Stand-up comedian, “This American Life” contributor and now actor/director Mike Birbiglia has transformed his hilarious stand up routine into a feature film focusing lightheartedly on his own sleep disorder. And the subject has touched all of his media outlets in very different ways, each appropriate to its respective medium.
In his standup routine, Birbiglia expertly tells his story of a sleep disorder that causes him to do more than sleepwalk — he literally and physically acts out his dreams while in an unconscious state. The anecdotes start with Birbiglia yelling to his girlfriend that there is a jackal in the room. Whether the jackal means any harm is a question unanswered, but the perceived fact remains. Birbiglia’s girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose), calmly tells him that there is not, in fact, a jackal in the room, and Birbiglia trusts her in a display of self-proclaimed love.
In the “This American Life” show, he reveals that he didn’t truly believe Abby, but trusted her that the “jackal” meant no harm. The same anecdote was apparent in the film.
To continue on that thread, the film “Sleepwalk With Me” greatly resembles Birbiglia’s stand-up as well as his radio (and podcast) bits. So why did he portray it via so many media? Was it a hunger for publicity in the ever-expanding media market? Possibly. But, on the other hand, each release of the “Sleepwalk With Me” story served a purpose diverse from its predecessor, whether Birbiglia meant it that way or not.
The standup comedy show was a very one-sided take on Birbiglia’s embarrassing, self-deprecating, yet endearing tales of unconsciousness. He told stories, some of which were repeated in the film, of standing on an awards podium (in reality his living room shelves), being attacked in sleep by a jackal (in reality, nothing) and of being targeted by an elaborate plan to destroy him with a government homing missile.
Of course, none of these things happened in reality, but were entirely real to Birbiglia in his somnambulant state. And the question remains, why should Birbiglia depict his disorder across so many media? Don’t they all tell the same story?
Well, the simple answer is no. Each medium fulfills a different purpose to provide an overall outlook on the story, centered around one man’s sleep disorder. And while many companies reach for multimedia success (think any book-to-movie), few succeed as well as Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me.” And here is why:
Most book, radio or stand-up to film acts fail to have an artistic motive to make the project into a movie. “The Green Hornet,” a radio-to-film flop, seemed to capitalize solely on the superhero craze. And every “Larry the Cable Guy” film to date has been a pathetic effort to turn a weak, yet popular, stand-up bit into a film. Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me,” however, has a number of qualities supporting its film debut.
First, and possibly least of all, Birbiglia is a born comedian and born actor. In the vein of deadpan film comedians everywhere, he speaks with his face and his expressions as much as his statements, making the scenes all the more engaging. It’s hard to compare him to other comedians; you really have to see him for yourself.
The climax of the film, his sleep-deprived pinnacle, is when he jumps through a hotel window thinking in a dream-state that he is the Hulk, and a missile is coming straight for him.
The same scene is reflected in his stand-up and radio routines, but in the film, you receive a more humanistic view — that of his girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose). She is clearly worried about Birbiglia, as any fiancée should be.
Oh! By the way, Abby is scheduled to lock herself in matrimony to Birbiglia based on a drunken, semi-forced proposal. But the proposal is more or less beside the point, in any medium. And Abby is but one relationship from which you can see Birbiglia’s problem. And to see his disorder from alternate perspectives in the film presents a far deeper insight than Birbiglia’s own in his standup, podcasts or what have you.
For once, you can see how his severe sleep disorder, hilarious as it may be, affects his peers and loved ones. While his parents seem to remain cold and matter-of-fact (“You should see a doctor, Micael,”) they do care about him. And while his fiancée Abby pleads with him to try and fix his issue, you witness a dramatic level not evident in his stand-up material.
People care about Birbiglia. And although it may not seem like it, Birbiglia cares about his people. And for that reason, in the film, you see the incarnation of his self-protection: he sacrifices his somnambulant comfort for a tight-strung sleeping bag, to assure his existence, lest he propel himself through a second-story hotel window.
Although his sleep disorder provides him with great stories to tell, Birbiglia’s reality forces him to literally tie down to avoid injury or worse. And at the same time, he tells his story more effectively and keeps to his friends and family, by not dying at the very least.