stories in ways that seem incidentally hysterical. That Birbiglia can make falling in the latter camp seem so casual and effortless is reason enough to sleepwalk with him.