The movie Sleepwalk with Me tells the more-or-less true story of how a serious sleep disorder has affected the relationships and career of comedian Mike Birbiglia. It’s a story that he’s told before—as a stand-up bit, a one-man play produced by Nathan Lane, a tale told at The Moth storytelling series, a segment on This American Life, a book and now the feature-length movie, in theaters starting Aug. 24, for which Birbiglia served as star, co-director and co-writer. He sat down with TIME to talk about the future of comedy, what not to say during a shoot and how making your first movie is like driving a school bus.
TIME: Your story went through a lot of different variations. Besides the obvious changes to length, were there any specific details that worked or didn’t work in one format versus another?
Mike Birbiglia: If you want to, you can listen to the one-man show. Sleepwalk with Me Live was an album. It’s on iTunes; it’s on Spotify. You can hear that certain things just had to go. There’s a story about how my sister and I went to Alaska and we had a bear encounter. And that’s a pretty expensive thing to shoot. And there’s this story about how I had a tumor in my bladder when I was 19 and it went away and every six months after that I had to go for a cystoscopy, which is a very painful procedure where they stick a rod, essentially, through your urethra to look in your bladder. It basically establishes that I didn’t really want to see a doctor. In the play, it serves that purpose. In the movie, it didn’t fit with the flow. That’s the thing about movies. There’s a certain momentum and there’s a certain economy to them.
Did the story generally move away from your real life as it went from one form to another?
For sure. That’s why I changed [my character's] name to Matt Pandamiglio. It’s not my parents. It’s not Vincent Birbiglia and Mary Jean Birbiglia; it’s Linda Pandamiglio and Frank Pandamiglio. Once [cast members] James Rebhorn and Carol Kane are reading the words that you’ve written, they’re putting a spin on it that’s so much better than you could possibly think of.
You changed the character’s name, but that’s not very subtle.
It’s completely a wink to the audience, in the way that Alvy Singer is a wink to the audience in Annie Hall. We wanted to change the name but not change it in a way that people go, “Wait, are you trying to avoid the fact that this is based on the true events of your sleepwalking?” Matt Pandamiglio in some ways is a perfect metaphor for what we did. We took something that was true and then changed some of the things so that it was a little more convenient.
(MORE: 10 Questions for Ira Glass)
And it’s set in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
The star of the film! Park Slope!
You can’t go anywhere in Park Slope without running into a storytelling event. Every bar has them. And you’re part of this whole storytelling moment, even a harbinger of it…
When I started, there were no storytelling events!
What do you think is behind the popularity of storytelling as a format?
I think that what’s happened in culture is two things. In terms of comedy, there was a Seinfeldian era of comedy that I love but got played out. Seinfeld was great but then after him it was people acting like Seinfeld and making observations that we felt like we’d kind of heard before, and then you’re seeing Seinfeldian comedy in commercials. Suddenly everything is observational funniness. From a comedian perspective, between me, Louis C.K., Doug Stanhope, Maria Bamford and a lot of comedians who do autobiographical work, it wasn’t a conspiracy, like “we’re all going to tell stories from now on,” but comedians naturally veer away from what other people are doing.
From an artistic perspective, the technology has made artifice so immersive and overwhelming and everything feels like it can be fictionalized and overblown and gaudy. Everything’s IMAX and 3D. Everything’s so big and grand and sort of fake. The thing about storytelling is it’s very stripped down, it’s very much at the core of “I’m a person and I’m just telling you this thing and I need you to trust me and believe that what I’m saying is true, and if you believe that what I’m saying is true then we are connected to each other.” I think there’s something really beautiful about that. And I think that it will end soon. [laughs] The same way that the comedy boom ended in the ’80s because comedy clubs became so ubiquitous—like every hotel lounge became a comedy club and eventually closed down in the ’90s—storytelling is in a boom right now.
So what’s the next storytelling?
It could be absurdism; it could be physical comedy; it could be silent film. It could be straight plays. Nobody knows what the next thing is going to be.
What allowed this particular story to work in so many different formats?
It’s metaphor that’s literal. It’s the simplest way to understand a subconscious dilemma in an ostensible way. And it happened. That helps. That’s why I think at the beginning saying “I’m going to tell you a story and it’s true” is important.
What’s it like to go from a medium like comedy that’s really self-driven to something more collaborative like film?
I’ve always had collaborators. That’s how I started in college; I was in the improv group at Georgetown. And I hired a director, Seth Barrish [who co-directed the movie] to direct my one-man shows. But I’m on stage alone quite a bit and I have to manage an audience. Managing an audience in a lot of ways is like directing a film. Bill Cosby has this analogy about stand-up comedy where you’re like the pilot of the plane: you have to act calm. You might know that you’re flying into a storm but you have to say to the passengers, [in a pilot voice] “A couple bumps up ahead, things are looking good and we’ll be down in about 45 minutes and enjoy your ride.” If you do that, people will feel okay. But if you start freaking out and go, “I don’t know what’s going on, it looks like there’s weather but the weather report this morning said there wasn’t going to be weather,” the people in the seats are like, “Oh my God, he doesn’t know! And if he doesn’t know we don’t know anything!” That’s the essence of directing as well. The phrase that I learned that you can’t say is “I don’t know.” If you say “I don’t know,” you’re screwed.
What do you say instead?
You say, “I’ll tell you in five minutes.” It’s funny because in theater you can say “I don’t know” and it’s kind of this trippy, far-out invitation to explore artistically. “I don’t know” in film is like saying “I’m an idiot; fire me.”
Were there any moments during filming where it was really clear that you hadn’t made a movie before?
Every second of every day. It’s like showing up to the field trip in seventh grade and jumping on the bus and saying, “Hey everybody, I’m gonna drive the bus.” Everyone’s like, “What? You don’t know how to drive a bus.” And you’re like, “I know, but I’ve been watching the bus driver. I feel like I have the hang of it. I’ve been watching other bus rides and I have my favorites and my least favorites, and I feel like I have a bus-driving aesthetic and I feel like that’s going to carry us through.” Fortunately we arrived at the field trip. We didn’t drive off the road.
Now do you have the movie-making bug?
I do. I just feel it’s like going to medical school. You can’t go to medical school and come out and be like, “I’m going to be a dog catcher.” That would be so pointless. Once you know how to make a movie, you can’t not make a movie. It’s the hardest damn thing you could ever imagine and the skill-set is so specific. Also it’s a passion. I love movies and I loved making a movie, as hard as it was. I’m working on the film adaptation of My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, which is the show I’m touring the world with right now.
How do you sleep these days?
I sleep okay. I still sleep in a sleeping bag. I don’t wear the mittens because they’re too hot. But making movies is not the best thing for sleep disorders. I was directing myself all day, playing myself. I would come home at night and I couldn’t shut my brain off. I would sleepwalk and my wife would come in and I would be adjusting lamps. She’d be like, “What are you doing?” And I’d be like, “We’re shooting.” She’d be like, “No, we’re not,” and I’m like, “No, I’m sorry, but we are.” Like I say in the movie, it doesn’t go away.
And for Sleepwalk with Me, now that it’s been through so many lives…
How do you know?
I know that it’s done because I don’t think there’s any other media, other than video games and graphic novels…
A musical, and also Ira [Glass, of This American Life, who co-produced the movie] said earlier today that maybe we can do some sort of artisanal cheese plate.