Mike Birbiglia's humor starts painfully close to home.
The award-winning stand-up comic is best known for his long-form, embarrassment-fueled monologues, which are filled with wild stories. There's Sleepwalk with Me, in which the aspiring comedian struggles with his anxiety toward his girlfriend while navigating a sleepwalking disorder. (At one point, during a sleepwalking episode, he jumps through the second-story window of a La Quinta Inn.) It was turned into a critically acclaimed film in 2012. And there's My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, wherein the hero recounts the zany romantic mishaps leading up to his marriage. The off-Broadway, one-man show was turned into a TV movie last year.
Thank God for Jokes, Birbiglia's current one-man comedy show, is less narrative, but the bits are still drawn from his life: tales of nut allergies, hosting an awards show for angry stars and how Fozzie Bear is actually a really tough act to follow.
But while they're rooted in often-uncomfortable truths, Birbiglia insists that his material isn't a wholly realistic portrayal of his life.
"I don't think that what I'm doing is recounting a verbal document of my life," he says. "I think that would be sort of boring, actually. I think what I'm there to do is make people laugh by telling stories that people can see themselves."
Anyway, what's that old joke? Never let the truth get in the way of a good story?
Take the David Sedaris kerfuffle. In 2007, The New Republic lambasted the NPR favorite and wildly popular humorist, alleging that some of the stories in Sedaris' best-selling collections weren't just exaggerated — they were barely true. Some members of Sedaris' family, long the target of his punchlines, bristled at the close portrayals. A few years later, NPR host Ira Glass conceded in an interview with the Washington Post that maybe, just maybe, they should start fact-checking Sedaris' submissions to This American Life.
Like Sedaris, Birbiglia is a regular contributor to This American Life. But truth is a tricky thing, Birbiglia asserts, and a comedian doesn't necessarily need to be as ruthless in pursuit of the truth as Bob Woodward. It's not that the truth isn't important, but it's not necessarily an all-holy thing in his material.
"There's a punk-rock aspect of comedy," Birbiglia says. "Judd Apatow made that analogy, that comedy is sort of the punk rock ... art form, because you're inherently undercutting the status quo, and you're questioning a lot of things a lot of the time."
So while his effervescently humorous monologues are based on personal experience (and, in many cases, his bona fide foibles), his real life, he says, isn't as outrageous as his routines suggest.
"It's mostly just small life failures," he says, chuckling. "Sometimes people say, 'Your life is so crazy!' That's not true, though. I've just kind of blown it out of proportion. But that's why we love comedy."
And, like Pontius Pilate said, what is truth? To wit, Birbiglia isn't selling nonfiction. He's a comedian, and not a humorist like Sedaris.
"Whenever I hear the word humorist," Birbiglia jokes, "I always get scared. I always think it feels like a technical word for comedian. It seems so humorless. It feels like the person might be a physician or something."
Birbiglia's comedy resonates not in spite of but because of its embellishments, which find him employing great verve and savvy to balance punchlines with pathos.
"Really, what I'm relating to, what I'm laughing at is the human element," he posits. "Really, I'm just trying to make people laugh. Like, I can do other stuff. I can tell stories. I can write. But not a lot of people can make people consistently laugh. If I'm able to utilize those other elements and they're compelling, that's the best of both worlds."
Indeed, Birbiglia, who's charmingly self-effacing, is an especially compelling storyteller and a wildly funny comedian. And while he hasn't exploded like Zack Galifianakis or sold millions of comedy records like Louis C.K., Birbiglia likes it that way.
"A lot of times people will tweet at me things, like, 'I'm coming to your show in Charlotte, but I can't get anyone to come with me, because no one knows who you are,'" he says. "I always kind of appreciate that.
"What's amazing is it's all word of mouth," he adds. "It's someone saying to their buddy, 'Hey, you should see this guy Mike Birbiglia. He's weird.'"