It’s Impossible Not To Laugh While Interviewing Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia
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Here’s the thing about Mike Birbiglia: He’s not one of those comics who is hilarious on stage, but in person becomes an introspective, self-serious, brooding type. He’s not going to go on and on about his own mortality while smoking a cigarette, or whatever. No, here’s Mike Birbiglia doing his impression of Animal from the Muppets, just for me. This isn’t even being filmed. I literally have to type out Birbiglia’s impression of Animal so you can try to read what that might be like. He’s putting on a one-person show for one person. It’s great. His humor is often filled with such wide-eyed earnesty, then he hits you with Animal cursing. It’s impossible not to laugh.

In 2012, Birbiglia directed the critically acclaimed Sleepwalk With Me. (I speak from experience, I was one of the people who “acclaimed” it.) Birbiglia turned a story about his relationship, career, and an often very frightening sleep disorder into something funny and touching.

Now, four years later, Birbiglia has directed his second feature film, Don’t Think Twice (which played this week at the Tribeca Film Festival and will be released this summer). On the surface, it’s about a member of an improv comedy troupe (Keegan-Michael Key, whom we also interviewed lately) who is tapped to be a cast member on Weekend Live (the film’s version of SNL) – and the jealousy and fallout that follows within the improv group he left behind. But everyone has felt professional jealousy at one point or another. It’s tough to watch someone else fulfill your professional goal. Don’t Think Twice taps into those emotions better than any film I can remember.

So, yeah, you get all that and, in person, an Animal impression. (Be warned, the following interview goes off on some, let’s say, tangents.)

In the waiting room, they were showing the episode of Friends with Bruce Willis.

I never saw that.

Ross is dating Bruce Willis’ daughter.

His daughter? Oh, not his real life daughter.

Ross is teaching a college course and Bruce Willis’ character’s daughter is a student.

That’s a good show.

Last time we spoke, you made it a point to tell me that Cookie Monster didn’t have his own show. I’ll never forget that.

Oh my God, because I thought there was a misunderstanding?

Because we were just calling it The Cookie Monster Show.

[Laughing.] In my one-man show, I do Animal. And one night Frank Oz showed up, who is Animal. He’s every voice: He’s Animal, he’s Fozzie, he’s Yoda.

He’s the test administrator in Spies Like Us.

He came backstage and I asked him advice on how to do Animal and he said, “The key thing to know about Animal is that all he knows about are drums, pain, sex, food, and he eats glass.” And ever since then, my Animal voice got really good.

I imagine.

It’s better. It’s better than it was.

Now I want to hear it, but this is a print interview, so it doesn’t matter. No one will get to hear it.

No, no. Well, it’s like [does Animal voice] AHHHHH. The joke is that Animal curses. So it’s like, [does Animal voice] THIS FUCKING SNARE DRUM SOUNDS LIKE SHIIIIIT. It’s really goofy.

That’s good.

Wacka, wacka, wacka. That’s my Fozzie.

I want to know what people in the hallway are thinking right now.

Wacka, wacka, wacka.

The faux-SNL opening you created for Weekend Live gave me the giggles. The first cast member is named “Hugh Finn” and he’s getting street food, then sees the camera.

I laugh, too. Whenever you are dealing in verities, if an audience member like you locks in, it’s anyone’s guess what they will laugh at. So, Weekend Live, we just made it as real as we could. So we’re not playing it for jokes, but it is funny. We’re playing it as close to reality as we can.

When I watched the real opening, I had a new appreciation for it. Just hanging out on the street, “Oh, a camera!”

Yeah, the screen direction I wrote was, “Whoa, look, there’s a camera.”

I always think of Phil Hartman at a bar, having a conversation, and then, “Hey, it’s you!”

It’s funny, because they light it for two hours. Then they go, “Pick up the donut and then look at the camera as you had no idea the camera was there.” It’s like, come on, what are we doing?

Could you not use the real Saturday Night Live name?

At one point I toyed with it. You can say the name, but you couldn’t use the logo. So you have to think about what the copyrights are. I toyed with the idea of asking the show if I can use it, but I don’t want to get into that conversation.

You’d have to clear every joke with them.

Right. I saw Black Mirror recently and they’re on an American Idol type show, but they have a fake name. That’s really good and you can fake it and, in some ways, that gives you more artistic license. And people will ask, “How do you know so much about SNL?” Well, it’s the most written about TV show in the history of ever.”

