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Sleepwalk with Me shows the serious side of being funny

Alice Tollaksen | Sunday, December 2, 2012


I really, really hope you’ve seen “Girls,” first of all because great, but also because if you’ve kept up with “Girls,” then you’ve seen the outrageous bit starring Mike Birbiglia as the Syracuse graduate who interviews Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah. If you haven’t seen Girls, hack into your parents’ HBO GO account and prepare for the most hilariously awkward 10 television episodes of your life. 

Even if you haven’t seen “Girls,” you may have heard of Mike Birbiglia. He is a stand-up comedian, author, actor, and regular on “This American Life.”  He received critical acclaim for his book, “Sleepwalk With Me & Other Painfully True Stories,” as well as his one-man-show based on the book. I now know that on top of all of this, Mike Birbiglia is a talented filmmaker. 

Birbiglia is the writer, director, and lead of “Sleepwalk With Me,” which screened at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center Nov. 29 and 30. The film was adapted from his previously mentioned one-man show of the same name and was produced by Birbiglia with “This American Life” host and love of my life, Ira Glass. 

Birbiglia’s film is a mostly-autobiographical story about a struggling stand-up comedian familiarly named Matt Pandamiglio. Pandamiglio’s life becomes increasingly chaotic as he fails to address his unsuccessful career, his shaky relationship with his long-term girlfriend, and the emergence of a dangerous, albeit amusing, sleep disorder. 

If you’re at all interested in comedy, especially stand-up, I highly recommend this movie.  The film follows Pandamiglio as he evolves from a part-time job doing standup at a comedy club (read: he’s a bartender who gets to tell jokes sometimes) to developing his material and getting the chance to tour. 

Of course, there are quite a few bumps along the way. At one point, he drives several hours to emcee a college lip-synching contest that draws only a handful of attendees. Throughout the movie, we see him experiment with his routine, try new jokes and fall flat. Finally, he finds his footing and starts to get laughs, though at the expense of his sleep and his relationship. I found myself simultaneously laughing at Pandamiglio and with him, cheering him on while agonizingly covering my eyes as I watched his life spin out of control. 

Not only does “Sleepwalk With Me” give what seems to be a very accurate portrayal of the life of a stand-up comedian, it’s full of cameos by comics like Wyatt Cenac, Kristen Schaal, Jessi Klein and David Wain. If these names don’t sound familiar, start following them (and Birbiglia) on Twitter. Now. 

Though short, the cameos provide a refreshing and funny break from Pandamiglio’s problems. This includes parts of Wyatt Cenac’s and Jessi Klein’s standup acts, David Wain in a bar with a baby strapped to his torso, and Kristen Schaal being, well … Kristen Schaal

Even without the star-spotting, “Sleepwalk With Me” is an examination of relationships and the way we deal with them. The film begins with Pandamiglio moving in with his girlfriend of eight years, played by a very charming Lauren Ambrose. While those around him are getting married and having kids, Pandamiglio plays the classic “man-child” still figuring his life out. 

However, while I expected the movie to be a predictable, guy-finally-grows-up-and-settles-down-with-girl story, the film moved in an entirely different direction. It is instead an intensely personal account of confronting reality when avoiding it is no longer an option. 

Because of the autobiographical nature of the story, “Sleepwalk With Me” felt incredibly sincere. Though it is about comedy and features many silly, fantastical scenes during Pandamiglio’s sleepwalking incidents, the movie ends up being surprisingly realistic, even relatable. It was, somehow, a pretty serious film about comedy.

In one scene, many of the real-life standup comics, though in character, have a candid discussion about the difficulties of starting out in comedy, sharing stories of their terrible first shows. This was the part I loved the most-it felt honest and was the perfect mix of funny and painful, just like the “Sleepwalk With Me” as a whole. 

To sum it up, come for the Twitter celebrities, stay for the Ira Glass-endorsed storytelling.  

Contact Alice Tollaksen at
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