Commitment-Phobia – Mike Birbiglia’s one-man show frets about marriage

Mike Birbiglia stars in a one-hour comedy special Joshua Massre photo
Mike Birbiglia stars in a one-hour comedy special
Joshua Massre photo

We’re causing a lot of break-ups across America!” says writer, comedian and actor Mike Birbiglia on his most recent film, “Sleepwalk with Me.” The film, based on his one-man-show and a spot on “This American Life,” details how Mr. Birbiglia figures out that he’s not ready for marriage to his longsuffering girlfriend, while at the same time beginning his career in stand-up … once he dropped his corny jokes and started to tell the audience about his relationship. The film makes uneasy viewing, as Mr. Birbiglia never flinches — in fact, he indulges — in showing his most weasely, reprehensible behavior. For commitment-phobes, it’s not a date movie, though it’s a funny one.

“Ira Glass and I have heard people have broken up after seeing it,” Mr. Birbiglia says. “And we don’t know how to take that. We don’t want to be the break-uppers, but if the movie affects people then that’s good.”

But lest you think that “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” might be a similar experience when it comes to Campbell Hall Sunday night, don’t worry. The opposite is happening, Mr. Birbiglia says, as he takes this one-man-show around America. People have proposed after the show, one guy even doing so in the lobby after a show in Montreal.

“I guess I’m sending mixed messages in my two pieces,” Mr. Birbiglia says. “But I decided to get married by not believing in the concept of getting married.”

As recounted in “Sleepwalk with Me,” Mr. Birbiglia was a comedian on the lowest rungs of the East Coast standup circuit, until he threw away his polished but stale 15-minute set and started talking from the heart. In the film, a single pep talk is the catalyst for the change. But in real life, he says, “I had to have that revelation about 40 times” before it stuck.

For Mr. Birbiglia, who has an interest in playwriting, the show’s appeal was its potential for combining joke-telling with performance — an idea he owes in part to his college mentor. “I had a five-year-plan and basically it took 14,” Mr. Birbiglia says about his circuitous trip from show to script to movie and back to show.

The idea for “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” came after Mr. Birbiglia was T-boned by a drunk driver and made to pay for the drunk driver’s car. In his outrage, Mr. Birbiglia began writing about the obsession with being right, and the resulting story made it onto This American Life. “What was more interesting was how frustrated I was about it,” Mr. Birbiglia says, “And similarly, that led into how I don’t believe in marriage as an institution. It’s outdated, it’s sexist, it really needs to be rewritten, but that being said, I decided to get married, because I had given up on being right.”

Mr. Birbiglia had wanted to write a one-man romantic comedy show for some time, and decided he now had the material to do so.

Like he did with “Sleepwalk with Me,” Mr. Birbiglia is adapting “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” into a movie. As he does so, he says, he’s been adding to and changing the script of the live show.

“The show has more life than it’s ever had,” he says. “In some way I feel bad because I’ve performed it hundreds of times around the world. I feel bad because I feel like I’m saying ‘The best performance will be the one in Santa Barbara!’ and that discounts all the others.”

For those wondering, Mr. Birbiglia has been married for four and half years.

“It’s good,” he says. “Let’s see how five is. It’s all new to me. We got married at City Hall, and I had a lot of anxiety going in, but once it was done I was fine. I felt, oh this is great. There’s something intangible about being married to the right person that feels a little better, that feels more comfortable. It feels reassuring.”

Mike Birbiglia
When: 7 p.m. Sun.
Where: Campbell Hall, UCSB
Cost: $38/$15
Information: www.artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu or 893-3535

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