Comic Mike Birbiglia On His Best Failure, The 3 Rules Of Improv And 'Don't Think Twice' Birbiglia says the failure of his sitcom pilot is the best thing that could have happened to him, artistically. His new film, Don't Think Twice, tells the story of an improv comedy group.

Comic Mike Birbiglia On His Best Failure And The 3 Rules Of Improv

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is comic, writer, actor and director Mike Birbiglia. A lot of public radio listeners were first introduced to him through his stories on "This American Life." His story about sleepwalking was expanded into his one-man show "Sleepwalk With Me," which he later adapted into a film of the same name. Now, he's written and directed the new film "Don't Think Twice" about a comedy improv group. The film's stars include Birbiglia, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Gethard and Gillian Jacobs. When the film begins, the six members of the improv group have worked together a long time. They spend a lot of time together offstage, too, and have a strong sense of group identity, until one of them fulfills the dream each of them have had - becoming a cast member on the TV sketch comedy show "Weekend Live," the movie's version of "Saturday Night Live." They try to feel happy for him, but they mostly feel hurt and jealous and start to question some of their own choices. Let's start with a scene from early in the film when the whole group is still together. They're sitting around the TV watching "Weekend Live," making jokes about how mediocre the show has become. Mike's character, Miles, is the one member of the group who had auditioned for the show in the past and didn't get it.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) It's "Weekend Live."

TAMI SAGHER: (As Lindsay) I'm glad you're keeping score. Do you know what I mean? Like...

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: (As Miles) It's the sports of comedy. It's the only live sporting event of comedy.

GILLIAN JACOBS: (As Samantha) But comedy isn't a sport. It shouldn't have winners and losers, and there shouldn't be points.

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: (As Jack) They don't have - I mean, they got Gary Cho (ph) and then it's like who else? You know what I mean? Everybody else is...

SAGHER: (As Lindsay) White.

KEY: (As Jack) Even if it wasn't me, there should be somebody else on this show that represents another...

BIRBIGLIA: (As Miles) Different shades of white, certainly.

KEY: (As Jack) Yes, there's definitely - they've got - they've got egg shell.


KEY: (As Jack) To ecru to off-white to almost ochre.

CHRIS GETHARD: (As Bill) I enjoy ochre performers.


SAGHER: (As Lindsay) It was good when I was little.

BIRBIGLIA: (As Miles) Right, you know, you never know if it was good when you were little or you were just little so you didn't know. It's the great paradox of "Weekend Live" is was it good ever...

KEY: (As Jack) And can I...

BIRBIGLIA: (As Miles) ...Or that we just think so because...

SAGHER: (As Lindsay) You really - you should not have said that in your audition. I think that...


GROSS: Mike Birbiglia, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BIRBIGLIA: (Laughter) Thanks. Thanks, Terry, for having me.

GROSS: You know, in that clip, the whole group, the whole improv group, is watching this "Weekend Live" show together. But later, when one member of the group actually becomes a cast member of "Weekend Live," the rest of the group is watching it. And this time, they're not able to, like, dish it as a group that has never been able to achieve that success. Now one of them actually made it, and it's kind of upsetting. Would you describe the emotion that everybody is...

BIRBIGLIA: (Laughter) It is kind of upsetting, yeah.

GROSS: ...Watching - everybody's feeling as they watch one of their own improv members on that show?

BIRBIGLIA: You know, that clip that you played is the experience of I feel like watching any kind of produced comedy - successfully produced comedy show with fellow comedians. It's like you hear friends become sort of the Statler and Waldorf of comedy critics.

GROSS: They're the Muppets in the balcony.

BIRBIGLIA: (Laughter) Yes. And it's not fair at all 'cause so much of it is based on bitterness. I mean - which is the - sort of at the core of this film is bitterness and jealousy that happens...

GROSS: Resentment, yeah.

BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, what happens when your friends make it in a way that you wanted to and maybe you didn't. And then the deflation of the second scene is - it's a mix of emotion. It's like some - you know, in some ways, they're, like, in awe that their friend is on the show. In some ways, they're sad that it's not them. And I think that that's a reality of being in show business as well.

