Spending The Night With Sleepwalker Mike Birbiglia Comedian Mike Birbiglia has a disorder that makes him sleepwalk. He recounts his worst episode — as well as other painfully embarrassing moments — in his comedic memoir, Sleepwalk With Me.

Spending The Night With Sleepwalker Mike Birbiglia

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Maybe you know my guest, Mike Birbiglia, from his stories on "This American Life" or from his specials on Comedy Central. He's really funny and his humor is often about painful or embarrassing experiences. He even has a website and a recording called "My Secret Public Journal," which he's described as a way of making his awkward situations even more awkward.

His new book, "Sleepwalk with Me," is adapted in part from his one-man show of the same name, which was produced by Nathan Lane. In a New York Times review of the show, Neil Genzlinger described it as, quote, "a circuitous tale loosely pegged to Birbiglia's troubles with sleepwalking, but like any good monologue, this one is about more than what it's about. By the end, Mr. Birbiglia has also given us the birth and death of a romance, a portrait of his relationship with his father and a short course in various medical disorders," unquote.

Let's start with a reading from the book about Birbiglia's sleepwalking, which has gotten him into precarious situations. This reading describes an incident in which he nearly killed himself while sleepwalking.

Mr. MIKE BIRBIGLIA (Author, "Sleepwalk with Me"): So it's January 20th, 2005, and I'm in Walla Walla, Washington. I'm lying in bed at La Quinta Inn. I'm Googling myself, watching the news and eating a pizza at the same time.

And I fall asleep, and I have a dream that there is a guided missile headed towards my room, and there are all these military personnel in the room, and I jump out of bed, and I say: What's the plan? And they say the missile coordinates are set specifically on you. And I decided in my dream and, as it turns out, in my life to jump out my window.

There are two important details: One, I was on the second floor; two, the window was closed. So I jumped through the closed window like The Hulk. That's how I described it at the emergency room. I was like: You know The Hulk? You know how he just kind of jumps through windows and walls? That's kind of like me.

So I jumped through the window, and this is the hardest part to explain because people who have REM behavior disorder are physically able to do things they couldn't normally do because they don't feel any inhibition or pain. So I jumped through the window, fell two stories, landed on the front lawn of the hotel, got up and kept running.

GROSS: Mike Birbiglia, welcome to FRESH AIR. You're really funny. It's a pleasure to have you here.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Thanks.

GROSS: So that is a crazy story. I mean, I can't I can't imagine how you even survived jumping out of the two-story window or jumping through the window, for that matter. I don't even know how you managed to break the glass when you jumped through the window.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, I it's a very strange thing to explain to people, and I was at a loss.

GROSS: I mean, I don't think I could take a chair and break through that window.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Sometimes when I'm staying at hotels, I'll bang on the windows to see could I go through this thing if, you know, if I ended up in a if I had a sleepwalking incident like this, but...

GROSS: So you get to the emergency with shards of glass sticking through your legs. You get like 33 stitches or something. You're lucky you survived. You didn't even have any broken bones, amazingly.


GROSS: Did they even believe you at the emergency room?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, they I was concerned that they wouldn't. I feel like they see a lot at the emergency room. I feel like they...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But they see a lot of people who are crazy and are telling them things that aren't true.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: That's true too, yeah.

GROSS: But they did give you a diagnosis.


GROSS: So explain what your diagnosis was.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: I was diagnosed not there, but I flew back to New York and saw a sleep physician. And I stayed overnight for observation. They put the electrodes all over my body and observed my sleep, and I was diagnosed with REM behavior disorder, where people have a dopamine deficiency, which is the chemical that's released from your brain into your body when you fall asleep that paralyzes your body so you don't act out your dreams.

And people who have this are commonly running away from some kind of demon or wild animal, and people who have this, in rare instances, have actually killed people while remaining asleep.

GROSS: So when I'm sleeping, I have dopamine, which is paralyzing my body, so I'm not running from the monster...


GROSS: ...whereas you don't have enough of that, so you are literally running from the monster.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: That's the gist of it. I hope I'm not bastardizing that, for doctors listening. But yes, that's the gist of it.

