Comedian Mike Birbiglia has been a surprisingly active part of my life recently. I was first introduced to his work a few years ago via the popular radio program This American Life. Mike was featured on an episode titled “Fear of Sleep,” in which he described his initially harmless bouts with sleepwalking that eventually culminated in a life-threatening incident while on tour performing stand-up. Sleepwalking is many things: a fascinating phenomenon, beloved theme of absurd TV shows and inspiration for one of the greatest songs of all time. When discussing somnambulism, however, most people (myself included) don’t think to conceptualize it in terms of disability. Mike’s story takes it to a whole new, sometimes scary, but often hilarious level.
Mike was diagnosed with Rapid Eye Movement Behavior Disorder (RBD), a sleep disorder which essentially boils down to him acting out his dreams while being totally unaware of his actions while sleeping. He’s also completely convinced that the dreams are real. Therefore, if there’s a jackal in the room (a recurring dream he talks about in his act), he may very well run outside of a motel room at 4am to escape the wild animal, all the while technically asleep. This kind of behavior is of course dangerous, (albeit amusing to hear him recount). Due to certain dramatic situational consequences resulting from the disorder, the comedian now takes medication, has a nighttime winding-down ritual, and sleeps in a sleeping bag zipped up to his neck. He also wears mittens so that he’s unable to liberate himself from his sleeping bag cocoon. Mr. Birbiglia turned his unique experiences into a one-man show, Sleepwalk With Me, which led to his piece on TAL, a New York Times bestselling book, and now a feature film co-written with Ira Glass and his brother, Joey BaggaDonuts.
The movie centers on his increasingly tense relationship with his long-time girlfriend played by Lauren Ambrose (aka Claire from Six Feet Under), while coming to terms with his condition and trying to make it as a comic. Also featured are Carol Kane (who should be in way more movies), Wyatt Cenac, Marc Maron and my future wife, Kristen Schaal.
I recently saw Mike interviewed at Livewire, Portland’s extremely entertaining radio variety show taped in front of a live audience. Mike was hysterical, drunk, and very very charming. Some of my straight male friends who accompanied me told me afterwards he had them questioning their sexuality. He’s currently on a press tour (adorably) promoting the movie, which I saw last weekend and recommend. It’s refreshing to see/hear people chronicling events in their lives that are cause for struggle, but who do so with goofy humor minus the schmaltz. In Mike’s case, coming to terms with his rare sleep disorder and laying it all out for his audience (instead of hiding it) proved to be the key to his success. Through recognizing and joking about that aspect of his life, he was able to finally connect with his audience—something that had previously been an issue in his standup.
Within Hollywood now, there’s still a huge dearth of material that not only features disability as a normal, everyday topic, (which of course it is), but does so in a thoughtful, comical manner. Most depictions of disability in cinema continue to fall back on insidious stereotypes of disability as tragedy (The Elephant Man, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane), or someone “overcoming” their impairment to become some supercrip hero (Forrest Gump, My Left Foot). Unlike those movies, Sleepwalk With Me illustrates how Mike’s disability ends up being an asset, not a liability. There is genuine humor with disability, and this particular film is an honest, earnest, and entertaining reflection of that truth.
You can find out if and where the film is playing in your town here, and watch the trailer below.
Previously: Ready, Willing, and Disabled