GROSS: You know, you can think, well, that kind of success is out of reach for people like us. But when someone you know has reached that level of success, it's more of a direct rejection. It's like, well, guess it wasn't out of reach, but it's out of reach for me.

BIRBIGLIA: Yeah. I feel like jealousy is this thing that we all foster to varying degrees and I certainly do.

GROSS: Did you want to admit the feeling of jealousy that you may have toward people in your own profession who are more successful than you are?

BIRBIGLIA: No (laughter) though much has been written about it. Yeah, though, people interpret it that way, certainly. No, I was just trying to tap into this thing that I thought was sort of everywhere, you know, that I - you know, I feel to a certain extent and I think my peers feel. And I think - I think in every profession, whether it's journalism or advertising or, you know, your group of college friends, there's a degree to which other people achieve success and you maybe are frustrated that you don't have that. It's just that - I thought it was a universal that no one was really making a movie about. I mean, certainly, like - certainly, Hollywood isn't making a movie like this. You can't go into a Hollywood pitch meeting and be like, OK, so the movie's about failure and about how it's - oh, failure's OK.

There was this funny thing actually where - when Ira Glass and our editor Geoff Richman and I, we would do these test screenings in front of real audiences. And there was this woman one night who really - it was an early cut of the movie - and she really hated it. I mean, so much. And she just goes - you know, we go, what does everyone think? And she goes, you know, without even raising her hand, like, I hated it (laughter). And we go, well, why did you hate it? And - you know, because the critical feedback's more helpful. And she goes, I don't like the people. And we go, what don't you like about the people? She goes, they're losers. And so that was a catchphrase in edit for a long time. We just thought it was so funny that someone's criticism would just be they're losers. But it's like that's kind of the point is that they're losers or that they're struggling.

GROSS: I mean, they're all talented. They're - (laughter) - they just haven't succeeded to that level.

BIRBIGLIA: They are all talented and also, like, you know, that was part of the...

GROSS: Did you feel like saying, and exactly what have you accomplished?


GROSS: Miss Critical.


GROSS: Yeah.

BIRBIGLIA: Burn these people who are doing us a favor by watching our movie. But, no, I - it's funny. I'm glad you said that they're all talented 'cause that was one of the key things that I wanted to make sure was in the film, this sense that, like, they're all good. Like, it's not, like, this thing where one of them is great and the rest of them are terrible. It's like - the movie was inspired by this observation my wife made - my wife, Jen - made where she came to an improv show I did one night at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York. And she goes everyone - it's amazing that everyone is equally talented in this show. And yet, you know, this one person's on "Saturday Night Live" and this one person's a movie star and this one person lives on an air mattress in Queens, you know? And I thought not only is that true and a great observation, but it's also a movie. Like, I could just picture this sort of big chill-type comedy set in the world of an improv theater.

GROSS: So Chris Gethard, who's one of the...


GROSS: ...Stars of the film, he plays one of the improv comics in your movie, has the line, your 20s are about hope, and your 30s are about how dumb it was to hope.


GROSS: Did you feel that way about your life at any point? I mean, you've done pretty well, actually.

BIRBIGLIA: (Laughter) Long pause, actually. Yeah, I mean, I relate to that to some degree. I feel like there's a way in which when I look back in my 20s, I'm embarrassed because I was, I think, kind of sprawling in every direction looking for any kind of success at all, any kind of, like - I'll audition for a commercial. I'll audition for voiceovers. I'll audition for movies or TV shows or anything. And I was kind of cast in nothing.

And in the kind of - where that crescendoed was when I was about 30 years old. It was 2008. I was - I got my own sitcom pilot with CBS. And I - based on my life, and I couldn't believe it. And it was, like, Bob Odenkirk played my brother and Nick Kroll played my cousin. Like, it was just like - and Frances Conroy played my mom. And it was like a dream come true, and I thought, oh, this is it. Like, I've made it in a certain way. And then when it didn't get picked up to air, I was crushed.