GROSS: So what do you do to make sure that when you're sleeping, you're actually asleep now - I mean that you're not moving around?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: I take Klonopin. I'm diagnosed I'm prescribed an anti-anxiety, which is called Klonopin, and it's not a cure. It's just something that works pretty well with people with RBD.

GROSS: So are you afraid to fall asleep now because there's always the possibility that you'll sleepwalk and do something dangerous?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: I try not to think about it. It's something that sometimes hits me in a big way, you know, because I'm an anxious person. And so sometimes, all of a sudden, I'm going, you know, I've had a terrible day, and this happened, and this went wrong, and I got this phone call that was bad. And on top of all that, I might die when I go to sleep...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: ...which really, really can top anybody's bad day.

GROSS: You know, the fact that it's potentially dangerous to fall asleep is pretty scary because theoretically, it's the time when you're safely tucked in your bed, and everything's quiet, and your body's in a state of relaxation, whereas you risk jumping out the window.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, that's what I had to kind of teach myself to do since the incident happened, which is and it's a good thing for anybody, which is to kind of dial down gradually into sleep, as opposed to kind of nose-diving into sleep, kind of landing it.

GROSS: Like eating a whole pizza before you sleep?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, exactly. I have all these or I used to have all these terrible sleeping habits, where I would eat pizza and eat tons of food and watch the news, which is the worst thing.

I mean, if you think about it, it's insane that the 11 o'clock news is even a concept because you're trying to, like, rest. Meanwhile, someone's on TV saying: This is new. You know, listen to this. And it's the most graphic thing you could possibly imagine. It's insane.

GROSS: So your father's a neurologist. Did he help you understand what's going on?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: He kept suggesting I see a doctor.

GROSS: Which was a good idea, I must say.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Which is a great idea, yeah, yeah, and eventually, when I did jump through the window, he called a doctor, and he called around to neurologists in New York and found one who actually was the person who said that I should, in the short term, sleep in a sleeping bag.

People think it's made up. It's actually true. I should sleep in a sleeping bag up to my neck and wear mittens so that I can't open the sleeping bag, which I still kind of do to this day.

I mean, I'm diagnosed, and I take medication, but yeah, I still have like a sleep sack that I tie up.

GROSS: Do you take that on the road with you?


GROSS: Yeah, okay.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Little Eastern Mountain Sports, like, summer deal.

GROSS: You've made a career telling stories, many of which are painful or embarrassing stories about your life. You have something that you call "The Secret Public Journal" on your website.

But your book starts off with you explaining that when you were growing up, and you'd tell your father anything about your life, he would say: Don't tell anyone.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: So kind of interesting change you've gone through between don't tell anyone and keeping your secret public journal. But why would your father urge you not to tell anyone?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: I mean, there's many reasons. You know, my father would say, you know, the more people know about you, the more they can use it against you, which I say in the show always sent shivers down my spine because it has like an open-ended fear to it, like that feeling you have when you're driving, and you see a cop, and you're not speeding, you don't have drugs, but you're just like I hope he doesn't notice I'm driving, you know, ten-and-two, sitting upright.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: But yeah, no I think part, my mom and other people who are close to the situation - oh, my sister Patty has said this before, is that it's a very Italian trait. My dad is of a few generations back but of Sicilian descent, and my sister Patti says, has said to me that when she went to visit Sicily, that that's kind of the mentality.

GROSS: My parents had that attitude to some extent, and I always thought it was because, you know, it's a Jewish family. They're from the Holocaust generation.


GROSS: The generation, you know, that was that lost people in the Holocaust. And also, you know, they're of the McCarthy-era generation, where you could be exposed...

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: That's right. That's right.

GROSS: ...who would be exposed for being attached to a communist?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: That's true.

GROSS: So of course there were things you would be, that everybody would be worried about, if they know this, they might think that, you know. But I think this fear, if you're instilled with this fear of oh, if they find out this about me, it will be used against me translates so easily to the more they know about me, the more they'll hate me, the more ashamed I will be of who I am.


GROSS: So it's a kind of awful thing to carry around with you, isn't it?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, yeah, but I think that's how I ended up being a comedian, as like a reaction to that mentality.

