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How Mike Birbiglia Got Sneaky-Famous

Early next year, on January 24, the comedian Mike Birbiglia will perform in Walla Walla, Washington, for the first time since the night in 2005 when he nearly died after sleepwalking—sleep-running—through the second-story window of his hotel room at a La Quinta Inn. He’d been having issues with sleepwalking for years, and on this night, he was dreaming that a missile had been fired on his infantry platoon, so he took drastic evasive measures. He crash-landed on the grass and started running, until he realized he was awake, and in his underwear, and covered in blood and shards of glass, one of which was embedded in his thigh, a centimeter from his femoral artery.

I know,” he says whenever he recounts this moment onstage, responding to the gasps from the audience. “I’m in the future too.”

Birbiglia first told this story at the climax of his 2008 breakthrough off-Broadway solo show, Sleepwalk With Me. He’s made five Netflix specials, and with each one, the rooms get bigger, the runs get longer, and the storytelling grows more ambitious. The New One, which premiered on Netflix in 2019, about his uneasy embrace of fatherhood, ran at the James Earl Jones Theatre, on Broadway, for two months. His latest, The Old Man and the Pool, his midlife-crisis comedy, sold out an extended run at Lincoln Center, then moved to London’s West End for another month. The show at Wyndham’s Theatre prior to his was King Lear, directed by Kenneth Branagh, and the show following his was Long Day’s Journey Into Night, so if you’re keeping track, that’s Shakespeare, then Mike Birbiglia, then Eugene O’Neill.

The Old Man and the Pool arrives on Netflix this week, and then Birbiglia will go right back on tour to commence the yearslong process of shaping his next special, tentatively titled Please Stop the Ride. But only in Walla Walla will he find a tiny plaque at the La Quinta Inn commemorating the night Mike Birbiglia sleepwalked through a second-floor window and lived to write a hit stand-up-comedy special about it. “Seriously,” the plaque reads. “Google it.

This time around, Birbiglia plans to bring along a camera crew in order to document his … what, exactly? Nostalgia? Morbid curiosity? “I really don’t know,” he told me recently. “I don’t know how I feel about it.” The only thing he knows for certain is that he won’t be spending the night at La Quinta: “Definitely seeking more comfortable accommodations.”

Birbiglia grew up in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. He went to a Catholic grade school, a Catholic high school, and a Catholic college. His father was a neurologist who fell asleep reading war novels and urged his son to hold his secrets close. “Don’t tell anyone,” he’d always say, not even about getting cut from the soccer team. (“Dad, I think they’ll know.”) Mike was always more like his mother, who would talk about anything with anyone. He once told a joke about meeting her in front of a bank teller, and as he walked up, he overheard his mother say, “Oh, here he comes now.”

Birbiglia was your classic attention-seeking youngest of four children. His brother, Joe, who is four years older and now works for him, helping to sharpen jokes and tagging along whenever Birbiglia performs somewhere nice, was his earliest comedy mentor. “Our dad was just like, ‘When’s he going to go and get a real job in advertising or something?’” Joe recalls. “And me just having to say to my dad, ‘He’s one of the best comedians in the country at 22, 23, 24 years old—maybe we want to stick with this a little longer?’”

Birbiglia studied theater and screenwriting at Georgetown University, and from the start, he wanted to push his stand-up comedy toward solo theater. One of his professors gave him some advice: Go see every solo show in New York, and whichever one you like the most, track down the person who directed it. That’s what led Birbiglia to the director Seth Barrish, who’d worked on a show called The Tricky Part, by Martin Moran, based on his memoir about being molested at age 12 by a counselor at his Catholic boys’ camp. It’s not a comedy.

“He literally showed up in the hallway where my office was at the time and introduced himself,” Barrish told me. “That’s how it began.” They’ve done every special together since.

Nothing about Birbiglia’s approach to his specials seems, at first, all that revolutionary: half comedy–half theater, or maybe more like 75–25, built on a big-theme central storyline paced out across the hour, with riffs and anecdotes that curlicue around it. Most comics start with five good minutes and stack from there. But Birbiglia’s specials almost always begin with a title. They start as a story. He’s become so synonymous with the form that on a recent episode of his podcast, Working It Out, after he credited the comedian Todd Barry with “inventing crowd work,” Barry replied, “And you invented storytelling.” Birbiglia never repeats a joke, but his stories are living entities, evolving in unforeseeable ways and always sprouting fresh limbs. The jokes change, but the stories are never really finished, and that night at the La Quinta Inn has become one of several career-long leitmotifs in his comedy.

