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Mike Birbiglia’s 7 (Partially Sleepwalked) Steps to Broadway

11.10.18

BY: JULIET MAZER-SCHMIDT

Comedian and storyteller Mike Birbiglia falls frequently into the category of “The Guy Who _____” … “made that improv movie with Keegan-Michael Key” [Don’t Think Twice] / “was in Orange is the New Black for a couple seasons” [as bureaucrat Danny Pearson] / “has that craaaazy story about sleepwalking” – we’ll get to that.

Welcoming his first-ever Broadway audience to The New One, Birbiglia opens: “How the Hell did we get here?” From bowling in Ohio with Mitch Hedberg to booking a 12-week run at Cort Theatre (before Glenda Jackson moves in to play Lear!), Broadway Spin’s Juliet Mazer-Schmidt answers.

Mike Birbiglia. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Mike Birbiglia. Photo: Joan Marcus.

1. The Station Wagon

Massachusetts native Mike Birbiglia graduated Georgetown and moved to New York City in 2000 – where he crashed initially on his big sister’s couch in Caroll Gardens, bartered laundry services for pizza, and drove his mom’s old station wagon anywhere he could book a stand-up set. (If you found yourself on any American college campus in the aughts, Birbiglia probably played there – possibly at 11am in a dining hall.) It wasn’t all bad: in 2002, Birbiglia landed a spot opening for one of his comedy heroes, the surreal (and gone-too-soon) Mitch Hedberg, in Dayton. Among his duties as opener, Birbiglia picked-up Hedberg and his wife at their hotel – in the aforementioned station wagon. Post-show, at Birbiglia’s suggestion, the three went bowling.

2. The Radio

In 2003, Birbiglia made his storytelling debut at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, which led to a relationship with NYC-based sanctuary of stories, The Moth. In time – and after multiple denied requests – Moth Artistic Director Catherine Burns passed Birbiglia’s material to This American Life. From there, host/public radio icon (yes, that’s a thing!) Ira Glass slowly-but-surely became Birbiglia’s long-time collaborator on a number of projects – and serves as The New One’s Executive Producer. (Birbiglia’s other long-time creative sidekick: his brother, Joe.)

Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass. Photo: Photo: Cindy Ord / Getty Images North America

3. The Journal

While building reps on the road, Birbiglia wrote a blog: My Secret Public Journal. It began as private journaling, suggested by Birbiglia’s therapist – later sent to his mailing list (a move not likely suggested by his therapist), recorded and released as an album (named one of the best comedy albums of the decade by The A.V. Club), and adapted into a one-man show, entitled What I Should Have Said Was Nothing: Tales From My Secret Public Journal. The 2008 show concluded with Birbiglia singing, self-accompanied on an acoustic guitar:

“Here’s the takeaway:

If you ever have a story where you shoulda said nothin’

Put it on paper and save it for later: I think you might be surprised.”

It doesn’t really rhyme. But that’s OK.

Set of The New One. Photo: Juliet Mazer-Schmidt.

4. The Sleepwalking

It’s no secret: Birbiglia suffers from REM sleep behavior disorder. Mid-tour in 2005, he jumped through his hotel room’s glass window in his underwear, sound asleep. The bad news: 33 stitches – and a close call for Birbiglia’s femoral artery. The silver lining: a story that would serve as source material for a theatrical debut, a New York Times bestseller and a Sundance Award-winning film. According to Birbiglia, he and Ira Glass sent the hotel a custom-made plaque that hangs at the scene of the incident explaining, “In this room, comedian Mike Birbiglia on February 3rd, 2005, jumped through the window, and he made a show about it, and a book about, and a movie about it, Google it.”

5. The Nathan Lane

When Birbiglia’s touring picked-up steam, he canceled many of his “home” gigs – but never at premier stand-up comedy spot Caroline’s. One fortunate evening, Nathan Lane happened to be in the crowd, and happened to enjoy Birbiglia’s set. The two stayed in touch – and, in late 2008, Lane produced Birbiglia’s theatre debut, Sleepwalk with Me, at Bleeker Street Theatre.

Mike Birbiglia and Nathan Lane. Photo: Photo: Nathan Lane ‘Talkbacks’ at Sleepwalk with Me (pulled from Broadway World)

Lane also attended Birbiglia’s 2007 NYC City Hall Wedding – a cameo that earned Birbiglia and his bride, writer and producer Jen Stein, an upgrade to a private room. (Birbiglia’s marriage to Stein serves as the framing device for his 2013 one-man show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend.)

6. The 2012 Gotham Awards

While hosting this independent film awards ceremony, Birbiglia expanded his notoriety with a gutsy gag aimed at career achievement honoree David O. Russell, calling out a moment of Russell’s regrettable behavior as director on the set of I Heart Huckabees – a joke Russell laughed about… later. Once again, a silver lining: the incident bookended Birbiglia’s 2017 Netflix special: Thank God for Jokes.

7. The Final 40 Blocks

Birbiglia toured with The New One, an 80-minute meditation on parenthood and arguably his best work to date, before settling into a successful one-month run at the downtown Cherry Lane Theatre over the summer. The 40-year-old received high praise from Broadway icons including Audra McDonald and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and a month after closing, announced the show’s surprise transfer 40(ish) blocks north to Broadway at the Cort Theatre.

Mike Birbiglia and his fans. Photo: David Gordon.

On October 12, Birbiglia – joined by about a hundred fans – walked the forty blocks from The New One’s former Commerce Street home to its current digs on W. 48th Street. Birbiglia assured us all: the Broadway show is “a lot different” from its previous iterations – and he tries something new at each performance…

And that’s how the Hell we got here!

The New One is playing at the Cort Theatre and tickets are in play through Broadway Roulette.