And in that space of time where, like, my calendar was empty, I decided, well, why don't I go and kind of double-down on my own projects? Like, I had been working on "Sleepwalk With Me," the one-person show, for seven years as, like, sort of a side project. And I was like, well, why don't I produce that with the level of production that these networks and studios bring to their movies and TV shows?

And so that's when I mounted "Sleepwalk With Me" off-Broadway. And since then, I've made three off-Broadway shows and two - and directed two movies. And I feel, actually, so happy for that failure. Like, I feel like not - that sitcom not being picked up is financially probably the worst thing that ever happened in my life and artistically the best.

GROSS: Well, tell us more about this sitcom that never happened.

BIRBIGLIA: (Laughter).

GROSS: Like, what version of your life were you playing?

BIRBIGLIA: It was - honestly, it was very similar to the sort of "Sleepwalk With Me" version of myself, which is to say that I was in a relationship on the show with someone who wanted to get married. And I wasn't sure I wanted to get married. I wanted to pursue comedy. And so, in a lot of ways, it was the sort of "Sleepwalk With Me" film narrative.

And it was good. It was very much, you know, my version of Seinfeld. My version of Romano - "Everyone Loves Raymond" (ph). Like, it wasn't new. It wasn't original. And I don't know. I'm a little bit embarrassed of it. But it was a good learning process.

GROSS: So did you ever dream of being on "Saturday Night Live?"

BIRBIGLIA: I think so - I mean, maybe when I was a lot younger. Like, first of all, people ask me a lot - did I audition for the show - for obvious reasons - in the movie? No. I'm - I have been on the low rung of show business for so long...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIRBIGLIA: ...That I don't know if people realize that it's really hard to even get an audition for "Saturday Night Live." Like, it's, like, nearly impossible. So, like, no one ever asked me to audition for the show. And so no, I never auditioned for it.

I've never - I mean, what happened was, like - in my 20s, I thought, like, oh, maybe I should be on Saturday Night Live - not even really realistically considering the fact that I don't do voices. I don't do impressions. I don't write kind of characters the way they do. I mean, it's such a wrong fit.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

BIRBIGLIA: But I think I had to sort of - yeah. But in my 30s, I feel like I came to grips with like - oh, I'm this other thing. I tell stories. And I make movies and one-person shows.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mike Birbiglia. He wrote, directed and co-stars in the new film, "Don't Think Twice," about a comedy improv group. Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic writer, director and actor Mike Birbiglia. He made the new movie "Don't Think Twice," which is a comedy about an improv group, one of whose members actually makes it on a big sketch comedy show. And everybody else feels kind of left behind. You may also know Mike Birbiglia from his stories that he's done on This American Life, from his one-man show "Sleepwalk With Me" and from his film "Sleepwalk With Me," which he also wrote, directed and stars in.

So the new movie, "Don't Think Twice," opens with, like, the rules of improv.


GROSS: Of those rules of improv, which actually have some meaning for you in the work that you do?

BIRBIGLIA: Well, the rules of improv, I believe, are so profound because they apply to almost any kind of collaboration. You know, at the beginning of the film it says, you know - number one, say yes. Two, it's all about the group. And three, you know, don't think, which is to say, just do - kind of first thought, best thought kind of thing. And I think that those are really good rules for just collaboration. I feel like - improv is not my specialty. It's, you know - I would say standup and filmmaking is much more my specialty than improv. But it is a thing that I learned when I was 18. And I think that your brain can be imprinted when you're that young with principles that kind of stick with you for a long time.

And in retrospect, when I look back on directing "Sleepwalk With Me," I didn't know how to direct a movie (laughter). There's no way to teach someone how to direct a movie. I mean, you can go to film school. You can direct a short. But to direct a feature film, it's like waiting tables for the first time. You have to sort a lie and say that you've waited tables before, which, of course, leads to a lot of incompetent waiters who are liars.

But - directors are like that, too. Like, you really don't know what you're doing. And I think, in a lot of ways, these ideas - these principles are what got me through, this idea of, like, listen to people more than you talk and yes-and people's ideas. I don't know anything about costume design. But I hired someone whose work I admire, and then I listened to her when she made recommendations. And I said, how does that relate to the concept that I've established? And I think that those are just really great rules for collaboration.

