Talking to Mike Birbiglia About Performing ‘My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend’ For the Last Time and Adapting it For Film
After 13 years in comedy, Mike Birbiglia has reached his ultimate goal. This coming Sunday, he’ll culminate his 70-city tour of My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend on the apotheosized stage of Carnegie Hall. His story goes that shortly after moving to New York City in 2000, he saw Jon Stewart play the venue, laughed his ass off, and decided that he would be on that stage some day too. Now after countless ups and downs in his life and thousands of comedy shows under his belt, Birbiglia has made it to one of the most highly regarded theaters in the world. I caught up with Mike to hear about why he’s attached to My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, what’s next for him, and why he thinks Ira Glass is like Houdini.
You started doing My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend in New York back in 2011, what does it mean for you to come back after a global tour and end it at Carnegie Hall?
It’s so exciting. I’m sincere when I say that I really haven’t wanted to stop doing this show. There is a part of me that feels like I could go on doing it for 5-10 more years, and make it better and better and then get another actor to come in and take over for me. Just run it for eternity. My Boyfriend’s Girlfriend is special because it’s optimistic which I think is rare in comedy. I’ve had a lot of people on tour that have proposed at shows to their girlfriends or boyfriends which just makes it so fun to do. My agent and I talked about how the best way to end it would be, (laughs) because he’s really been pushing me to end it and write a new show. I think he’s probably right so we decided that Carnegie Hall would be a great way to go out. Because you know, most people haven’t really been to Carnegie Hall. It’s kind of neat to give my fans an excuse to go there in a way. Our show is much cheaper than your typical show there. The most expensive ticket is $55 and the least is $35 so we did our best to keep ticket prices really low for everyone. I’m excited.
How has the show evolved since you first started it off broadway?
A lot of the change is really subtle but it kind of adds up to a lot if that makes sense. There are jokes and details and moments where there used to be a vague description of a feeling whereas now there’s like a substantive example of that thing. I actually think I might improvise a story at the top of Sunday’s show just to demonstrate how unlikely it is for me to be on the Carnegie Hall stage. Because 13 years ago, I moved to New York and was living on an air mattress in Queens. I couldn’t even play at any of the comedy clubs in New York City because I wasn’t good enough.
You’ve done the My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend tour all around the world in 70 different cities, do you have a favorite place that you’ve performed at? Or a favorite performance that sticks out?
Gosh, there are so many. There’s one on YouTube that was in Illinois or Indiana. We videoed a guy proposing to his girlfriend on a camera phone, that was really neat. I did a show at the Opera House in Sydney, which I loved. I also had a really exciting run at the Melbourne Arts Center for two weeks, it is one of the prettiest venues I’ve ever played. London was extraordinarily fun, at the Soho Theater. Jimmy Carr came whose one of my favorite comics, Boy George came, Anna Kendrick came, Eric Stonestreet, all these people came out. It was very unexpected, there was like a who’s who of entertainment folk in the crowd so that was pretty neat for me. And of course the run at Barrow Street Theater was really exciting, I hope to do something there again. It’s a great, great theater with amazing tradition and people. I’ve loved it all.
Ira Glass is a close friend of yours, how do you feel about having him open for you at Carnegie Hall this weekend?
It’s a gift for him to offer that to me, it has to be an offer of pity of some kind (laughs). But honestly, Ira has always been supportive of whatever I’m doing since we’ve been friends. We spent so much time doing those Q & A’s for the movie (Sleepwalk With Me), I think in his mind he was just like, “Oh, this final show will be just like that.” The other thing is, he’s developing a full-length dance show called One Radio Host, Two Dancers: Ira Glass, Monica Bill Barnes, and Anna Bass in Concert. I say this with love, but it’s very unlikely that it would be good because it combines radio and dance, two inherently opposing forms, but the show is just incredible. It has gotten an amazing reception so far. I don’t know the specifics, but I think they’re going to tour the country with it. But I feel like Ira is constantly trying to Houdini himself into these situations where he can’t succeed and then he does.
What does your wife think of the show?
She loves it. The thing about this show is that my wife has all the best lines. Everything that is wise or smart or witty or thoughtful is a direct quote from her. A lot of times people after the show are like, “Where’s Jenny?”, “I want to meet Jenny.” Same thing with Sleepwalk With Me where I talk about my ex-girlfriend — as a general rule of thumb, I always try to make myself look worse than any other person in a storyline while still keeping it funny. Which is a real dance for sure. It takes a lot of fine-tuning to get to that point. But, Jenny is wildly supportive and she’s a writer as well so she and I just generally support each other’s writing.
You excel at this sort of long-form comedy style, was it just a natural transition from Sleepwalk With Me or how did it emerge for you?
In some ways it has to do with Sleepwalk With Me, but some of it is that I started telling stories at The Moth. I also studied playwriting and screenwriting in school and then I started performing pieces of my plays and followed that. I found that I was connecting more with the audience by telling longer stories and kind of leveling with them — saying, “Here’s my deal” and people responded well to it. I think at a certain point, I thought, “I think I’m better at this than the regular joke, joke, joke form.”
I read that you will be adapting this show into a movie. What can we expect there, will it be similar to Sleepwalk With Me?
At this point, I’ve written two or three drafts of the screenplay. I’m adapting it in a loose, loose, loose way. In some ways you can say it’s an entirely different movie that I’m writing. Like with Sleepwalk With Me, we changed the names of the characters so that we could take liberties. I feel like with this one, I have restructured everything entirely — what the characters do, how the love interests meet each other, everything. By the time I end up finishing it, it might just be a completely different story.
I imagine after doing a show over 300 times, it will be sad to close, but also a relief to start something else. What will you be focusing on now?
I’m at a crossroads, I’m going to do a new hour of standup and I don’t know what that’s going to be about yet. I’m writing this new film and then we will make the movie. A lot of what I do is based on drafts. Like with Sleepwalk With Me, I did about 20 drafts of the screenplay. I’ve found that the more I’m open to rewriting, the better it ends up being. So I’ve got a lot to do.