Sleep-disorder follies

Lauren Ambrose plays the supportive girlfriend in the movie comedian Mike Birbiglia wrote, directed, and stars in.
Lauren Ambrose plays the supportive girlfriend in the movie comedian Mike Birbiglia wrote, directed, and stars in.

Comedian Mike Birbiglia has made a funny franchise of his weird, even hazardous, condition. Now it's a movie, "Sleepwalk With Me."

Posted: September 18, 2012

Mike Birbiglia, Mr. Transmedia?

Since 2008, when he first clambered on stage to turn his professional and relationship woes and weird sleep disorder into a painfully funny monologue, the mild-mannered comedian and storyteller has morphed Sleepwalk With Me into a hit one-man Off-Broadway show; a best-selling book; a running narrative on NPR's This American Life; and now, a movie, cowritten by, directed by, and starring one Mike Birbiglia.

What's next, Sleepwalk With Me the interpretive dance?

Birbiglia says that he has been joking about a graphic novel, but that Ira Glass, his friend, cohort, host of This American Life, and coproducer, came up with an even more creative concept:

"Ira said we're working on an artisanal cheese plate," Birbiglia reports. "I feel like that wins the cherry."

Sleepwalk With Me the movie - not the artisanal cheese plate - opened Friday at the Ritz Bourse. It's an accomplished film any way you look at it: It's Birbiglia's first time as a director, and although he's certainly accustomed to putting himself out there (in his nascent stand-up days, he played the TLA, Helium, and the Keswick Theatre in these here parts), he is in just about every frame of Sleepwalk With Me, save a couple of action-packed sequences in which his stunt double steps in.

Birbiglia, 34, plays a guy called Matt Pandamiglio. He works in a Brooklyn bar, where he's occasionally allowed to try his hand at stand-up, to polite but muted reception. He lives with a wonderfully supportive and beautiful girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose) and can rely on his parents (Carol Kane and James Rebhorn) for the loan of an old Volvo and none-too-subtle hints about marriage and job security.

Comedian friends of Birbiglia's, like Marc Maron, who have been instrumental in helping him climb the comedy ladder, show up in the film - but even they have fictive monikers (Maron plays a successful comedian by the name of Marc Mulheren).

So where did Pandamiglio - a name that Kristen Schaal, introducing him to a college audience, comically stumbles on in the film - come from?

"I just looked up a bunch of Italian names online, and I thought Pandamiglio was a funny-enough one, that it's clunky and awkward the way Birbiglia is," Birbiglia explains, on the phone the other day from New York.

"I wanted him to have a name that is hard to say and that doesn't sound glamorous at all, and also feels a little bit Olive Garden Italian. . . .

"And I wanted it to be a nod to the fact that it was more or less me, but to make it clear that this isn't literal - that's not my ex-girlfriend, those aren't my parents, this isn't a documentary."

What is entirely factual is that Birbiglia suffers from REM behavior disorder, a sleep disorder characterized by the dreamer's physically acting out his dreams. Until Birbiglia's problem was diagnosed, this caused any number of problems - and hazards. In one dream, he was pursued by a pack of angry jackals. He was on the road at the time, in the midst of a stressful comedy tour, stressing out about his girlfriend back home. To elude the menacing horde, he ran down the corridor of his La Quinta Inn and hurled himself out a window. He had to be taken to the emergency room.

For the film, he restaged this literally nightmarish scenario, right down to the shards of glass lodged in his bod.

"I definitely had a little bit of post-traumatic stress disorder shooting certain scenes," he says. "Like the La Quinta Inn scene - we were shooting at a La Quinta Inn, and we were staying at a La Quinta Inn, and it's hard to not see the irony in that.

"My wife and I had to have a serious talk this week about how there are hundreds and hundreds of articles about the movie right now - because movies reach such a mass audience - and that in some ways, it starts to feel unreal. As though [these events] didn't happen, as though it's become fiction. We had to go sit down and say, 'How are my sleep habits right now? Are we dealing with this? Should we go back to the sleep doctor?'

"My wife is extremely vigilant and caring about this disorder that I have, and sometimes she has to step up and remind me that, 'Hey, I know it's a joke in a movie and in a book, but it's also our lives.' "

Birbiglia takes meds for his RBD, and also snoozes wrapped tight in a sleeping bag at night, to prohibit easy egress. Things are under control.

The other night, he had a dream in which he and his wife were joined by This American Life's Glass, and by Philadelphia radio host Terry Gross of Fresh Air.

"I am in awe of Terry Gross," he exclaims.

(And Gross, the nationally syndicated interviewer extraordinaire, is similarly enamored of Birbiglia. In fact, the two made a short film together, "Fresh Air 2: 2 Fresh 2 Furious." Watch it on YouTube.)

In Birbiglia's dream, "Terry had this pile of books, because she does an unbelievable amount of research. You know, if you think about how many people are on her show who write books. . . . And in the dream, she had all these piles and piles of books and DVDs, and my wife and Ira, in the dream, were, like, 'I'm really worried about Terry. Is she going to be OK? She has too much to do.'

"And then, of course, I wake up, and I realize it's not about Terry, it's about me," Birbiglia says. "It's like I have too much to do."

Asked to respond to this reverie, Gross, via e-mail, has this to say:

"It's nice to know that if you dream about me, the Freudian (or Jungian) interpretation is that you're working too hard. I hope that if Mike were to show up in one of my dreams, it would mean I'm getting funnier. That would be nice. It amazes me that someone so friendly and unassuming also has the drive to write, direct, and star in a film. I'm glad I've gotten to know him and work with him."

It's a lovefest!


Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629

or srea@phillynews.com. Read

his blog, "On Movies Online,"

at www.philly.com/onmovies.

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