At first, he was reluctant to tell that story. It was too raw, too painful. Barrish talked him into it, and it became an early lesson for Birbiglia in the essential comic art of self-exposure. Comics as a breed tend to be comfortable spilling tea all over themselves, but few dare to go to such Pryor-esque lengths. In My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, Birbiglia tells a long confessional story about receiving flaccid fellatio from a sex worker in the red-light district of Amsterdam. In The New One, he admits that in the early months of his daughter’s life, he once thought to himself, I get why dads leave. There’s a hush in the theater when he says it. This isn’t a joke. “I’m only comfortable saying that because I’m not gonna leave. I love my wife. And where would I go?” Everyone laughs, breaking the silence. “But I get it.”

“There’s this famous phrase, which I didn’t invent,” Birbiglia told me, “which is that we’re only as sick as our secrets. And what I realized from performing these shows is that there’s a lot of truth to that.” When he talks about the things he’s done wrong, his worst impulses, the behavior he most regrets, he said, “instead of people rejecting me and saying shame on you,” they come up after shows to thank him for opening up, for saying what they, too, had done or felt.

As Birbiglia conceives of it, his job onstage “is to take the Venn-diagram circle of what I think is funny, and the Venn diagram of what the audience thinks is funny,” he said, and then explore “that middle area where those two things collide. That’s where I think there’s a potential for the audience to see themselves in the show, and to experience not just laughter, but cathartic laughter. Like, Isn’t it funny that we’re all experiencing this?

Mike Birbiglia has overcome a surname that sounds more like a diagnosis, and a face that looks like everyface, to become sneaky-famous. And maybe it’s because of how he looks, or how he dresses, or how he presents himself onstage, that no matter how successful he becomes, he’ll probably never seem as famous as he actually is. He’s described himself as having “the body of someone who’s about to start P90X and then doesn’t.” He took a women’s exercise class, because “I’ve given up on having a traditional male physique. I’m now going for ‘strong independent woman.’” He does not dress for success. “This is the shirt I decided to wear tonight,” he joked during one of his specials. “I didn’t spill mustard on the real shirt and this is the backup shirt—this is the A outfit.”

And yet, when I last spoke with him, he was in the middle of trying on fake mustaches for Questlove’s Clue-themed Halloween party later that night. He’s going as Colonel Mustard because he really does get mustard on his shirt a lot, and because his wife and daughter really do call him Colonel Mustard Stains at home. But never mind all that: Questlove! Not a bad flex.

“It’ll be even more of a flex when you see the paparazzi photos tomorrow,” he says, so that he doesn’t have to name-drop Chris Rock, Natasha Lyonne, Jon Batiste, Ronan Farrow, Awkwafina, and Padma Lakshmi. He tries to avoid dropping names, but nowadays they just tumble out when he talks about his life, like the night he was running lines with Tom Hanks for A Man Called Otto, in which Birbiglia plays a douchey condo developer. Or the time he was cast as Taylor Swift’s freeloading future son in her music video for “Anti-Hero.”

If you’ve heard of Mike Birbiglia but never heard him tell a joke, it’s probably because of Taylor Swift. The story of how they met requires yet more name-dropping: It was at a pizza party thrown by a mutual friend, Jack Antonoff, the pop star and songwriter, who is now married to the actor Margaret Qualley, whose mother is Andie MacDowell. Birbiglia and his wife, the poet Jennifer Hope Stein, chatted it up with Swift. The whole time, he was thinking, We’re talking to Taylor Swift, and he later learned that the whole time, Swift was thinking, This man must play my freeloading future son.

A few days after the party, Birbiglia got a text with a script attached from someone claiming to be Swift. “The script was so well written that I was like, ‘Either Taylor Swift is texting me or I’m getting catfished by someone who’s a very good writer,’” he told me. “So either way, good news.”

