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'Sleepwalk With Me' ()

Spending The Night With Sleepwalker Mike Birbiglia

Oct 18, 2010 (Fresh Air)

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Comedian Mike Birbiglia was on tour in Washington state when he had a dream that a guided missile was heading toward his hotel room. In his dream — and in real life — Birbiglia decided to jump out the window of his hotel room. He was staying on the second floor.

Birbiglia survived, receiving 33 stitches for gashes in his legs. When he returned home to New York, he was sent to a sleep physician for overnight observation.

"They put the electrodes all over my body and observed my sleep and I was diagnosed with REM behavior disorder, where people have a dopamine deficiency," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Dopamine is the chemical that is released from your brain into your body when you fall asleep that paralyzes your body so you don't act out your dreams. And people who have this [disorder] are typically running away from some type of demon or wild animal — and people who have this, in rare instances, have actually killed people while remaining asleep."

Birbiglia recounts the events leading up to his near-death experience in Washington in his new comedic memoir, Sleepwalk With Me. The book details several painfully embarrassing moments from his childhood, his recovery from bladder cancer in college and his failed dating experiences that led, eventually, to his sleepwalking episodes.

"Comedy is tragedy plus time, but the time is different for everybody," Birbiglia says. "I tell some of these stories and people in my family are like 'Why are you telling these stories?'"

Birbiglia is a regular contributor to This American Life and has performed in three Comedy Central specials. His one man show Sleepwalk With Me, produced by Nathan Lane, was called "simply perfect" by The New York Times. In his blog My Secret Public Journal, he chronicles painfully embarrassing moments in a public forum.


Interview Highlights

On his father wanting him to keep his personal life private

"My father would say, 'The more people know about you, the more they can use it against you.' Which always sent shivers down my spine 'cause it has like an open-ended fear to it — like the fear you have when you're driving and you see a cop and you're not speeding and you don't have drugs, but you think, 'I hope he doesn't notice I'm driving.' Ten-and-two, sitting upright.

But I think my mom and other people have said, 'It's a very Italian trait.' My dad is up a few generations back but of Sicilian descent and my sister Patti has said to me that when she went to visit Sicily, [people there] have that kind of mentality. ... I think that's how I ended up being a comedian, as a reaction to that mentality."

On Nathan Lane being the witness at his wedding

"It's very exciting for people at City Hall when Nathan shows up. He's kind of like the mayor of New York. ... The woman who was behind the glass kind of fingers me to come over and I walk over and she goes, 'Is that Nathan Lane?' and I go, 'Yeah' and she goes, 'Oh. We're going to get you a private room.' So we went over and she says, 'The last celebrity who was here was Tony Randall,' which was like seven years or eight years before and he was getting married himself, I guess. And she said, 'And [Randall] said, 'I do not want special treatment,' so he did not go to the front of the line, I guess. And Nathan goes, 'Well, I want special treatment.' He did not want to wait there. So we went into this private room and yeah, we got married."

On how he became a regular contributor to This American Life

"In 2003, I was asked to tell a story at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo. — and that was the first time I ever told a story onstage and it was completely terrifying and it was one of the things that spun me into telling stories and eventually, I became a semi-regular on [the live storytelling series The Moth] in New York.

Eventually, when I told the sleepwalking story, I asked Catherine Burns, who is the director [of The Moth] if she would send it over to This American Life because I was a big fan of the show and I had listened to it for many years and I thought it would be a good fit. And she said no. And then I asked her again and she said no. And then I think the third or fourth time, she said yes. She wasn't being mean, she just didn't want to bother them. They're very busy.

So then [This American Life producer] Julie Snyder got in touch with me about maybe putting [my sleepwalking bit] on the show. And I didn't want them to put the live version of the piece [on the show] because I thought 'If they play the live version, when I release Sleepwalk With Me as a live CD, no one's going to want it because they already had the podcast of it.'

So I said, 'Can we just do it in the studio?' and Julie said, 'No, we really want the live one,' and then finally I get a phone call from Ira [Glass] one day, who I'd never met and he's like 'Hi Mike, it's Ira Glass. I'm calling to convince you to let us use the live version of your show for our show.' And I was like 'Sure. Great.' Instantly sold. The power of a celebrity voice — and [since] then all of my pieces on the show have been live pieces."

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