GROSS: So you did the opposite.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Taken all the personal, embarrassing things and totally put them out there and also managed to find a way to make them funny, which is the key to what you're doing.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, I mean, and I sympathize with my dad. I mean, first of all, he's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: I mean, the more people know about you, the more they can use it against you. So, I mean, even though my whole book is about not doing that, it's true. He's right. He's a very smart guy. And then the other thing is I sympathize because, you know, he worked his whole life to send me to college so I could, you know, learn stuff. And I did, and I got a job making fun of him in front of strangers, you know. That sort of whole thing backfired.

GROSS: You've got to read the dedication of the book.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Read that out loud for us.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: This is actually I think all of the book that my parents have read.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: I've read it to them personally this summer because I told them the book was coming out, and I said I will give you one copy of it, and I happen to know it's still sitting on their kitchen table, and no one I don't think anyone's cracked it open yet.

But the dedication is: To my parents, Vincent and Mary Jean. If it weren't for your support of my many delusions, I would not have been able to write this book. Also, don't read the chapters about yourselves. Also, I love you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's really funny. And I'm trying to figure out if they've used remarkable self-control in not reading the book because it must be so tempting but terrifying at the same time.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, I don't know what it is. I certainly don't bad-mouth them in the book, I mean, do you think?

GROSS: No, but I mean, you're just revealing things that they would've always preferred not be told about yourself and the family.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, I suppose that's true. But I really do think that there's something about I mean, I think the reason I went in this direction comedically in the last few years is partly because comedy is I feel like in the last, like, decade or so has gotten so kind of disposable and ironic and impersonal.

GROSS: So, you know, we've talked about how a lot of things that other people might keep private is the stuff of your comedy.


GROSS: And so moving along in that direction, when you were 19, I think, you were diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in your bladder, which is a pretty horrifying thing to have.

Fortunately, it was diagnosed so early that as far as I know from your book, all you've needed is a lot of subsequent tests to make sure everything's okay.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, I go in every year for a cystoscopy.

GROSS: Yeah. So how did you take it when you found out? Like, did you freak out?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, I mean, yeah, I was driving home for Christmas break from college, and I stopped at a rest stop, and there was blood in my pee, and I instantly knew that that doesn't usually have positive ramifications.

And, you know, I had that period, you know, of a few weeks certainly, and then really for the subsequent months and years where I thought, well, this could come back, and I could die.

And I think actually, in some ways, that was one of the things that drove me to over-achieve in my early 20s was this kind of race against time of I'm not going to live past - to be 30 or 40. So I've got to do something in my 20s. And that's I think why I was so aggressive in my career and kind of worked myself like crazy.

GROSS: So there's a paragraph I want you to read from your book, "Sleepwalk with Me," about waking up after the surgery that removed the cancerous tumor in your bladder.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, this is from the chapter called "Something in My Bladder": While I was under, they found something in my bladder, you know, an item. So they decided to put me under deeper so that they could take it out. So they put me on the hospital equivalent of horse tranqs. When I woke up in the recovery room, I was sky-high with my mom, which was not the first time in my life that I'd been high with my mom, but it was the first time she knew.

And I don't handle drugs very well. If you've ever been in a group of people smoking pot, I'm the guy who says: Do you guys hate me? Why does my heart hurt? Is that rickets? I'm not proud of it. It's just what I am.

So I woke up in the recovery room, but in my mind, I was in a dance club. I was shouting: This place is awesome. We should come here all the time. Why didn't we come here sooner? Dad's always here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: And my mom was like shh, and I was like shh, do you hate me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's really funny.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Thanks.

GROSS: That's a paragraph you can let your mother read.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, yeah. She's heard that one. She came to the show in New York, and that was in there.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is comic Mike Birbiglia. He has a one-man show called "Sleepwalk with Me," and now he has a book called "Sleepwalk with Me." He's also a contributor to "This American Life." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: That sounds great.


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Mike Birbiglia. He's a comic who has done specials for Comedy Central, and he's a contributor to "This American Life." His new book, "Sleepwalk with Me," is a series of painful, sometimes embarrassing stories. When we left off, he had just done a funny reading about when he was 19 and had a cancerous tumor removed from his bladder.

