Onstage, comedian Mike Birbiglia’s stand-up is so conversational, so unassuming, that the phrase “laid-back” definitely springs to mind.
Not that it’s not funny stuff. His bit about epically bombing as the MC of a Major League Baseball MVP awards ceremony is an all-time classic, and more recent bits from his 2017 Netflix special Thank God For Jokes (particularly the one about Birbiglia explaining his profession to his poker-faced urologist) are great slow burns, largely because of his casual, calm delivery.
Which, as it turns out, couldn’t be further from what he’s really like. In fact, unlike many comedians who amplify their personalities and turn up the heat onstage, Birbiglia tends to save his tension and neuroses for when he’s not standing in the spotlight with a mic in his hand.
“I sometimes am so relaxed onstage that people think I’m relaxed as a person,” he says. “No one who’s been a film director or spent 15 years on the road as a performer is all that relaxed. But onstage, that’s how I want to be, because ultimately, I find that if I’m telling a story and I’m relaxed, the audience is relaxed. That’s how it comes out best. People see me onstage and say, ‘You’re such a laid-back guy,’ and if my wife were there, she’d interrupt and say, ‘Whoa, not so fast.'”
In fact, part of the focus of the first film Birbiglia directed and starred in, 2012’s Sleepwalk With Me, is on how his constant anxiety fed into a years-long sleepwalking habit that eventually caused him to walk through a second-story motel window while unconscious, resulting in 33 stitches in his leg.
So perhaps “laid-back” isn’t the best description of the real Mike, and that’s a good thing, because his desire to get things just right has aided his blossoming career in films and television. Since writing and directing Sleepwalk With Me in 2012, he’s appeared on TV in HBO’s Girls, Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer and Orange Is The New Black on Netflix, and in films like The Fault In Our Stars and Trainwreck.
And that second career took a lot of people by surprise, except for Birbiglia himself.
“When Sleepwalk With Me came out, even people I’m close to said, ‘I didn’t know you were an actor,'” Birbiglia says. “And I’d actually been auditioning for movies and TV for 10 years at that point. I’d studied acting and appeared in plays in high school, but no one ever asked me to do it; no one would cast me. So I had to cast myself. And I don’t know if that’s a sane choice. Then, after doing it myself, that’s when people would ask me to be in Girls, Orange Is The New Black, and a bunch of other things.”
One of Birbiglia’s most recent film projects, Don’t Think Twice, found him behind and in front of the camera once more, this time as a writer, director, actor, and co-producer. The movie is an ensemble comedy-drama about a troubled improv group that features Key & Peele‘s Keegan Michael Key and Garfunkel & Oates’ Kate Micucci alongside Birbiglia in the main roles, with cameos by Lena Dunham and Ben Stiller, among others.
Taking on that many roles in one project would seem overwhelming for anyone, but particularly so for someone with a history of severe anxiety. And it was a stressful enough situation that Birbiglia sought out Stiller, who often wears multiple hats when making movies, for advice on how to cope with the stress.
“He’s done it as much as anybody, and he told me it doesn’t get easier,” Birbiglia says of Stiller. “He said, ‘It’s just hard. There’s no way around it.’ I’ve learned that you have to be really honest with your cast and crew and say these are the roles I’m playing, and I have confidence that I can land the plane, and that’s it.”
But he’s quick to add that there’s a positive side to being so deeply involved in a project. “The upside is that it feels like a singular voice,” he says. “When you wear a lot of hats, you’re not diluting the writing. I think that’s why Woody Allen got into directing in the first place, because he wrote a couple movies and didn’t like how they turned out, and asked himself, ‘Who’s in charge? Oh, it’s the director.'”
In fact, Birbiglia says he sees some parallels between stand-up and making a movie, even if they don’t seem that similar on the surface.
“It’s great training for directing,” he says, “because when you do stand-up you’re typically performing for a few hundred people, maybe even thousands, and when you’re directing a film, you’re in charge of a hundred different people at any given moment. They take their directions from you, and you need to steer the ship. You have to exude a sense of confidence in both situations, even if you don’t actually feel a sense of confidence.”
So what is Birbiglia talking about these days onstage while he’s building up the confidence for his next film or television appearance? His answer goes back, once again, to the movies.
“I’m saying as much about it as I can with as little information as possible,” he says of his current show, called The New One. “It’s all new. I compare it to the way I recommend things to people. My favorite movies this year were The Big Sick and Get Out, and what I say is, ‘Go see these two movies; you’ll love them.’ Don’t see a trailer or read any reviews, just experience it. So my recommendation, and granted I’m biased, is if you like Thank God For Jokes or Sleepwalk With Me, you’ll love this. I think it’s the most candid I’ve ever been in a show, the most gritty and honest.”