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The Untold Truth Of Mike Birbiglia

For almost two decades, Mike Birbiglia has been somewhat of a secret unique to the comedy world. Most who aren't well-versed in niche areas of pop culture may recognize him from his minor roles in films like "The Fault in Our Stars" and "Trainwreck," or TV shows like "Girls" and "Orange is the New Black." However, comedy fans likely know him for his one-man shows, which since 2008 have seen the comedian showered in critical acclaim. 

Since skyrocketing to mainstream success, Mike's writing has spread across two autobiographical books, four comedy specials, two self-directed films, and more recently a podcast born out of COVID-19 restrictions. With a Broadway expansion,"The Old Man in the Pool," there's sure to come an influx of new fans of Mike Birbiglia's comedy, without much of an idea of where to start in learning about the Massachusetts-born storyteller. 

Thankfully, across Mike's stand-up, podcasts, books, and interviews, he's offered up plenty of information about his life that even the casual fan of his work may not be aware of. Compared to most, Mike Birbiglia is one of the most vulnerable comics there, which is part of his charm. The following stories and facts from Mike's life will not only surprise many people, but they may even encourage those unfamiliar with his work to do a deep dive on his most well-known projects. 

Mike Birbiglia started doing comedy in college

From an early age, Mike Birbiglia knew that comedy was going to a huge part of his life. At 16, Mike saw the comedian Steven Wright play a show, and was inspired by his deadpan, punchline-driven act to start writing his own jokes. By the time he enrolled in Georgetown University, his sights were set on seizing every opportunity he could. After learning that Jim Gaffigan was an alumni, Mike got a hold of the New York-based comedian's phone, eventually finding himself taking a bus to New York City for one day to meet Gaffigan for lunch. 

As a sophomore, Mike managed to win a stand up comedy competition at Georgetown (where he first met future sketch star Nick Kroll), and as his prize got to open up for a young Dave Chappelle at the D.C. Improv (via The Washington Post). Not wanting his moment in the spotlight to go to waste, Mike hustled his way into working the stage door at the D.C. Improv, where he would continue to be inspired by comedians like Mitch Hedburg and Brian Regan. Occasionally, he would be allowed to do short sets to open for various comics, which is where he began to cross paths with some future comedic legends of the 1990s.

During his time at Georgetown, Mike would also become the head of Georgetown's fledgling improv group, ushering in a new generation of Georgetown comics including Kroll and John Mulaney.

Mike interned for Conan O'Brien

Mike Birbiglia's early brushes with showbusiness wouldn't end at the D.C. Improv. In 1997, Mike managed to get hired as a control room intern at "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." At the time, the late-night show hosted by O'Brien aired on NBC following Jay Leno's "The Tonight Show." In subsequent appearances as an interviewee on Conan's various TV programs over the years, Mike has recalled what it was like working for such an iconic, alternative comedy legend.

Though Mike claims he mostly spent his 3-month internship waiting to answer a phone that never rung, in one appearance in 2021, Mike appeared virtually to discuss his experience with Conan's associate producer Jordan Schlansky. Fans of Conan O'Brien know Schlansky well due to his frequent appearance in remote segments, which often find Conan and his producer bickering over mundane topics. Mike backs up Conan's claim that Jordan Schlansky is a real person, recounting times when Jordan would describe his out-of-work activities. 

Though Mike spent his fair share of time interning for late-night shows, it wouldn't be long before he made his debut as a comedian on "The Late Show with David Letterman" in 2002. Not only did this big break lead to Mike's secure future in comedy, but it would soon lead to future appearances on even Conan O'Brien's show, where Mike would perform early jokes about his encounters with bears

Mike opens up his secret public journal

Following several appearances on late-night TV, Mike began to see his comedy career thrive as he booked festivals and headlining shows across the nation. Eventually, he found himself at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Colorado, where he was tasked with telling a story on-stage, and ultimately discovered that he had a passion for combining his love for stand-up with storytelling. Sooner or later, Mike became a frequent guest and collaborator on the New York-based live storytelling series "The Moth" as well as NPR's "This American Life," where he would forge a collaborative partnership with Ira Glass. 

Mike's first comedy album, "Dog Years," released in 2005, and was shortly followed up by two more in 2006 and 2007. His third, "My Secret Public Journal Live," was named one of the best comedy albums of the 2000s by The A.V. Club, incorporating stories from his online blog of the same name. This comedy album eventually became Mike's first stand-up comedy special, "What I Should Have Said Was Nothing," where he tells stories about an embarrassing gig at a baseball charity event as well as performing for the troops. 