So how soon does a horrifying experience like this become funny enough to you? Can you see, like, a funny perspective on it to change it into comedy?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Well, there's no set time. I mean, the truth is a lot of people are still uncomfortable with it and who are close to me. You know, I mean, comedy is tragedy plus time, but the time is different for everybody. I mean, I tell some of these stories, and people in my family are like: Why are you telling these stories?

GROSS: Was there anything remotely funny about that recovery room experience when you were going through it?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: No, it wasn't funny. It wasn't funny at the time. I mean, there's a really inspiring thing in the recent I saw Joan Rivers a few weeks ago live, and the reason I went to see her is because I saw her documentary, "A Piece of Work," which I found so inspiring. And there's that moment where she's at a casino performing, and she's telling a Helen Keller joke, and someone yells: That's not funny. You know, I think it's my daughter's deaf or whatever the thing was.

And Joan Rivers just goes crazy on this person, and she goes: No, that's why it is funny. That's why we're here. We're here to talk about things that are uncomfortable.

GROSS: Yeah, and she says my mother was hard of hearing. My mother was like that.


GROSS: So don't tell me what's funny.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, and F-you to that person, she said, whatever you can say on the radio. But that made me cry when I saw that because to me, that is what comedy is about. It's about talking about things that are really uncomfortable, to come to grips with it.

GROSS: Yeah, which means you're really putting yourself out there when you're on stage.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think the thing that really turned me off about comedy, and I think part of the reason I went towards this is because comedy to me started to get so generic. Like, stand-up comedians all sounded like basically mimeographs of Jerry Seinfeld, which I thought was really unfortunate because I think he's brilliant. But I think that mimeographs of him are not.

GROSS: Or they're mimeographs of the guy who talks about sex all the time.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah. There's definitely...

GROSS: Choose your guy.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, there's definitely a group of iconic comedians from the last 20 years who people started sounding like. And for me, actually, it was, early in my career, it was Mitch Hedberg, who was a brilliant comedian who has passed away now.

And there's a whole generation of comedians who are just mimeographing Mitch Hedberg. And for a short time, that was me, and I had to consciously go: I've got to stop doing this.

GROSS: Well, you tell this amazing story in the book. Like, he's on stage, and you're there. Other comics are there.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, I was opening for him in Dayton, Ohio.

GROSS: And he needs the bathroom.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: He needs to go to the bathroom.

GROSS: So he says on stage, you know, I need the bathroom. Can someone cover for me? And you go on stage, and you do his act.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: And I do his jokes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's just, like, amazing.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Because I knew his act so well.

GROSS: Was that what he expected, that you would actually do his act?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: I don't think so, no, no. I think he just thought I'd come up and do some time. But I didn't really have any more time. I didn't have any more jokes. I was, like, so new in comedy that I just started doing his jokes. And I was, like, in his in as close a voice as I could, like: I'm pretty good at tennis, but I will never be as good as the wall. The wall is relentless, all right.

And he came back on stage eventually, and he goes: Oh, man, you did my best jokes.

GROSS: How weird was it to actually be doing the act of the person who you idolized at the time?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: It was very strange, one of the stranger things I've experienced. I just felt so lucky to know Mitch at all. I mean, I remember the first time I met him was there in Dayton, Ohio, and I just couldn't believe I had seen his TV specials and seen him on "Letterman" and all this stuff. And yeah, I just couldn't believe that I could share the stage with him.

GROSS: Mike Birbiglia will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Sleepwalk with Me." He's a contributor to "This American Life" and has done specials for Comedy Central. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Mike Birbiglia. He's a comic and a contributor to "This American Life." His new book is called "Sleepwalk with Me." It's an appropriate title because he really does sleepwalk. The book is adapted from his one-man show of the same name. He's made a career of telling painful and embarrassing stories. He even has a website and a recording called "My Secret Public Journal," which he has described as chronicles that make his awkward situations even more awkward.

So, what's the most private thing that you put...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: in your "Secret Public Journal?"

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: I'm trying to think, you know, often when I'm working on a story with whether it's my director, Seth or with Ira Glass for "This American Life," the story that ends up making it is the story where I preface it by saying to Ira or Seth, I'm not going to tell the story to people, but listen to this and then that ends up being the story that we use.