Birbiglia’s performances are so intimate, and leave such an acute impression that the world is just whooshing him around like a leaf, that it can be a jolt to encounter this self-assured real-world Mike Birbiglia. His comedy, though, is fundamentally about how all the celebrity friends in the world, even Taylor Swift—the Amex Centurion of celebrity friends—won’t stop the indignities of life from flooding his way. That’s the point, in a digressive Birbiglian sort of way, of all this name-dropping: his acute awareness that it’s all a mirage.

In some respects, his normal life is where he gets to live out his fantasies of fame and fortune, and the theater is where he faces the real stuff.

For instance: death. Something we’re all experiencing, or will eventually. And for Mike Birbiglia, the funniest part about death is that he has this weird feeling it might be coming for him sooner rather than later.

In the early minutes of The Old Man and the Pool, Birbiglia says that his father had a heart attack when he was 56, and that his father’s father had a heart attack when he was 56. (His father survived; his grandfather did not.) “So I’ve always thought I should set aside that whole year,” Birbiglia jokes. “Get an Airbnb by the hospital and keep a flexible schedule. I think that might be a big year for me.”

He describes relaying this bit of family medical history to his physician during a routine visit, after he’d flunked a blow-out-the-candles-type test with a performance so feeble that the doctor feared Birbiglia might be having a heart attack right there in his office. This was just before his 45th birthday.

When he was 19, he noticed one day that his urine was red, and his urologist found a malignant tumor in his bladder, which Birbiglia feared he’d caused by masturbating too much. Just a few years later, he was pulling out of his girlfriend’s parents’ house when his car got T-boned by a drunk driver. And now he’s middle-aged, with a wife and an 8-year-old daughter; he’s got type 2 diabetes, and he’s planning on having a heart attack in 11 years.

When he started writing The Old Man and the Pool, in 2018, he feared that he was trying to take his audience to the one place they wouldn’t follow him. Death is the ultimate taboo subject. “What if they have a really bad reaction to it?” he wondered. “What if they’re going through something, and they just can’t hear it?” And then the pandemic happened, and 1 million people died all around us.

During a solemn moment in the show, Birbiglia describes putting his daughter, Oona, to bed one night shortly after his diabetes diagnosis. As he’s leaving her room, he feels his breath get short—a panic attack. The theater is silent. The set behind him is a tall, cresting wave of aqua pool tiles that looms over him the whole show, threatening to crash. Birbiglia lies down onstage to catch his breath, then takes out his journal. Projected onto the wave behind him, we see in his handwriting the first words he writes: “I think I might die soon.”

A thing that happens when you become a parent is you reexperience your own childhood through the eyes of your children, only this time the aperture is much wider and you see everything in the frame more clearly. This is a central theme of Please Stop the Ride, the hour Birbiglia’s about to take on tour to Walla Walla. The title is a callback to a crowd-favorite bit of his from My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend about an amusement-park ride called The Scrambler. But what began in 2013 as a ne plus ultra tale of teenage romantic humiliation and projectile vomit has transformed in Birbiglia’s mind and resurfaced, a decade later, as a metaphor for adulthood, and in particular how getting older is, if anything, the opposite of getting wiser.

“The most significant thing that I feel like we get wrong when we’re kids,” he says, “is that we think that grown-ups know a lot more than we do. And then you get to be 45, like I am, and you go, Oh my God—I don’t really know that much stuff. In some ways, I know less.”

For the time being, sure, yes, Oona thinks he radiates amazingness. Her dad, Colonel Mustard Stains, is friends with Taylor Swift. “But because I’m incapable of living in the present,” he says, “inevitably, she’s going to be 16, and she’s going to be like, ‘My dad is garbage.’ Which is fine. That’s part of the developmental process. I am ready for it.” He goes deep on this topic during his new hour. “But my dad didn’t have to deal with that. We said it, but he just wasn’t listening. It was the ’80s. No one listened to children. We were like, ‘Dad is garbage.’ And he was like, ‘Is someone talking?’”

Someday soon, Oona will be old enough for her dad to tell her the story of the time he sleepwalked through the second-story window of a La Quinta Inn in Walla Walla, Washington, and maybe she’ll laugh and maybe she’ll be horrified, and maybe someday down the road, he’ll tell that story onstage—what it was like telling his daughter about what happened in Walla Walla. It’s the same story, only this time, it’s a father telling his daughter about how he nearly died before she was even a thought in head. He’ll tell it again and again, and each time, it’ll be different, because that’s how life works. Who knows what the stories will mean next?

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