A failed sitcom with comedy royalty

For many comedians, the pipeline from stand-up comedian to sitcom star is a classic route to garner a wider audience. The stand-up centric sitcom was popularized in the 1990s by Jerry Seinfeld, and has been replicated by many since, including John Mulaney, Whitney Cummings, and Ken Jeong. Mike Birbiglia also had his shot at sitcom stardom in 2008 thanks to CBS. Many fans of alternative comedy may be surprised to learn the what-could've-been of Mike's own show.

The sitcom, which would've starred Mike as a fictionalized version of himself attempting a career at stand-up, featured a supporting cast including Nick Kroll, Frances Conroy, and Bob Odenkirk (via The Hollywood Reporter). Odenkirk's involvement in the sitcom pilot predated his career-reviving role in "Breaking Bad" as Saul Goodman, but Odenkirk already had street cred in the comedy world as the co-creator of the cult HBO sketch series "Mr. Show with Bob and David." 

Unfortunately, Mike Birbiglia's sitcom pilot wasn't picked up by CBS. Though it may have disappointed comedy fans at the time, in retrospect, Mike is glad how things turned out. Not only is his current work more true to his own personal vision for his career, but it was quite a wake-up call for a young Mike Birbiglia that he wasn't meant to go down the same route as other stand-up comedians. For Mike, storytelling would become his primary focus as his comedy became more and more personal. 

A sleepwalking incident becomes Mike's first one-man show

In 2008, Mike Birbiglia's comedy career truly changed for good when he premiered his first one-man show, titled "Sleepwalk with Me." The show's origin lies in Mike's development of a rare sleep disorder known as R.E.M. sleep behavior disorder, which caused him to sleepwalk throughout his 20s. The show draws a connection between Mike's sleepwalking habits with the anxiety he feels over his first serious relationship with Abby, his college sweetheart. 

Famously, "Sleepwalk with Me" culminates in a real-life instance where, during a stay at a La Quinta Inn in Walla Walla, Washington, Mike dreamt that a missile was hurtling towards him (via NPR). In reality, Mike ended up jumping through a second story window in his sleep. Though he avoided piercing one of his arteries and dying, he ended up getting over 30 stitches in his legs, and shortly after ended his relationship with Abby. Now, as a result of the disorder, Mike sleeps in a sleeping bag at night while wearing mittens so he can't sleepwalk. 

After its debut at the Bleecker Street Theater in New York, "Sleepwalk with Me" became an overnight success for Birbiglia. It was named "Show of the Year" by Time Out New York, and garnered Mike a level of critical acclaim he had never seen before with his comedy. From here on out, one-man shows would become Mike Birbiglia's bread-and-butter, as he crossed his knack for storytelling with joke-writing expertise.

Mike turns Sleepwalk with Me into a film

Fortunately, the critical success of "Sleepwalk with Me" led to commercial success as well. Following the one-man show, as well as a live album released in 2011, Mike Birbiglia published an elongated version of the show as a book, titled "Sleepwalk with Me, and Other Painfully True Stories," which debuted on the New York Times Bestseller List. However, that wasn't even the end of this story's journey.

Mike eventually adapted "Sleepwalk with Me" into a feature film of the same name, which he wrote, directed, and stars in. While making the film was a burden on his sleepwalking disorder, as he described during an appearance on "Conan," it ultimately became a cathartic experience to translate his real-life experiences on film. Like the live show, the film follows a struggling stand-up comedian (named Matt Pandamiglio) whose sleepwalking disorder worsens as he contemplates a future with his girlfriend. Lauren Ambrose plays Abby, Mike's girlfriend, while other supporting roles are played by Cristin Milioti, Marc Maron, and David Wain. 

After premiering at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, "Sleepwalk With Me" screened at festivals across the country, including South by Southwest and the Nantucket Film Festival, the latter of which awarded Mike with Best Writer/Director. Many publications gave it rave reviews, making it a similar commercial success as the original one-man show. 

A disastrous hosting of the Gotham Awards

In 2012, the same year "Sleepwalk With Me" premiered, Mike Birbiglia was invited to host the Gotham Awards, where he had also been nominated for Breakthrough Actor. The evening ended up being a public brouhaha for Birbiglia, as the award show was also planning to bestow a tribute award to David O. Russell, the prolific yet controversial director of "The Fighter" and "Spanking the Monkey." However, during Mike's speech at the top of the show, he made quite the error in alluding to Russell's past.