GROSS: So what's one of those stories?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Well, like the story I told - and it's actually like the main event for my next one-man show "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend," I told on the "Return To The Scene Of The Crime," episode where I was in that car accident where I was hit by a drunk driver and then in this really strange turn of events, made to pay for the car. There was a story where it was part of the decision-making process for me to get married and to get past this major obstacle in my life, which is that I fundamentally don't think that marriage is a good idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: And I don't believe in it. I don't believe in the idea of it. I don't understand when I'm at the weddings of friends where we're at a church and the people on the altar don't believe in the religion of the church that we're all in. And that sometimes they've even gone to classes to further convince the priest that they believe in this religion that they don't believe in. That's insane to me. It doesn't - it's just completely insane. And so, I couldn't get past that.

And the car accident thing was the thing where I kind of let go in this really big way, and in doing that I kind of was able to get past this idea of getting married. Which is very personal because it's my wife and it's - I had to talk to her about it. I said is this okay and some of it she was hearing for the first time, about conversations that I was having with my friend Andy, you know, that she was not in and yeah, it's touch and go a lot of that stuff.

GROSS: Did she ask you to take any of it out?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: No, she's so supportive. I mean she's a writer herself and she just - she's very private to the point where she writes under a pseudonym and she's the opposite of me in so many ways, and but no, she is so supportive.

GROSS: That's great. So what kind of wedding did you have?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: We were at City Hall and...

GROSS: Did you have to go through a metal detector before taking your vowels?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah. We went through a metal detector and they asked...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, and they asked if she was pregnant because a lot of people are in shotgun wedding situations and it's a lot of people who are, you know, immigrants getting married and there's a long, long line and our witness was my friend Nathan Lane, who was...

GROSS: Who produced "Sleepwalk with Me," the show. Mm-hmm.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Who presented my show in New York and which was not premeditated at all. I mean it was like I called him on the way to City Hall and said, hey, will you be my guest at our wedding?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: We took the subway there and back. We don't have wedding photos. Well, we have camera phone photos on the subway.

GROSS: Did Nathan Lane upstage you at your own wedding?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: It's very exciting for people at City Hall when Nathan shows up. He's kind of like the mayor of New York because I'm trying to think of - the woman who was behind the glass filling out all this paperwork. I mean it's really going to the DMV. It's like getting married at the DMV and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: ...so the woman, we're in this long line and of multiple lines that we're going to have to be in and this woman from behind the glass kind of fingers me to come over and I walk over and she goes, is that Nathan Lane?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: And I go yeah. And she goes oh, we're going to do something we're going to get you guys this private room, you know. So we went over and she goes the last celebrity who was here was Tony Randall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Which was like, it's like seven years or eight years before and he was getting married himself, I guess.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: And she said and he said, I do not want special treatment. And so he didn't go to the front of the line, I guess. And Nathan goes well, I want special treatment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: He did not want to wait there. And so we went in sort of this private room and yeah, we got married.

GROSS: So now I have to ask you now that you're married if you want to be a parent and in asking that, I want you to read...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Do you have to ask that?

GROSS: Yeah, I have to ask that.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: I don't even think that's true.

GROSS: So there is a section about being a father or not being a father...


GROSS: ...that I'd like you to read from you book.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Being a dad has never appealed to me. It doesn't seem like a job you'd apply for. The ad would read: screaming child seeks adult man to pay for his entire life. Warning: when the child is 14 he will tell you he hates you and forget about everything you've ever done for him. Requirements: must have sex with your wife or girlfriend without birth control at least one. Also your wife or girlfriend will hate you through most of the pregnancy, for a few years afterward and intermittently for the next 20 years. Pay: no pay. Education: grade school or equivalent. Benefits: your child may bear some likeness to you. Also, if you take your child on walks, other women will be more attracted to you than you've ever experienced in your life. But you can't have sex with them unless you want your wife and children to hate you even more than they already hate you, which is intermittently or always.

GROSS: So, plan on having children?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: I'm not sure. It's discussed sometimes. I mean I used to make this joke, I don't want to have kids until I'm sure that nothing else good can happen in my life. And so I guess the question is are we there yet?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, you describe your father as always being in control. Do you feel like you could never be that man yourself?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Being in control. Yeah I mean, certainly. I mean I've talked about it with my doctors and things and sleep deprivation is a big part of being a parent.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: So it's a concern and, you know, so I don't know. I don't know. I think there are worse parents than I mean there are...