GROSS: You know, yes-and is one of the principles of improv. Somebody does something, and you accept that, and you build on it. You add to that.


GROSS: Do you do a yes-and thing when you're working with yourself, when you're writing and you have one thing you've gotten and you have to figure out, where am I going with that? Do you try to...


GROSS: ...Apply yes-and to yourself?

BIRBIGLIA: ...I think so. I think the way that I do that is - when I wrote the movie, I was procrastinating. And I had the movie in my head, but I wasn't writing it. But I noticed this trend in my life, which was that I was showing up to, like, lunch meetings or business meetings, but I wasn't showing up to meet myself. And so I wrote a note next to my bed - this is so corny - but I wrote Mike, exclamation point, you have an appointment...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIRBIGLIA: ...At Cafe Pedlar at 7 a.m. with your mind.


BIRBIGLIA: It's so corny. And I would show up. I would never - I never didn't show up. And I wrote this movie and - for spurts of, like, essentially three hours. Like, I'd write from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. And the reason I would do that is because I was essentially barely awake because I feel like that moment at 7 to 10 a.m., you're not afraid of the world yet.

GROSS: And you'd write at a cafe?

BIRBIGLIA: I'd always write at a cafe.

GROSS: Why is that?

BIRBIGLIA: I recently heard Malcolm Gladwell say that he does that. And I was like yes because it made me feel like oh, OK. Like, people do that as a thing. It's actually - I heard him say it, and I think it's the same reason. There are things happening. You're not closed off. You know, there's sound and there's excitement and there's humanity and there's, like, people interacting with the world. And then you have to stay awake because it's embarrassing to sleep in a cafe. And if you think about it as sort of a prison, like, you can't leave. And you can shut off your internet. Like, I shut off my internet, and I try to think in term - and to your point of, like, do you yes-and yourself? - I think that your own worst enemy as a writer can be yourself. You can write things down and go no, that's stupid. And then - and I think that what I do at 7 a.m. is, like, I don't have that part of my brain operating yet that says no.

GROSS: So when you made "Sleepwalk With Me," your previous film, it was your first feature film. And...


GROSS: ...You had - as you've said, you had to fake your way through some of it because you hadn't directed before. You had to figure out what you were doing. So what were some mistakes that you made on "Sleepwalk" that you were able to learn from on "Don't Think Twice"?

BIRBIGLIA: So many that I made a document - I have a running document of it on my desktop for the last three years that's called Instructions For Movie No. 2.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's great.

BIRBIGLIA: (Laughter) I stole it from, I think, I read an interview with Miranda July where she said something along those lines, where she - she kind of, at a certain point, forgot how to direct. And so she had to just kind of write a letter to herself. I was like, oh, that's a great idea.

And so I want - I mean the key thing is shoot more - is like, always shoot more. Like, roll early. Cut late. Another thing is, I would shoot a lot of silent versions of scenes. Like, we got in this habit of, like, we'd shoot - for example, when they're arguing in the street and then we'd go, like, OK, guys, before we move on, we're going to do one this time with no words, just no dialogue.

And what's interesting is if you can - a lot of times you get in the edit, and you realize - oh, we could do this with four less lines of dialogue and get across the same idea. In a lot of ways, that's more powerful because it's cinema, you know. It's a visual medium.

GROSS: So you need those, like, wordless shots so you have that as a choice.

BIRBIGLIA: Yeah. Like, in other words, a lot of times someone staring at someone else is more powerful than them saying you're driving me crazy. Yeah. And there's (unintelligible).

GROSS: What else is on your list of instructions do you learn from based on your mistakes?

BIRBIGLIA: Instructions - one of the things is - this is another Elia Kazan lesson. But it's, like - he says this in relation to hiring actors, and I took it away in terms of hiring crew and actors, which is - ask someone what they're interested in about the movie, and don't lead them to the answer. I feel like I make that mistake all the time in life where I'm almost trying to yes-and the person I'm interviewing and say, why do you want to do this? And they say, I don't know. It seems funny. Yeah, funny, but also dramatic.


