There is currently a large boom in stand-up comedy, much of which has grown out of the need for comedians to explore their own issues and learn from them. Sleepwalk with Me is prime example, and prime indeed. Mike Birbiglia exposes how his family and relationship issues did not mix with his growing comedy career, which in-turn aggravated his sleeping disorder.
Matt Birbiglia (Mike Birbiglia) is a bartender who has been dating his girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose) for nine years; in fact she is the only person he has ever slept with. While attending an engagement party for his sister, Matt has a sleepwalking episode where he thinks that a hamper is a jackal. When Mike finally nabs a few out of town gigs he begins to find his voice, just as he begins to consider Abby’s role in his life, and just as his sleepwalking continues to interrupt his quality of life.
As Matt continues to work diligently towards his dreams, travelling from one low paying gig to another, his actual dreams are affecting his life more and more. Even as his father continuously presses him to go to a sleep clinic, and build better sleeping habits, Matt repeatedly shrugs off the assistance, primarily because he has found his voice as a comedian and continues to tour. Although he is gaining notoriety and his gigs gradually get better, he begins to ignore his health exponentially. His stress increases as his relationship with Abby continues to falter, the subtle pressure from Abby and his family to marry mounts, and his constant touring exacerbates his poor eating habits. All these elements conspire against him, making his sleeping disorder worsen over time.
Although Matt has interest in becoming a comedian throughout the film, his early material was mostly riffing on pop culture which drew less than stellar laughs. When he realizes that the truths about his own life made for better material, his career begins to take off. That is exactly why Sleepwalk with Me exists. Many of the great contemporary comedians dissect their personal lives and share their stories on stage in front of strangers in order to better understand themselves and connect with audiences.
Sleepwalk with Me is based off of Mike Bribiglia’s own tour, comedy album, and book about his adverse sleep disorder, and Birbiglia directed and co-wrote much of the script. Like most adaptations, liberties are had and events have been altered, particularly Mike’s depiction of his Silent Generation father who advises Mike not to reveal too much about his personal life as it can be used against him. Oops. Birbiglia’s little dynasty based on his sleepwalking could be seen as a weak point and humiliating to prior generations, but here Mike is learning from his experience and relaying experience to audiences.
Sleepwalk with Me is filled with cameos from contemporary figures, specifically Ira Glass, whose short cameo is that of a wedding photographer. Glass’ involvement is not arbitrary. He produced the film along with WBEZ Chicago Public Radio, the station that produces This American Life. TAL is known for its down-to-earth, introspective storytelling on radio, and is where Birbiglia’s story first gained notoriety. Sleepwalk with Me is the epitome of TAL’s typical program, a funny, poignant, reflective story that resonates because the story is so innately American; a man rising above adversity to reach his dreams.
The film needs about fifteen minutes before it truly kicks into gear, primarily when the struggles begin to make themselves more apparent, with the best jokes from Birbigila’s stand-up routine, which of course gets better as his career grows. Sleepwalk with Me is one of the most sincere comedies of the year, one that is not based upon artifice but reveals deeply rooted truths.