The latest project from Mike Birbiglia, Sleepwalk With Me Live isn't just another great stand-up comedy CD from one of the most-consistent comics working today. Sure, at first listen it sounds like stand-up, but what you're listening to is actually a recording of his one-man show by the same name. And if you pay attention, you'll notice there is a subtle difference. This isn't just a standard collection of jokes, moving from one topic to another. Step back and take another look. There's real storytelling going on here. There is structure, a plotline, and form. There are no throwaway vignettes or rabbit trails here. Everything serves a common purpose: to defy his father's advice of not telling anyone anything and reveal to the world his struggle with relationships, family ties, and a rare sleeping disorder that sent him crashing Hulk-style through a second-story hotel window.
Of course, no one is as funny when he's in an awkward situation as Mike Birbiglia and in his life there's been no shortage of experiences to pull from. His highly-guarded father who demands that, regardless of what he is going through, "don't tell anyone". That harrowing trip to the doctor that would keep him from seeking medical attention for years to come. Dreams of bears and then meeting them face to face. Winning - or at least placing in - the Dustbuster Olympics. The scary jackal. And of course, his disorder that makes your best sleepwalking stories pale in comparison.
A series of seemingly random and unconnected stories help paint the big picture. Birbiglia takes each piece of the puzzle, turning it over in his hands, studying it, before he places it exactly where it goes. Birbiglia starts off at the end of his story and ends where he began. He tells us the climactic and harrowing account of the night he dreamt a guided missile was aimed directly at him, sending him leaping out of bed and crashing through a window. And then he digresses to give us all of the necessary backstory. He tells us what led him to that fateful La Quinta Inn in Walla Walla and leaves no stone unturned, often times taking us to what must be uncomfortable territory to re-visit, but at the same time is quite necessary in order to help us understand. By the time he gets to the end, we're back at the La Quinta Inn, only now we see it from a different perspective.
Birbiglia's show is perfectly crafted, and although he starts off with the window-crashing story - that's right, he starts his show with the climax - he gives nothing away. The show contains a number of surprising twists. You think you know how things are going to end, but you don't. Some of the revelations are inspiring. Some are "aw"-inducing. I won't give any of them away in this review so they unfold the way Birbiglia intended, but it's safe to say they all leave you with a smile and Birbiglia finds a silver lining - or at least a humorous one - in each and every situation.
The humor in Sleepwalk is just as important as the storytelling itself. In some aspects, it's the only way Birbiglia can safely convey what it is he needs to get across. It's a coping mechanism, although sometimes it's for his benefit and sometimes, it's for ours. Birbiglia knows just when to infuse a big laugh and when a small chuckle will suffice.
Is this stand-up comedy? Is it a one-man show? Is it a comedic drama or a dramatic comedy? Is it a monologue? Is it poetry? Is it a play? Is it better suited for a comedy club or an off-Broadway theater? Is it a hybrid of all of these things, or something new? The answer to all of these questions is yes.
Regardless of how people classify or describe it, one thing is for sure: Birbiglia has created nothing less than a beautiful piece of comedic art. I don't mean to disrespect his father by deliberately going against his mantra, but I can't help it.