“Everyone wants to make a movie that they feel passionate about watching.” — Mike Birbiglia
I have this sneaking suspicion that Mike Birbiglia is following me. Of course, that’s an absurd idea. Why would a 38-year-old comedian with a wife and child spend his time following a 24-year-old aspiring writer who works in Human Resources? It’s an age-old question, but I’ve always felt a kinship with Birbiglia ever since high school. After all, we come from the same town, the small Massachusetts suburb of Shrewsbury, were raised Catholic, and moved to New York to pursue a career in entertainment.
Over time Birbiglia’s influence on me grew stronger as I always felt conflicted as to whether I wanted to do comedy, theatre, or film. Somehow, Birbiglia has managed to make all three work which makes me both admire and envy his success. I’ve watched him evolve his gorgeous knack for storytelling through perfectly constructed comedy hours, one man shows, and finally to feature films. Both films Birbiglia has directed so far, Sleepwalk With Me (2012) and Don’t Think Twice (2016). I was eager to get to the theater and see them even if they hurt me, which they often did.
As funny as they are, Birbiglia’s films are painful for me to watch. I saw both films at a time in which the turmoil the characters faced were eerily similar to my own. Which is why I’ve been looking over my shoulder lately to make sure everyone’s favorite pawkward comedian wasn’t trailing my every move. So much so that I decided to look back on both of his films and revisit why they hit me the way they do and the memories they unearth.
Birbiglia made his first foray into filmmaking with Sleepwalk With Me, an autobiographical adaptation of his first one man show of the same name. Birbiglia tells us his story through the eyes of his counterpart, Matt Pandamiglio, a bartender trying to work on his career as a comedian, his relationship with his longtime girlfriend, and manage a burgeoning sleep disorder. All of these things threaten to pull Matt apart until it all comes to a head when he almost dies jumping out of a window, just like Birbiglia did in real life.
The movie isn’t perfect of course, no first feature ever truly is. The sections where Matt addresses the audience work with mixed results. Birbiglia was able to tell the same story through his one man show with a better and more natural effect. However, the purpose of the narration is crucial to providing a sense of hindsight in the face of all the physical and emotional trauma Matt endures throughout the film. It makes the pain easier to take because we’re on this journey of retrospection with him and see him make steps towards learning from his mistakes.
There are people out there who wish there was an audience we could talk out our problems with, who are in on our pain and understand us best. By talking to us, Birbiglia is letting us into his way of seeing the world and as a result he makes it easier to relate to him. I don’t know what it’s like to have a major sleep disorder that caused me to jump out of a window, but I do know what it’s like to feel conflicted in your first relationship. Birbiglia’s struggle to follow his dream and maintain his relationship with Abby hit home for me hard, especially since I saw the movie for the first time with my first girlfriend.
She and I thought we were going to spend the rest of our lives together. However, as the years (five total) wore on and on, we started to have different goals. I wanted to move to New York and be a writer and director and she wanted to stay in Massachusetts and be a teacher or a book editor. I could see that we were just becoming different people, to the point where I started thinking “Why do you want to marry me? You don’t even like me.”
Sleepwalk With Me also captures the struggle of choosing between what you think you want versus what you actually need. Throughout the entire film Matt denies that the issues he’s facing are holding him back both personally with his girlfriend and physically with his sleep disorder. Birbiglia is able to juxtapose those two conflicts nicely as Matt keeps putting those problems aside until they both snowball so greatly that the climax of one instigates the end of the other. When the stakes become literally life or death Matt then decides that it’s time to finally end things with Abby, learn how to live with his sleep disorder, and find his true purpose.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my first girlfriend since I learned she got engaged. I lie awake at night sometimes playing in my head what it would be like to see her over and over again. But as I watched Sleepwalk With Me, one of the last lines that was so spot on with what I was thinking it was haunting:
When I was getting ready to make this film, I was obsessing over my relationship with Abby and what went wrong and why she stayed with me all those years. And so I went to visit her, she lives upstate with her husband and two kids and I called in advance, I didn’t just show up and say like “I’m your ex-boyfriend, I want answers!” That’s probably not the best thing to do. We’re friends so I went and visited her and we’re grabbing tea and our kids are running around and I said to her I was like “Why did you stay with me all those years when you knew we were doomed?” And she said “I didn’t want to hurt you.” Can you believe that? We almost spent our entire rest of our lives together because we didn’t want to make the other person mad. (Birbiglia, Sleepwalk With Me)
I will probably never speak or see my first girlfriend ever again and I have no problem with that, despite what this article might make you think. She’s happy doing her thing and I’m happy doing mine. We both are where we need to be and that’s what matters. All I could do was learn from the experience and move on, much like Birbiglia had to with his sophomore effort.