GROSS: I bet that's true.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, right?

GROSS: My guest is Mike Birbiglia. He's a comic and a contributor to "This American Life." His new book is called "Sleepwalk with Me." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mike Birbiglia. He's a comic. He has a one-man show called "Sleepwalk with Me." Now he has a new book called "Sleepwalk with Me." You may have heard him on "This American Life," where he is a regular contributor.

Sometimes in your comedy performances you play a comic song that you have written.


GROSS: And I'd like to play one of those. I'm going to ask you to introduce it. And this is a song called "Medium Man."

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Oh, okay.

GROSS: Set this one up for us before we hear it.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Well, I was doing a college tour. I've performed at like hundreds of colleges in my career and I was thinking about myself in college and how I was never like the big man on campus. But I didn't have zero friends either, you know, I was sort of in the middle. I was like the medium-sized man. And so I wrote a song called "Too Busy Being Medium."

GROSS: Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Too Busy Being Medium")

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of clapping)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Please don't clap.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: (Singing) I was never the guy who could hook everybody in the dorm up with weed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: (Singing) But I was the guy who knew the guy who knew that guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: (Singing) And I was never the guy who could make everybody a fake ID. But when that guy got busted I was glad I wasn't that guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: (Singing) I never made the tennis team or the soccer team but I was solid at intramurals.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: (Singing) Post (unintelligible). I was never a big hit at parties but I waited tables at a bar where a lot of cool people hung out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: (Singing) It was like the movie "St. Elmo's Fire" and I was Emilio Estevez. By the way, I'm Emilio Estevez. Estevez.

GROSS: That's Mike Birbiglia in one of his performances. That song always makes me laugh. It's funny thinking of you as the medium guy because...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ... you say you're so obsessive.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah. So why would that contradict being medium?

GROSS: Well, obsessive is going to extremes and medium is not.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Oh, yeah. I guess you're right.

GROSS: I think.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: I was just trying to like, I was on this college tour and I was like I've got to, I got to pinpoint exactly what my college existence was. And I didn't like college when I was there, but as the years go by I'm like, yeah, it was pretty good, I guess.

GROSS: So I want to play another song. As I mentioned earlier, you often bring your guitar...


GROSS: ...to your performances. And you've written funny songs that you include in your performance. And I want to play one that's a parody of Christian rock. Do you listen to the radio a lot when you're on the air?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: I listen to it for hours and hours and hours and sometimes by mistake.

GROSS: Including Christian rock stations?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Christian rock, yeah.

GROSS: Okay. So you set up a song in this track that we are going to hear.

(Soundbite of "Two Drink Mike")

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: I'm a big fan of music so like...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: ...when I'm driving on road trips and stuff I'll always listen to the radio and I'll listen to Christian rock by mistake.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Because it always starts out as like a Bon Jovi ballad, you know. It'll be like...

(Singing) I woke up in the morning and I got myself some oatmeal and I put some raisins on it and Christ is God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: (Singing) Christ is God. God. God. God.

And I'm like what about the oatmeal? I thought this was the oatmeal song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: I feel like every religion should have their own rock 'n' roll. You know, like there should be Jewish rock, like...

(Singing) I woke up in the morning and got myself some lox and bagels and I put some cream cheese on them and Christ isn't God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: (Singing) He's just not God. He's a really nice guy but don't get carried away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Or like atheist rock. Like...

(Singing) I woke up in the morning and I got myself a whole box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch because I just don't care anymore and there is no God. Sorry about that. Your grandma is in the ground and her soul is staying there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: That's my guest Mike Birbiglia from his album "Two Drink Mike." And Mike Birbiglia has a new book called "Sleepwalk with Me." That's a kind of companion to his one-man show of the same name. He is a standup comic and you may also know his work from "This American Life," where he is a regular contributor.

So I've listened to the Christian rock stations and it's so interesting because it's like parallel world where there is Christian versions of indie rock...


GROSS: ...and hip-hop...

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: You're absolutely right.

GROSS: ...and heavy metal.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: They keep up with the trends.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: That's the thing. They mimic whatever is popular.

