Friday, January 21, 2011

Sleepwalk With Me

by DionysusPsyche
Sleepwalk With Me & Other Painfully True Stories is a new book by comedian, Mike Birbiglia, that came out in October 2010. Mike Birbiglia has been on such programs as Comedy Central, This American Life, and The Bob & Tom Show (it pays to read the inside cover!). He does a pretty great skit called, “What I Should Have Said Was Nothing,” and his book is based on his stand up “Sleep Walk With Me.” His new show is called “My Girlfriend's Boyfriend,” and that comes out this year at the end of the month. He also has a Secret Public blog.
Watching comedy is a special kind of experience. We get off work from our jobs where our boss exacts judgement, we get accosted by customers, and fry our brains and hands to come back to our castles (or if it's Friday, out to a club) and emotionally pass out while someone, usually the television, entertains us. Sometimes it's a comedian. Then we look to our friends and significant other and say, “He has got it SO easy! All he does is make people laugh. You know, I could do that.” If the stand-up is bad, we say, “I could do better than that.”
Until I read this book, I was like the rest of the average American audience. I crack up during an opening or a show and think, “I should quit my day job and do this. Or, keep my day job and do this at night. This isn't work. This is easy.”
The truth is, comedy is an illusion that just looks easy. It's like a magic trick where the magician pulls a rabbit out of his hat, and you think, “that was awesome!” However, you're not thinking about the audiences he's disappointed or the rabbits that have...well, kids, let's just say that they were all unhappily put into early retirement on a special farm for rabbits previously owned by magicians.
Being a comedian takes guts, perseverance, and self-belief. They are not born, they are made. Not to mention a lot of convincing. Mike convinces us that you have to be a certain type of crazy in order to not only transform yourself into a successful comedian (it's not just being funny), but you have to give it your all. All the time. Even when your parents want you to become a doctor or a lawyer.
Effortless in his pursuit to entertain us (I will chalk this up to the A.D.D he claims to have), Mike tells of us his adventures in comedy clubs, subsequent disasters, and success. He claims to be no good at anything. He talks of his childhood dreams of becoming something, even if that something is a break dancer. We laugh at his nicknames, his friends, some bear, his ex-girlfriends, but mostly we laugh with him.
Mike Birbiglia starts where everyone starts. Childhood. He refers his family in his skit and book as “Olive Garden” Italian. His father is by far my favorite character in his book, and the parent I'm afraid to become (well, minus his job description). From there it gets better. We hear about his hero, and how he finally breaks into show business. I think there was one chapter where I started to get bored, but it was early on. Additionally, the great thing about Mike is that he's just as easily bored as I am. So I didn't have to wait long to be amused again.
While Mike is revealing his past to us, he also tells of his ongoing insomnia. Said insomnia is made worse by hectic schedule, late nights, food binges, and long drives across the country in pursuit of success. Like millions of people across the globe, Mike's medical issue starts out as a complaint, and increasingly becomes dangerous and worrisome. However, Mike has experienced fear and medical issues (his and family members) before, and he's not about to let that get in the way of his daily life. It's getting more and more serious, yet Mike reassures his audience that really, it's still pretty funny.
Finally, the breaking point happens. I was literally bawling on the couch next to my concerned husband, when Mike turned around and made me laugh again. He gets his sleepwalking under control, and continues to make us laugh. His humor doesn't just affect your funny bone, it also gets to your heart.

I have read books by various comedians, and I'll admit, they're not all funny. Oftentimes, I will get half a chapter to a full chapter in and the horror and trauma of their life will overwhelm me. I'll put down the book and say, “Damn, no wonder they made people laugh. It's the alternative to slitting your wrists or a mental asylum.” Not the opposite of a mental asylum, mind you, just an option. Sometimes they are so unfunny, I wished someone had been honest with them.
Mike Birbiglia is the perfect blend of anecdotal stories and humor. To fully experience the book, I'd recommend watching a bit of his stand up first. He has a great grasp of pacing, which is how his book is written as well. Sleepwalk is definitely the best book I've read this year, and my favorite book by a comedian thus far. He's not too dirty, he's not too innocent, he's just right.


  1. " wonder they made people laugh. It's the alternative to slitting your wrists or a mental asylum."

    Well put. Half of them are raging narcissists, but all comedians share a common thread. They're all acutely sensitive. Next time I'm at Borders I'll keep an eye out for this.