Mike Birbiglia: Sleepwalking, Self-Defenestration, and the Trouble With Marriage

“To be a comedian, you have to be a little bit delusional.”

So I finally watched Mike Birbiglia’s film, Sleepwalk With Me (2012).  For anyone interested in stand-up comedy or what makes comedians tick, this is essential viewing.  Here’s the trailer:

For those unfamiliar with the film, it stars Birbiglia (here named Matt Pandamiglio, which only seems to emphasize the comedian’s autobiographical approach) and chronicles his early years doing stand-up comedy in dire locations and to underwhelming audiences.  There is a hefty side-plot about his deteriorating relationship with college sweetheart Abbie (played wonderfully by Lauren Ambrose), which gives the film an emotional center that seems more at place in a romantic comedy — or drama, perhaps — but it works here precisely because it is not, for lack of a better word, romanticized.  Birbiglia does a great job of navigating three stories: his rise from a neophyte comedian to a slightly-not-as-neophyte comedian, the death knell of his relationship with Abbie, and his struggle with his increasingly-perilous sleepwalking condition.

The film is also narrated by Birbiglia as he drives to a gig, paying tolls and stopping for a roadside nosh, as he speaks directly to the audience.  He prefaces the story he’s about to tell with the above quote about delusion, and we watch him confront these delusions (accepting some, fighting against others) throughout the film.  At one point, he remarks about knowing the outcome of the story — an outcome his past self isn’t aware of — by confiding in the audience, “I know, I’m in the future also.”  Wonderful, sly narration throughout.  What this narration does, though, is frame his story as a stand-up routine, which it essentially is.  It’s a well-told, well-filmed extended stand-up routine.

The story of his stand-up career (which we can call “Plot A”) hits all the expected notes regarding an amateur stand-up comedian: his first gig, a successive series of shitty locations and tanked sets, regurgitated jokes (“We heard those in college… they’re funny!” reassures one of his friends after she ignores a set).  But what is so smart is that Birbiglia/Pandamiglio doesn’t get a genuine laugh until quite literally halfway through the film, when he starts to talk about his failing relationship (“I’m not gonna get married until I decide nothing else good can happen in my life”).  Talking about his relationship allows his jokes to grow, evolve, and succeed.  As his jokes get better and more personal, he reveals his anxieties and neuroses; but as he moves away from his early material (jokes about Cookie Monster and the A-Team) and toward personal anecdotes and self-deprecation, his success is mirrored by a growing strain on his already-tenuous relationship.

Success shifts his personal life, but not in the standard narrative we are used to.  Many success stories see individuals’ personal lives suffer because they abuse their newfound power, success, money, or popularity and lose touch with who they once were.  Here, we are treated to a wonderful and bittersweet realization that as one finds their own voice and develops a way to confront their own personal issues, they instead discover themselves and find that their previous choices/relationships/identity were constructed or compensatory.  It’s simultaneously uplifting and empowering, but never is there an easy solution — something’s got to give.  And here, that something is his relationship with Abbie (Plot B).

Plot B chronicles their relationship through flashbacks to college, a desperate and ill-thoguht-out proposal, and the impending wedding.  Here we get some well-written and funny analogies mixed with a bittersweet realization that love, for comedians in particular, is a difficult path to (sleep)walk.

Falling in love for the first time is a completely transcendent experience.  It’s like eating pizza-flavored ice cream.  Your brain can’t even process that level of joy… [Love] is a mountain of pizza-flavored ice cream.  And delusion.

Of course, he is a comedian, and he relishes in wry self-deprecation that borders on upsetting truth.  “I think everyone thinks the best thing about my life is my girlfriend,” Birbiglia/Pandamiglio bemoans. Of course, there are some issues with Plot B that have been addressed in opinion pieces, mainly having to do with the sense of “Yet another slacker-schlub fantasy about a ridiculously hot girlfriend who is way out of his league in all areas, but who just wants to marry him anyway.”

Wendy Widom, in regard to the film, writes, “Has the world — or at least our tiny corner of it — gone totally batshit crazy?”  She continues:

Sleepwalk With Me turned out to be clichéd, predictable and insulting to the women of the world who do not live for the possibility of landing a down-and-outer and siring his offspring.