GROSS: Had you sung before singing in your act?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: No. You know, I wanted to sing in the choir in high school and I was, they asked me to because I was in theater, I was in plays and the teacher who was the head of the choir asked me to join. And then I was going to join, but then my best friend told me that it was too gay...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: ...and that if - I'm not kidding - if I joined the choir, that he wouldn't be friends with me anymore.

GROSS: Wow. Really?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Isn't that sad? And I did it.

GROSS: That is sad.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: That's so sad.

GROSS: That is really sad.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: It's also sad that I was intimidated out of it like that - that that convinced me, like yeah, yeah. He's right. That would be gay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Like how did I even - how low was my self-esteem that I was swayed from that?

GROSS: How low was your self-esteem?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: It must have been really low.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: I don't know.

GROSS: Since some of our listeners know you from - probably many of our listeners know you from your pieces on THIS AMERICAN LIFE, how did you end up being a contributor to the show?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: I was a contributor to the MOTH storytelling series, which is a live series in New York and then became a podcast and a Public Radio show later. And in 2003, I was asked to tell a story for them at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado. And that was the first time I ever told a story on stage, and it was completely terrifying and it was one of the things that kind of spun me into telling stories.

And eventually, I became a semi-regular on their show and in live show in New York, and eventually when I told the sleepwalking story, I asked Catherine Burns, who is the director of the MOTH, if she would send it over to the THIS AMERICAN LIFE folks, because I was a big fan of the show and I had listened to it for many years and I thought it would be a good fit. And she said no. And then I asked her again, and she said no. And then eventually, I think like the third or fourth time, she said yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: She wasn't being mean. She just, like, didn't want to bother them. You know, they're very busy. And so Julie Snyder got in touch with me about...

GROSS: She's one of the producers.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah. Julie Snyder was one of the producers of the show and got in touch with me about maybe they were going to put it on the show. And I didn't want them to put the live version of the piece because I thought if they played the live version, then when I released "Sleepwalk with Me" as a live CD, no one's going to want it because they ready had the podcast of it.

And so I said: Can we just do it in the studio where I read it in the studio? And Julie goes, well, I think we want to do the live. And I go no, that's the one thing I just don't want to do. And then finally, you know, I get a phone call from Ira one day, who I'd never met and I was just a super fan of. And he was like hi, Mike. It's Ira Glass. I'm calling to convince you to let us use the live version of your show for our show. And I was like, sure. Great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: You know, I was like instantly sold. The power of a celebrity voice. And so they played it. And then all of my pieces on the show have been live pieces. So it ended being kind of cool.

GROSS: So what impact has that had on your career?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Well, the people who listen to "This American Life" are people who I really want to come to my show, so that the people who have - the fan base I've picked up from that show has been amazing. And working with Ira has been - has just taught me so much about storytelling. He's sort of a story Jedi, and every time I work with him, I feel like I'm a better writer afterwards.

GROSS: So earlier, we talked about how you were skeptical about marriage.


GROSS: And you ended up getting married.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Mm-hmm.

BOWMAN: And how long have you've been married?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Two years and four months-ish.

GROSS: So how does marriage compare to what you expected in your skeptical era?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Oh, I love being married. I didn't - it's so funny, because people go: You know, what's your happiest moment, or whatever? And a lot of people go, when I - the day I got married, you know. And I don't even understand that at all. Like, I'm like, the day I got married I was terrified and I was scared and I thought: How am I going to mess this up? And then after that's been good.

You know, like, the getting married part was awful, and then the kind of after words, realizing that, oh, it's not actually different than what we had before, except it's slightly more announced to other people what we are. And a lot, you know, a lot of people ask you about your marriage when you are married. People go how's, you know, how's marriage? You know, but - and I'm, like, it's good for me. It's such a funny like general thing that people ask, like: How's marriage? But when it's such a specific thing, it's like, I like being married to my wife. I would hate to be married to your wife, but, yeah, it's great here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Mike Birbiglia, it's been a pleasure to have you here. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Oh, thank you. It was so fun. I'm just going to sleep over. Is that cool?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Mike Birbiglia is the author of the new book "Sleepwalk with Me." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

This is FRESH AIR.

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