In either scenario, odds are good that less adventurous souls will skip the ride. But Birbiglia, 34, has a mysterious way of collecting passengers for his creative journeys. For starters, the comedian co-wrote the screenplay with Ira Glass, host of public radio’s “This American Life,” who, years later, still seems a bit confounded as to how he got roped into the project.
“I don’t have a smart answer for that. I only did it because Mike kind of waved his arms around and said this might be fun,” said Glass, also one of the film’s producers. “I don’t think I anticipated just how consuming it would be and how many years it would take.”
The screenplay, a slightly fictionalized retelling of Birbiglia’s young adulthood, follows an aspiring comedian at a crossroads. After graduating from Georgetown University in 2000, the Massachusetts native, who now lives in Brooklyn, had to decide whether to marry his admittedly wonderful live-in girlfriend (played in the film by Lauren Ambrose) or let her go.
The twofold pressure of his fledgling career, which routinely had him on the road for long stretches, and potentially impending nuptials exacerbated the comic’s latent sleep disorders. He began acting out his dreams. At first the problems were manageable, as Birbiglia attacked a hamper in the middle of the night, convinced it was a jackal. But pretty soon he was jumping off bookcases, waking up half-naked in hotel hallways and putting himself in life-threatening danger — though that moment is better seen onscreen than divulged here.
This all happened long before Birbiglia became a frequent guest on “This American Life,” started selling out large venues (the Warner Theatre among them) and garnered a comedy album of the decade designation from the Onion A.V. Club. His act took time to catch on; it’s far from typical bawdy stand-up fare, and his persona is hardly the bullying heckler, using audience members for target practice. Instead, Birbiglia, who still does stand-up and performed at DC Improv on his last trip through town, comes across as almost childlike, between his somewhat slurred speech patterns, earnest delivery, wide eyes and eyebrows that seem perpetually in a state of surprise.
Birbiglia eventually earned a devoted following, as well as some unexpected fans. After attending one of the comedian’s performances, Nathan Lane offered to attach his name to the one-man version of “Sleepwalk With Me,” which had a critically acclaimed off-Broadway run. Lane’s proposal was all a matter of happenstance, what Birbiglia calls “sort of a flukey thing” that ended up being unlike any gift he’d ever received. Maybe it seemed so unexpected because Birbiglia is accustomed to putting things in motion himself. In fact, the underlying message in the film’s path to the big screen might be: Ask and you shall receive.