I know, I sound harsh. Let me explain, since the source of my dismay is simple. Yet again, a group of dudes has created a movie that portrays women as a combination of saintly and beautiful morons waiting around for guys who don’t deserve them. Birbiglia’s girlfriend, Abby (played by Lauren Ambrose), is the next of the Apatow-esque prototype: beautiful, smart, kind, talented, fun, supportive and loving. In short, she’s perfection topped off with absurdly juvenile hairdos reminiscent of the youngest daughter in The Sound of Music. She’s only slightly less annoying than the other lead female character, Matt’s mom (played by Carol Kane), who is one chirpy chirp away from the cuckoo’s nest.

Widom’s criticism is important to discussions of this sort of film, but I might suggest that this film is different from the works of Apatow, Rogen, MacFarlane, and the like precisely because it is a distinctly autobiographical story told from Birbiglia’s point of view.  In this way, it reminds me of [500] Days of Summer — and particularly the film’s preface: “AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following is a work of fiction.  Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental… Especially you Jenny Beckman… Bitch.”  That film has the manic pixie dream girl trope firmly in tow, but it’s also told from the man’s point of view, wearing heartache and anger on its sleeve.

Jenna Sauers has a similar concern, but she seems more forgiving of the film’s characterizations:

The fact that these are otherwise well-rounded characters — Lauren Ambrose’s Abbie, a singer and an instructor at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is shown as capable and patient, and Mike, aside from his resistance to getting hitched, is considerate and loving — doesn’t entirely excuse the stereotypically gendered view of marriage. How many times and in how many different forms of media is it really necessary to send the message that men naturally fear commitment, and that marriage is something women must dun men into with a combination of enticements, ultimatums, and plain old threats? It’s a tired and stereotypical view of sex and relationships that’s more befitting a 1950s sitcom than an otherwise formally creative and very sweet indie comedy from 2012.

Again, I agree… but Sauers also ignores the fact that when the relationship does finally end, Abbie reveals to Mike/Matt that she had been unsure about the relationship for likely as long as he had been… but that they both had been afraid to say anything, lest they hurt the other people.  Both parties were careening toward something they really weren’t sure was right for them out of a fundamental fear of confrontation; the marriage was a hoop that they both felt compelled to jump through based on some combination of pity, inertia, and obligation.

As the narrator, Birbiglia prefaces a scene wherein he cheats on his girlfriend with a waitress who has asymmetric boobs: “Before I tell you this story, I want to remind you that you’re on my side.”  This overt manipulation also places the film’s missteps in regard to its portrayal of women squarely on Birbiglia’s shoulders: it’s his story, from his point of view — and essentially, isn’t that what stand-up comedy is about?  Whether you’re telling jokes about airplane travel…

… your kids shitting on the floor…

… or setting yourself on fire…

… it’s an exercise in subjective interpretation of misfortune and suffering, filtered through the comedian’s particular sense of humor.

Which brings me to the final “plot” of the film: Birbiglia’s  sleepwalking condition — which he does suffer from in real life.  Throughout the film, we are shown surreal dream sequences, juxtaposed with him enacting those dreams in life.  The condition starts out humorous but quickly turns dangerous, as he falls off a dresser and bangs his head, and later, as he throws himself out a hotel window (which, again, he really did).

This aspect of the film is, in my opinion, a touchstone for the opening idea of the film: to be a comedian, you have to be a little bit delusional.  Or, in other words, your brain has to work in a way that allows you to experience trauma, but to find humor in it as well.  Delusion is a theme that runs through the film; Birbiglia/Pandamiglio finds that it is essential to love, comedy, relationships, family… but it is risky business.  As his sleepwalking becomes increasingly dangerous, he finally resigns to his father’s demands and sees a specialist.  The specialist can’t cure his condition, so instead, he has to sleep in a zipped-up sleeping bag, wearing mittens so he can’t unzip the sleeping bag.  It’s curing the symptoms, not the illness.   The film ends with Birbiglia observing, “People ask me, ‘Are you cured?’ And I say, ‘No.’… but I think that’s OK.”  The title of the film (and Birbiglia’s book, which I need to read) even invites us to join him on these dangerous outings, in the hopes that we can find humor in the suffering as well.

For Birbiglia, sleepwalking is a dangerous, frightening condition that, like his relationship with Abbie, grew worse as his comedy got better.  But it’s those difficult things — heartbreak, anxiety, jumping out of hotel windows — that inform his comedy.  And if you can laugh at self-defenstration, well, maybe that’s the best way to heal.

After the doctor pulls the glass shards out of your legs, of course.

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