Photo credit: Evan Sung
Comic and actor Mike Birbiglia well known to millions of people for his essays on the Ira Glass-helmed public radio program This American Life. But Birbiglia was a rising star on the standup circuit even before he began contributing to TAL several years ago. Nowadays, with countless live shows under his belt (including a triumphant gig at Carnegie Hall in 2013), film work (including his own flick Sleepwalk with Me, written with Glass) and an upcoming TV role on Netflix’s hit Orange is the New Black, he’s bigger than ever. Here’s what he had to say shortly before landing in town for performance at the Chicago Theatre Sept. 20.
Question: Louis C.K. tosses his act out once a year. What’s your process?
Mike Birbiglia: I’m about every three years. That Louis C.K. model, I think, is insanity [laughs]. I think it works precisely for him and I think that everyone who tried to mimic it ends up with less-than-stellar results [laughs]…This show is all-new.
Q: You got to perform your last show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, at Carnegie Hall.
MB: That was my final performance, with the rare opening act Ira Glass. And then Ira and I handed out ice cream in the street afterwards to 2,000 people.
Q: You’re like Andy Kaufman with the milk and cookies.
MB: We took a page from Andy Kaufman. Because how many times do you play Carnegie Hall in your life? Probably that’ll be it, right?
Q: How did it hit you — being in that venue?
MB: It’s really interesting. It was as good as you’d want it to be. I actually ran into Aziz Ansari at the Comedy Cellar the night before, and I knew he had played it before. And I said to him, “Do you have any tips for Carnegie Hall?” And he just said, “Enjoy it, because it’ll be as good as you want it to be. It’s everything that you’d want in a venue.” And there is some spirit to it, where people are thrilled to be there, just at the venue, and as a result it makes it an event [where] somehow there’s more energy injected into the room. It might have been the best show of my career. And my parents were there, which is a very rare thing. The Chicago Theatre is sort of the Carnegie Hall of the Midwest. Or, if you don’t want to say it that way, Carnegie Hall is the Chicago Theatre of the East.
Q: Comics have said the Chicago Theatre is as big a place as they want to play. Is that the way you feel about it?
MB: It actually is. It’s the biggest show on my tour, and it’s as big as I want to play. I did it as an ensemble for This American Life in 2009 and 2010 and I loved it. I found it to be one of the best performance spaces I’ve ever been in, so that’s why I was really eager to get back and do a full show there.
Q: How is the sleepwalking going? Has it been alleviated at all in the past couple of years?
MB: Yeah, to some extent. I’ve had nothing tragic, certainly. No jumping through windows. Nothing that felt life threatening. But it’s not a simple thing to deal with. As I said at the end of “Sleepwalk with Me,” I’m never going to be cured. It’s just something I’m going to have to deal with everyday, and I do. I wear a sleeping bag, I take medication, I go regularly to see a sleep physician. Everybody has their thing, and that’s my thing.
Q: Did you initially think, “If I start taking medication, that’s going to affect my mental process which will in turn affect my comedy?” Were you worried about that?
MB: Oh, yeah, yeah. I thought through all of these things. And at a certain point, you just have to say, “Do I want to keep my brain chemistry the same all the time or do I want to be alive?” Oh, I think I’ll go with alive.
Q: You now have this new gig on Orange is the New Black.
MB: Yeah, it’s been a wild year, I have to say. I shot a film with Judd Apatow, which is a dream come true. And then I’m playing a recurring guest star role on Orange is the New Black. I’ve had a lot of things happen at the same time, and all of this in the middle of a 100-city tour.
Q: What exactly is your role on Orange is the New Black?
MB: I actually can’t say. It’s a strange thing. Originally, when I first was booked to do it, I couldn’t say that I was on the show. So it was this weird thing where I was lying to people in my life. They’d say, “Where are you going?” And I’d say, “Well, I can’t talk about it.” And so people thought I had some kind of illicit affair that I was never speaking of. Now I can say I’m on the show but I can’t say what I’m going on the show.
Q: You can’t even say if it’s comedic or dramatic?
MB: No. Nothing.
Q: Wow, they have you tied down [at Netflix]. Did they threaten to throw you off a balcony or something?
MB: [Laughs] Obviously, those are the implications…[But] they can’t do anything that I haven’t done to myself. I’ve already jumped through a window, so what can they do to me?
Mike Birbiglia: Thank God for Jokes Tour
Sept. 20 at 8 p.m.
Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
Tickets $33-$47.50; ticketmaster.com