That’s been on for 41 years.

How about the 700-page oral history? Is that a good start? I’ve certainly read that. That was helpful. I read the extended version!

I have, too.

The new one is great. Jorma Taccone from Lonely Island, is in it a lot. Those guys brought the show into the present, and that was really smart.

Mike O’Brien is still making shorts on the show.

Mike O’Brien is brilliant. Mike O’Brien is thanked in the movie because I heard a story once that he came backstage in Chicago with his group, The Reckoning, and he was totally naked. “Are we ready to start the show?” I thought it was the funniest thing. I called him and I said, “Mike, I heard this story and it’s really funny. Can I put this in my movie? If not, I totally understand.” He goes, “I don’t own naked, but thanks for asking.” He was like, “Most people don’t ask permission for things people would say ‘yes’ to. But then they just ripped off shit.”

I am a big fan of his and Tim Robinson.

Oh, Tim’s another one we improvise with at UCB. He’s one of the funniest people on the planet. Tim and Mike are two of the hands down funniest people and nicest people.

I can’t believe both were cast members and now both aren’t.

It baffles the mind.

Z Shirt.”

Oh yeah! Unbelievable.

Did you ever have an experience with that show?

Everybody asks. No.

Well, you did make a movie about it.

No, of course. In my twenties, I wrote a writing submission for it, which I gave to an agent who claims he gave it to someone – but I don’t think it was ever read by anyone. If the receptionist at the front desk read it, I’d say it would be ambitious to say that happened.

It’s been four years since Sleepwalk With Me. Wasn’t there supposed to be another movie?

I was doing a My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend adaptation. It still might happen.

I don’t like this four-year gap between movies.

I’m working on a “two.” I think I can pull off a “two.” I think I can get one out by 2018. I’m trying to think how that would happen. I would need to write it by next summer and be in production by July to get it into Sundance in 2018. So I’m going to try to do that for you.

Just for me?

Just for you, yeah.

I’d be very happy with that.

Woody Allen’s every one year is a suicide mission. There’s too much room for error. Of course, he’s been able to do it and he’s made 20 movies that are brilliant.

You’re two for two.

I’d like to think I’m two for two.

People love this movie because it hits that chord about professional jealousies.

All of it came from real emotions I felt. I would go to the coffee shop in the morning and write and I would think about all the jealousies I’ve experienced in my life and I would channel that into all the characters. I got sidetracked. I was writing My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and got four drafts in and this idea came to make me. And it was like, “I have to make this. I have to make this now!” it went fast. We got Gillian Jacobs right away. We got Keegan-Michael Key right away. [Keegan-Michael Key enters the room.]

And Keegan is right there, behind you.

When we got off Skype, I told my wife, “I think Keegan is making the movie. We talked for two hours. I don’t think either of us is spending two hours on people we’re not making something with.”

Keegan-Michael Key: That’s a good philosophy.

Is that the threshold? Once you see 120 minutes on your Skype counter?

Keegan-Michael Key: At 90 minutes, it’s still touch and go.

He’s mad at me because I took four years to make another movie.

He said the next one is for me.

I did. I said I’m cutting it down to two years for him. We actually always talk about how long can you wait to direct your next film without people going, “He’s not a director anymore?”

Keegan-Michael Key: Ask Terrence Malick.

We get Malick movies a lot quicker than we get Mike Birbiglia movies these days.

Come on.

That will be a Google search term now, with you two in the same sentence.

Yeah, there you go. But my editor was the editor of his new one, Geoffrey Richman.

Knight of Cups?

Yep. He’s brilliant. And everyone should hire him, unless when I’m making another movie. But, yeah, I’ll try to set it up in two years.

I almost had a quote on the Sleepwalk With Me DVD cover. You could see it on the Amazon pre-order. But then when it came out, I was replaced by Roger Ebert. This would make it up to me.

[The film’s publicist chimes in, “Oh, I’ll be hitting you up for quotes.”]

I’ll give a quote that mentions Malick.

That’s what will get you on. “Though, he has nothing in common with Malick, I enjoyed this film.” Alright, use it, Malick’s in there.

How about “Shades of…”?

“Shades of Malick. Shades of Altman. Shades of Woody Allen.” I’ll take it.

All three? How about James Cameron, too?

“And a skosh of James Cameron.”

Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.