March 17th, 2012
11:02 AM ET
In the film "Sleepwalk with Me," Matt Pandamiglio is having a rough spell. He might want to break up with his girlfriend, and he can’t stop sleepwalking – which is more like sleep-running, sleep-kicking and sleep-jumping, really.
The good news: His comedy career is picking up. Less good: It's mostly because he started telling jokes about that girlfriend he can’t imagine marrying. Ouch.
If the story is familiar, it's because Pandamiglio’s life is a lot like comedian Mike Birbiglia’s used to be. Birbiglia built a career on stories about his failed romances and dangerous tendency to act out whatever happens in his dreams.
It was great fodder for standup. Then he used it for a one-man off-Broadway show, told the stories on public radio’s “This American Life,” and cut a comedy album with it. Later, he wrote a book about it.
His life-crises-with-a-twist always make audience members ask - amused, appalled - “Is that really true?!”
And yeah. It really is.
And now that it’s the basis for the film “Sleepwalk with Me," which screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival, Birbiglia got the same question and had mostly the same answer: "Well, yeah."
When it came time to write the film, Birbiglia and “Sleepwalk with Me” producer Ira Glass decided to “’Annie Hall’ it.” Alvy Singer is Woody Allen the way Matt Pandamiglio is Mike Birbiglia.
“It’s not a documentary. The moment you bring in actors, the moment you bring in a cinematographer, and a costume designer and all these artists, it’s not a documentary,” he said. “It’s not my mom. That’s Carol Kane playing a part. To say that’s Mary Jean Birbiglia – it’s not. It’s Linda Pandamiglio.”
Under a new name, he tells the familiar story of a struggling comic whose long, comfortable romance is over well before he or his girlfriend - played by Lauren Ambrose - will admit it, and whose sleepwalking disorder is going unacknowledged, too.
“The parts you don’t believe are true - are true,” Birbiglia said this week. “The parts that are kind of insignificant are fudged.”
Fudge: His parents don’t really live in Long Island, like the film’s Pandamiglios. His then-girlfriend wasn’t really in the dark about those relationship jokes. The name Pandamiglio is “such a ridiculous name,” he said, it should be obvious he made it up.
But karate-kicking a dream jackal: real.
Cheating on his then-fiancé with a memorably lopsided Hooters waitress: real.
That not-funny joke about Cookie Monster’s eating disorder – yes, an all-too-real part of his early stand-up routine.
Birbiglia’s at peace with it. He's married now. His jokes are better. For the most part, he's sleeping OK - although, in the midst of shooting the film, he sometimes sleep-told his wife she was "in [his] light" and ruining the shot.
“People obsess about those kinds of details,” Birbiglia said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re traveling by train, boat, blimp. It’s about what happens on the journey.”
After all, this was his first time writing a script, starring in a movie and directing it, too. A solid team of film veterans willing to overlook his first-time director status made it work on screen. After telling the story to thousands of people through different media, Birbiglia at least knew how to keep it funny.
“I was pretty well-versed in the obstacles of telling this story, which is to say it’s highly dramatic. But you know, at certain points, you have to let the audience laugh and let them know it’s OK,” he said.
In the film, Birbiglia assures moviegoers they should laugh at his characters’ worst moments, reminding the crowd, “I’m in the future, too.”
When Birbiglia bounded on stage at SXSW to answer audience questions about the film, which received applause, there was hardly a question he hadn’t already faced. He looked toward a hand waving in the front of the audience.
“That girl with the Hooters shirt,” the questioner said, “That was true?”
“Yeah,” Birbiglia said.
There was a quiet moment.
“I can’t believe that.”
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