The word "alluding" may also be generous to describe Birbiglia's reference. In 2007, several videos were leaked online of David O. Russell verbally assaulting Lily Tomlin on the set of "I Heart Huckabees." The language of said video is too crass to repeat here, but certainly not enough to deter Mike at the non-televised award show. During his speech, Mike said: "The great director Elia Kazan once said you have to get the shot no matter what it takes. David O. Russell once said –" and proceeded to recite the entirety of Russell's tirade

The incident later became the centerpiece of Birbiglia's 2017 Netflix special, "Thank God For Jokes," where he examines what it means to be a comedian, and how much a comedian has to lay on the line for the sake of a joke (via Vulture). For Birbiglia, that night it was his future chance of working with David O. Russell, perhaps a blessing in disguise. 

Mike's improv background pays off with Don't Think Twice

Following all the success of "Sleepwalk With Me" in its various forms, Mike also continued performing one-man shows. In 2011, he debuted "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend," which recaps his relationship with his wife, Jen, and how he cast aside his aversion to marriage for her. The show was released as a comedy special in 2013, garnering Birbiglia even more acclaim. However, when it came time for Mike to make his second film, rather than adapt his one-man show again, he decided to go in a different direction.

That film, "Don't Think Twice," draws upon Mike's experiences in improv as a young comic. Released in 2016, it stars Mike, Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Tami Sagher, Kate Micucci, and Chris Gethard as a group of best friends in an improv troupe struggling to make ends meet. When one of them books a role on a "Saturday Night Live"-esque show, the jealousy between them threatens to tear their friendships apart. While Mike plays an important role in the film as the bitter has-been Miles, the real star is Gillian Jacobs' character, Sam. 

"Don't Think Twice" currently sits with an astonishing 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, with near universal acclaim from critics following its premiere at South by Southwest, praising its depiction of people struggling to make it in showbusiness. In promotion for the film, its cast even performed in real improv shows and starred in web-exclusive "Funny or Die" sketches together

The New One sees Mike take on parenting

In 2017, Mike began touring his next one-man show, titled "The New One." To mark the occasion, he recorded a series of podcasts with guests like John Mulaney, Judd Apatow, and Sara Bareilles titled "The Old Ones," discussing his former specials. After touring "The New One" around the country, the show debuted on Broadway in late 2018, where it played until early 2019. After taking a short break from talking about his personal life with "Thank God for Jokes," "The New One" is perhaps Mike's most vulnerable and personal special to date.

The special recounts Mike and his wife Jen's decision to have a child, despite Mike's insistence that he never wanted to bring a kid into the world. There are plenty of humorous anecdotes chronicling his wife's pregnancy, but the real heart of the show comes after his daughter Oona is born, and Mike finds himself an outsider of his own family as his wife cares for their child while he's away on tour. It's an extremely candid story of Mike learning to find his rhythm as a father and husband, eventually learning to see the world through his daughter's eyes. 

"The New One" later debuted as a Netflix special in late 2019, and was adapted by Mike into a book of the same name, which also features poetry his wife wrote about their daughter. As Mike prepared to begin work on his next show, the world turned upside down. 

Mike raises money for comedy clubs

In March 2020, Mike Birbiglia's plans to perform comedy were cut short by the COVID-19 lockdown. Almost instantly, Mike found a way to connect with fans and other comics during the stay-at-home orders, starting a series on Instagram Live called "Tip Your Waitstaff." The series has Mike sharing the screen with some of his favorite friends and comedians to share jokes and stories, workshopping their new material without an audience. 

The Instagram Live isn't self-serving, either. Mike and his guests would encourage viewers to donate to their website, raising money for comedy clubs that have been suffering due to the pandemic. Guests over the course of the series included John Mulaney, Hannibal Buress, Gary Gulman, and Sarah Silverman. The fundraiser got Mike attention throughout the early months of the pandemic, and some of the jokes he workshopped eventually became material in his latest one-man show. 

Throughout 2020, Mike would continue to find ways to keep working and performing while staying at home. While "Tip Your Waitstaff" began as a fun exercise to kill the time in quarantine, it ended up spiraling into a fruitful career pivot for Mike Birbiglia that fans were delighted by. 

Working it out over quarantine

Eventually, Mike Birbiglia converted the core concept behind "Tip Your Waitstaff" into a more formal podcast, titled "Working It Out," which debuted in May 2020. The format of the podcast finds Mike interviewing various comedians and celebrity guests, interviewing them on their careers, telling stories from their lives, and most importantly, workshopping new material in support of various charities (via The Boston Globe). He's had many comedians on the show, as well as TV personalities like Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon, and even musicians like his longtime friend and music producer, Jack Antonoff, as well as The National frontman Matt Berninger. 