BIRBIGLIA: You know what (unintelligible).

GROSS: Yeah, right.

BIRBIGLIA: I'm feeding them their reasons for liking it (laughter). And so - and that was a big thing with my second movie is like I can't lead people to - people have to be passionate for their own reasons.

GROSS: In the credits, your father, Vincent Birbiglia, is listed as a medical consultant. Now, I know he's a neurologist. We've talked about this before.

BIRBIGLIA: He is, yeah.

GROSS: And you have a sleep disorder where you sometimes sleepwalk, which is why you wrote "Sleepwalk With Me."


GROSS: So what did he do as the neurologist - medical consultant for your film?

BIRBIGLIA: He would give - a lot of the stuff with Bill's dad, where he ended up in the hospital, I would call him or my brother Joe, who was producing the film would call him...

GROSS: This is Chris Gethard's character, whose father ends up in the hospital...

BIRBIGLIA: Chris - sorry, yeah, Chris Gethard's character's dad ends up in a hospital. And we would call him and ask him, like, hard specifics like, what would be a complication of X? And so, a lot of that stuff was based on talking to my dad about what would happen if such and such an accident occurred. And I don't even think he knows he's in the credits, by the way (laughter)...

BIRBIGLIA: ...Even as you say...

GROSS: Wait, has he not seen the film?

BIRBIGLIA: No. No, no. My parents (laughter) - I'm going to out my parents. My parents haven't - didn't come to my off-Broadway show, "Thank God For Jokes." And they have not yet seen my movie (laughter). They're - and it's not a lack of love, they're - they - I don't think - that's not what they like best about me.

GROSS: Well, I think - and we talked about this a long time ago - that they might be protecting themselves from things that you say about family that they'd just as soon not hear, not that you...

BIRBIGLIA: You're very (unintelligible).

GROSS: ...Not that you roast your family or anything. You don't. But, I mean, what you do is a very, you know, personal kind of comedy. It's stories about your life, and those stories sometimes include people who you're very close to, like your parents.

BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, yeah, with the exception of this film, of course. I mean, this is the first narrative fictional thing I've ever written actually.

GROSS: Right. Right, so it's...

BIRBIGLIA: But you're right.

GROSS: ...Safe for them to go actually.

BIRBIGLIA: It is safe for them to go. I think when it goes to - when it goes to - when it opens in Cape Cod, I think that they actually will go because it'll be right down the street. And there will be no excuses anymore, Terry.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

My guest is Mike Birbiglia. He wrote, directed and co-stars in the new movie "Don't Think Twice." After a break, we'll talk about becoming a father. And Lloyd Schwartz will review a new art exhibit that questions what it means to be a finished work of art. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Mike Birbiglia. He wrote, directed, and co-stars in the new film "Don't Think Twice" about in improv comedy group and what happens when one of the members becomes a cast member of a popular TV sketch-comedy show and the other members of the improv group feel jealous and left behind.

GROSS: Birbiglia started his career as a stand-up comic.

Many public radio listeners first knew him for his comic autobiographical stories on This American Life. He also wrote and performed in "Sleepwalk With Me," an autobiographical one-man show which he adapted into a film of the same name and appeared in the starring role. His latest one-man show is called "Thank God For Jokes."

You've done a bunch of stories for This American Life. And that's how a lot of people initially found out about you. Ira Glass has done a lot of work with you. He produced. He was a producer of your first film. And he's a producer of your new film. You and Ira were on our show after you made "Sleepwalk." And on that show, Ira complained about producing.

BIRBIGLIA: (Laughter).

GROSS: He said - and I quote - "I don't understand why people produce movies. You're not doing any of the central creative work. You're not the screenwriter. You don't get the pleasure of really editing. You don't get the pleasure of directing. You don't get the pleasure of performing. You don't get to do any of the fun things. Instead, you're responsible for the entire thing. You're frightened for months that it's not going to work. All you're doing is looking over people's shoulders like a backseat driver driving every part of the process, which is not pleasant."