Don’t Think Twice, Birbiglia’s second film, shows a noticeable evolution in style as well as substance. Following The Commune (Miles, Jack, Sam, Bill, Allison, and Lindsay), an improv troupe that begins to crumble when one of the members becomes famous, it’s Birbiglia’s first try making a film not based on one of his one man shows. Inspired by Birbiglia’s time performing improv, Birbiglia spent years crafting this hilarious and heartbreaking story about friendship and success.
Since moving to New York, I have found myself inspired and discouraged all at once. I moved with my friends and we all are working our asses off to try and make it in this industry and though it’s just as tough as we thought it would be, that doesn’t make it any easier. New York is a complex city because I’m more productive than I’ve ever been, but at the same time I moved to a city that, as Birbiglia himself has stated, “doesn’t need or want you.” We are all trying to find our way in this world, but we’re coming with the same doubts and fears as everyone else. “Will I make it? Am I good enough? What happens if they make it and I don’t? Or the other way around?”
The unexpected consequences that come with success can be even more uncomfortable than the inevitability of failure. I am constantly plagued with the fear and pressure of making it that I don’t even know what I’m going to do if I do. I want to rocket to the top and take everyone with me like some sort of savior, but there’s no guarantee that I’m going to be the one to do it if it even happens at all. I’ve made so many sacrifices to get to where I am now that what happens if it’s all for naught? Watching The Commune struggle to survive made me think of what I’ve had to give up personally to get to where I am now.
Not long after I split up with my first girlfriend, along came girlfriend number two. She was just right for me: funny, kind, and also super talented. I couldn’t believe that I had found someone I clicked with so well so soon. But shortly after we met, I moved to New York and as I started to make my moves towards my career, my ability to be a good boyfriend got worse and worse. It got to the point that even I was starting to notice and that’s how I knew it was not going to end well.
I thought that eventually she would come to New York too and we’d come up together, owning this town. However as time went by it became clear that even though that’s what I wanted, it wasn’t what she wanted. After a while, the physical and emotional distance between the two of us became too much. She and I started to go in different directions and as talented as she is, she didn’t want to walk the same path that I did.
I can’t watch Gillian Jacobs as Sam in Don’t Think Twice without seeing her. Maybe it’s the blonde hair, or the big blue eyes, or her ability to make me smile and break my heart in the same breath. Jack and I have very similar goals in our careers and wanted nothing more than to take our partners with us. However, there are some people whether it’s friends or significant others who are going to be left behind either because they don’t have it, or, as Sam says near the end, “I kind of like it down here.”
Everyone in The Commune goes through their own journey, even though some don’t get as much time as they should. Even so, Birbiglia manages to keep a lot of balls in the air with his six misfits. Everyone begins to find their way through the horror of purpose and the muddled swamp that can be life. Some of them find their purpose, while others are still on their way. Unfortunately for some that purpose isn’t improv, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
Not everyone in the Commune gets what they want, but, much like in Sleepwalk With Me, each character is on the track of getting what they need. Miles finds a meaningful relationship even though it isn’t with improv, Jack and Lindsay get their dream jobs even though it’s more work than they hoped, Bill and Allison find other outlets for their talent, and Sam, even though she appears to be squandering her potential, is perfectly content with her place in life.
The final scene of the film really hits home to me as all of The Commune sans Jack are together for what looks like the last time and instead of lamenting their last moment together, they seize it, doing what they do best: creating beauty out of uncertainty.
People are going to come in and out of your life, it’s an unfortunate consequence of living. However, instead of worrying about what we could’ve done better in the past or what tomorrow will bring, focus on the moment. Birbiglia puts it well when he says, “You can be open to the idea that your life can go a different way than you thought it was going to go and that can be better.” Even if your friends drift away, don’t focus on the end, seize the day and have fun.
What makes Mike Birbiglia’s work so effective is his ability to expose a raw nerve of truth that creates an aura of wondrous discomfort. The movies are messy at times, but the mess is part of what makes the movies so hard-hitting. Life isn’t polished: it’s complex, it’s dirty, and it’s uncomfortable. You often look back on it and think that things could have worked better if you did it differently, but second chances come along rarely if at all. Birbiglia’s characters learn that the hard way and they are ultimately better for it. It gives me hope that despite everything that I’ve been through so far in my short 24 years that it’s all part of the plan and one day everything will finally make sense.
Mike Birbiglia still has some work to do as a filmmaker, just as I have a lot of work to do as a human being. But if there nothing left to work on, then life would be boring and that’s not what Birbiglia’s films are about. They are about the exact opposite. They are about breaking away from complacency in order to achieve your true self, whatever that might be. As difficult as it can be to watch his films, I will still watch them because they make me laugh, they make me cry, and they lift my soul. Whatever he makes, I will be there. I just might not bring Girlfriend #3 to the next one.