The podcast still continues to this day, even as Mike toured his new one-man show in 2021 and 2022. Even as Mike facilitated conversations and workshops with other comedians, there was still nothing to beat hearing an audience's reaction to your jokes. Fortunately, Mike found a clever solution: Zoom comedy shows. In the high point of the 2020 lockdown, Mike performed for a Zoom audience of 500 people around the world in "Mike Birbiglia: Working It Out Virtually." 

As the pandemic continued on into 2021, Mike's virtual comedy shows took on an entirely new, though entirely Birbiglia-esque form. For a limited run, Mike did a series of virtual shows called "The Worldwide Comedy Pizza Party." For these Zoom shows, Mike encourages his audience to order from their local pizzerias and tune in for a show of exclusively pizza-related material. 

The new face of Jimmy Kimmel Live!

In 2022, Mike continued to tour his latest one-man show, although he took a surprising detour in May when Jimmy Kimmel tested positive for COVID-19. Rather than cancel a week's worth of shows, Kimmel recruited his close friend Birbiglia to fill in for him. In the show's opening, a video recorded by Birbiglia after landing in Los Angeles shows him being informed just moments ago that he's been tasked with hosting a late-night talk show. 

Thanks to Mike's stand-up comedy chops, however, he fit right in the world of late-night. He notably helmed the show for its Mother's Day episode, as well as its Star Wars Day episode on May the 4th. His interviews with guests also resulted in some pretty unique moments. He had great improvisational chemistry with fellow comedian Ben Schwartz, as well as comedian Iliza Shlesinger. The highlight, however, may have been his interview with Ewan McGregor, where the "Obi-Wan Kenobi" actor showered Mike with praise for his one-man shows. 

Following his tenure on "Jimmy Kimmel Live," Mike Birbiglia commented on the experience of hosting a late-night show in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. He reflected on how he's noticed since hosting Kimmel's show that people have treated him like his career has just now gotten legitimate, despite the obvious success he's found with one-man shows. Though a Birbiglia-led late night show may be far in the future, the comedian seems content with being an entertaining guest instead. 

Mike makes his music video debut

As if "Jimmy Kimmel Live" wasn't mainstream enough for Mike Birbiglia, the comedian then made his music video debut — for perhaps one of the biggest artists of all time. Mike's collaboration with singer-songwriter-extraordinaire Taylor Swift has been a long time coming, as Birbiglia has been close friends with her frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff for many years, and has made frequent appearances at the Bleachers frontman's Ally Coalition charity benefits over the years. Antonoff was also been a guest on "Working It Out," which he wrote the music for, and his work is often used to score Mike's one-man shows on and off Broadway

However, according to Swift, she and Birbiglia crossed paths at a Jimmy Fallon house party, where she expressed her love for his one-man shows, as well as his wife Jen's poetry. She subsequently decided to cast the comedian in the music-video for her single "Anti-Hero" off her record-breaking 2022 album "Midnights," which happens to be primarily produced by Antonoff. Mike commented that agreeing to be in the video was a no-brainer, even as he debated whether it was Taylor Swift texting him or a catfisher who's really good at writing (via The Hollywood Reporter). 

In the video for "Anti-Hero," which delves into Swift's greatest fears, Mike co-stars with "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" actress Mary Elizabeth Ellis and fellow comedian John Early in a mid-video scene as the musician's adult children arguing over her will at her funeral. 

Mike's new show covers death, mortality, and aging

In October 2022, Mike Birbiglia debuted his latest one-man show at the Lincoln Center on Broadway. The show, which he's been touring around the country throughout 2022, is called "The Old Man in the Pool." While his last show, "The New One" (which is now The Previous One), focused on the birth of his daughter, this show focuses on death. Following a series of serious health problems, Mike has begun to contemplate his mortality, motivated by the fear of his daughter growing up without a father. 

This journey of self-preservation takes Mike back to his childhood roots at the Y.M.C.A pool, where Mike begins taking swimming lessons. While the show covers some of the heaviest topics Mike has discussed on stage, it's one of his more optimistic pieces, finding the comedian determined to reverse some of these health issues despite his less-optimistic doctors. 

A unique aspect of this one-man show of Mike's is that much of the material from "The Old Man in the Pool" originated from his various workshops over the past few years. Many anecdotes from the show can be heard in their infancy in the "Working It Out" podcast, such as one joke from the episode with Jack Antonoff where Mike ruminates on whether or not to eat a coconut after it hits someone on the head and kills them (his argument: "It's ripe!").