OK. That is not a ringing endorsement for a - make me a producer a second time. And yet, he is again a producer of your film. So did you have to talk him into it? Did you have to promise him it would be different this time around?

BIRBIGLIA: I can't speak to Ira Glass' mental problems.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIRBIGLIA: I think that he's - that quote - there's a lot to unpack there. That's definitely his own struggle with self that I think he's dealing with, producing his own radio show every week (laughter). He's going to love this.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIRBIGLIA: But yeah, no. He said that a lot of times. He said, I'm never going to produce a movie again. You know, I don't want to do this. I don't get why people do this (laughter). I mean, early in the process, like, I would have these - I had like 10 or 12 informal readings at my house, like, of the screenplay, just to get, like, critical feedback from writers and friends.

And Ira would come to them. And early on - like, probably the second draft or whatever - he was so furious at the script. He was just like, Mike, you have to make the characters more different from each other. And that's what I did. I mean, the next sort of seven drafts, I worked on the arcs of the different characters. So him saying - by the way, he's not involved with the creative process.

I mean, like, he is so deeply - I listen to every word he says, every criticism that is ineloquently stated and undelicate. Not a word - and I take his notes to heart. And he - I mean, he's a huge, huge creative force in this film. And of course, he didn't want to do it. And then at a certain point, he was like, well, I guess I'm a producer of this.


BIRBIGLIA: Like, he wasn't even formally a producer until sort of like days before we shot the film. He was like a friend of the film who would always show up to the readings and give notes and things.

GROSS: So you've said in the past that you didn't believe in marriage. And you didn't want to get married until you reached the point where you believed nothing else good could happen in your life (laughter). At that point, you commit to marriage. Then you were in a car accident. You got hit head-on by a drunk driver.

BIRBIGLIA: T-Boned, yeah.

GROSS: T-Boned in your car - and you could easily have been killed. You survived. And you did a story about that for This American Life.


GROSS: And after realizing what a close call this was and how you really could have died, you decided, while taking stock of your life, what you really wanted to do was marry your girlfriend. And you got married after that.


GROSS: What about that accident made you realize that you should get married? It could've done the opposite. It could've made you realize - wow, life is short. I'm definitely not getting married.

BIRBIGLIA: Well, yeah. I mean, in the wake of that accident, I was - it turned out to be a drunk driver. And I assume that that driver would pay for my car. And then - but it wasn't that. It was the opposite. It was - somehow in the paperwork - in the police work or whatever - I was made to pay for the other driver's car.

And I was - and the unfairness of it really spun me out. And I ended up sort of in this crazy - I mean, you know, I got a subscription on, you know, where I'm, like, looking up the other driver's name. And I considered calling him at one point directly. I mean, like, this is insane, you know?

And there's lawyers involved. And it was just - it really spun me out. And at a certain point, I realized that this is not going to resolve. And my now-wife Jenny, who's very much more calm and wise than I am, said, I think you should sort of give up the case and pay for the guy's car. And I said, why? And she said, you know, I'm just so glad you're alive. And I just - I think we should focus on that.

And I say in the show - I said, she only had to say it once. And I gave up the case. And I paid for his car. I still don't believe - and then, a few months later, we went to City Hall and got married. And I still don't believe in the idea of marriage. But I believe in her. And I've given up on the idea of being right.

GROSS: So along similar lines, in your book "Sleepwalk With Me," you wrote, 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...

BIRBIGLIA: Terry, you're really sticking it to me today.


GROSS: No, I'm curious.

BIRBIGLIA: Go ahead. Go ahead. Go ahead. Go ahead.

GROSS: So the ad for fatherhood 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.

So how did you decide, in spite of what you wrote there, that you wanted to be a father? Or maybe it wasn't a choice. Maybe you just ended up being a father, in which case I would ask how being a father compares with the end of all good things scenario you'd imagined?

BIRBIGLIA: Well, I'll talk you through the different ways this happens. No, I...


BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, no. It's definitely something that scared me and is intimidating to me and then, ultimately, is really enlightening and - of an experience. And, you know, having a 14-month-old daughter is - it opens you up to a different type of - a different sort of level of unconditional love. And I don't know if this decision - the decision to have a - I was going to say the decision to have a daughter, which is a hilarious thought...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIRBIGLIA: ...The idea that you decide to have the specific gender of baby (laughter), which is in the future. But the decision to have a child had a lot to do with me going to therapy. And my therapist said this thing, which is - which sort of hit home with me. And it - man, people might really criticize this as a logic - as a piece of logic. But she said, you can afford to have a child. And you are capable of deeply loving a child. So there's no reason not to have a child. And I thought, yeah, I buy that.

GROSS: Did you think you were incapable of loving a child?

BIRBIGLIA: No, I thought - you know, the joke I had for a long time - the one you're saying - was based on was - I don't want to have kids until I'm sure that nothing else good can happen in my life. And that would always get a laugh. It's actually one of the first jokes I ever told on stage.

It would actually get, like, a belly laugh from people who, I think, related to that idea, either - whether they had kids, and it derailed some plans in their life (laughter), or they hadn't had kids and they're afraid that it might - you know, having kids might derail some plans they had in their life. And I think the derailment that occurs when you have a child is good for you.

I think that it's good to have your life plans shaken up and reconsidered because I think that, you know, ultimately, the reconsidering of your choices ultimately leads to more thought and then more growth. And I think that - so it can - I think it can surprise you.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mike Birbiglia. He wrote, directed and co-stars in the new film "Don't Think Twice." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Mike Birbiglia. He wrote, directed and stars in the new movie "Don't Think Twice" about an improv comedy group. When we left off, we were talking about becoming a father. His daughter is 14 months old.

So how does being a father compare to what you had projected being a father would be like?

BIRBIGLIA: It's - I think the first year is hard because you have this - you have a daughter and a wife and you and it's, like, you have this thing where you like - you're like, oh, they love each other so much, it's - and I'm there too.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIRBIGLIA: Like, you're just this third wheel all the time. You're, like, running around and like get coffee for Mom or whatever - like, you're just an intern for your wife, essentially. And...


BIRBIGLIA: ...There's something about it that is so pride-swallowing. But then also it's, you know, you end up, in some ways, closer to your wife than you could also imagine.

GROSS: Well, the thing with you is your baby was born while you were making your movie, right?

BIRBIGLIA: Right before, yeah. I handed in the script to financiers, or possible financiers, sort of two nights before the baby was born, which speaks to how insanely sort of - I don't know what the term would be - of how obsessively I plan and try to control the trajectory of my life and in the ways that should be - like I said - should be disrupted by having a child.

GROSS: But at some point, I'm sure it was like a bad loyalty test for you. Like, what's more important right now, your wife and the baby or the movie?

BIRBIGLIA: Oh, yeah (laughter). Yeah, yeah, that's ongoing. It's - yeah, I try - I mean, I will say, like, it throws off kilter a lot of things that you hold dear. Like, a lot of my living, how I make my living is traveling like a door-to-door salesman to, like, Cincinnati or San Francisco or Austin, Texas. And now it's so hard to walk out the door to fly to those places.

It's like this, you know, she's - you know, she's - I don't know. It's, like, when you have a baby who's, like, singing and who's, you know, learning to speak and is, you know, the other day or, like, in the last month or so, she learned how to say Dada. And, you know, they say Dada early.

It's an easy syllable. But, like, it was the way she said Dada. Like, it's with intent. It's like, Dada. You know, it's like...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIRBIGLIA: ...As though she's requesting something really specific and doesn't realize she's just saying one word. But you can see this intent in her eyes where it's like, Dada. And I'm like, I don't even know what you want. But I'll hold onto you or I'll play with you or take out my guitar and play songs for you and that kind of thing.

Like, you can't - like, there's a level of visceral joy that you experience that, I mean, the degree to which my wife and I laugh with our baby, with Oona, and Oona laughs that I've never experienced just ever.

GROSS: So you have a sleep problem. You are prone to sleepwalking. And the more tired you are, the more likely you are to sleepwalk. So making a movie and being the parent of a baby at the same time...


GROSS: That is absolutely the recipe for not sleeping. So has the sleepwalking been kicking in?

BIRBIGLIA: So I guess I won't go to therapy today.


BIRBIGLIA: We got it covered. Before we had Oona, we went - my wife and I went to my sleep physician and talked about what are the logistics of this? I mean, I have this serious sleep disorder. And I can't - could possibly - I mean, I once jumped through a second-story window. And I've thrown furniture around the room...

GROSS: In your sleep, yeah.

BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, in my sleep and which I, of course, talk about in "Sleepwalk With Me." And what do we do? Like, how do we do that with a baby 'cause so much of raising a child is being up all night and with the baby? And he just said you have to sleep in a separate - he said, you should sleep in a separate room and maybe lock the door from the inside.

And so we got this, like, chain lock from the inside of my bedroom. And then Oona and Jen sleep in the other room, which is, you know, you make it work, whatever works. Plus, as I say in the movie, and it's true, I sleep in a sleeping bag up to my neck. I sort of, like, you know, lock myself in.

GROSS: Wow, it's...

BIRBIGLIA: And I take medication. I mean, I'm diagnosed with RBD. So I do all the precautions that people who have RBD take.

GROSS: That's - what? - REM...

BIRBIGLIA: REM Behavior Disorder.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. But that's so upsetting 'cause it's, like, sleep can turn you into an inadvertently frightening person.

BIRBIGLIA: Agreed. Yeah, that's correct.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad you got it under control, I mean, with the lock and everything, that you have, you know, good advice about what to do.

BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, you know, we're trying to face it head on. I mean, like I say in "Sleepwalk With Me," there's - REM Behavior Disorder doesn't have a cure. But ultimately, all you can do is sort of acknowledge that it's there and take precautions and face it.

GROSS: But the great thing about being an artist and comic is that something really difficult like that, you turn it into, like, a fabulous performance. You turn it into this, like - like, your sleepwalking, you managed to turn it into a story, a one-man show, a book, a movie. You know what I mean?

So instead of something that you have to, like, hide and be ashamed of and feel like you're not worthy - we all have that thing...


GROSS: ...That seems really awful to us. And, I don't know, I always feel like when somebody shares that thing that they have that we can all feel a little bit better about that thing that we have (laughter).

BIRBIGLIA: Oh, yeah, no, I completely ascribe to that theory of comedy and - but - and that's, in some ways, is why I started writing this movie as the first fictional thing I've written because I'm just like, in "Sleepwalk With Me," I was - jumped through a second-story window. In "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend," I was hit by a drunk driver.

I mean, how many more of these incidents can I stay alive for?

GROSS: Hey, you're leaving out the cancerous bladder tumor when you were a teenager, yeah.

BIRBIGLIA: And I had a bladder tumor when I was 19. So I'm trying to move into fiction because it, you know, it's infinite, as opposed to my life, which is finite.

GROSS: Right, well, let's - yeah, I'm hoping you have no more incidents like that to draw...

BIRBIGLIA: (Laughter) Me too.

GROSS: ...To draw from. But once again, that life-changing experience of having nearly gotten killed in a head-on car accident with a drunk driver, did that feeling of life is short so, like, do things, did that stay with you, or did that just kind of fade with time?

BIRBIGLIA: I think that it particularly stuck with me when I had a bladder tumor when I was 19. Like, I feel like there was this sense where for about six months to a year after they took out the tumor, I thought, I'm going to die. Or, you know, certainly in the days after they discovered it, I thought, oh, I'm going to die. And that feeling sticks with you.

And I think there is some sense with my work when I'm - when I make something, I'm always thinking, like, this could be the last thing I ever make. And so I have to give all of myself to it. So, yeah, I think it did have a big impact on me.

GROSS: Well, Mike Birbiglia, thanks so much for talking with us.

BIRBIGLIA: Thank you.

GROSS: Mike Birbiglia wrote, directed and co-stars in the new film "Don't Think Twice" about an improv comedy group. After we take a short break, Lloyd Schwartz will review an exhibit of unfinished art. This is FRESH AIR.


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