Stand-up comedy fascinates me. Anyone brave enough to step on stage, occupy a white-hot spotlight, and try to entertain a room full of strangers deserves to be analyzed. You should be able to spawn at least a dozen mesmerizing documentaries or feature-films dedicated to the self-loathing, judgmental, defensive and downright hilarious misfits who sacrifice their lives for the art of comedy.
Unfortunately, Sleepwalk With Me isn’t one of them. Essentially, Sleepwalk is a semi-autobiographical Behind the Music story of comedian Mike Birbiglia as he rose from bartender to headline comic. The entertainer turned his story into a critically acclaimed one-man show in 2008. Birbiglia poured the same stories told on stage into a well-received book. Now, it’s an 80-minute film written, directed by, and starring Birbiglia. So there’s no one to blame but himself.
Those who’ve seen the play or read the book know Birbiglia’s personal and professional story. He basically plays himself – though he uses the amusingly animalistic pseudonym Matt Pandamiglio – in the autobiographical and sitcom-y Sleepwalk, starting out as a struggling comic who ignores criticism and rejection because he’s convinced that comedy is his calling. Birbiglia even narrates between his scenes, making sure his fingerprints can be found on every single Sleepwalk frame. If you love Birbiglia, it’s a dream. If not, Sleepwalk could be a nightmare.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Sleepwalk won the Audience Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. And Birbiglia’s comedy certainly has earned him his fair share of followers. Throughout Sleepwalk, Birbiglia consistently comes off as a really, really nice guy. We suffer through his career struggles, and wait patiently for his relationships to predictably flame out. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff. At all.
But it’s funny, right? That depends. Birbiglia wouldn’t be as successful as he’s managed to become if he were terrible. (Then again, Carlos Mencia still finds gigs.) He’s just not laugh-out-loud funny in Sleepwalk. His observations on relationships, families and day-to-day life fall somewhere between Ray Romano and Steven Wright. Edgy? Look somewhere else. Part of that is by design. The character of Matt Pandamiglio is supposed to suck early on in the film. But the jokes in Sleepwalk never get funny. I understand that comedy is subjective. You might hear something and deem it offensive. Daniel Tosh might just call it a rape joke. Like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder.
But when we’ve already been exposed to the inner musings of a neurotic Jerry Seinfeld – both in sitcom form and in the superior documentary, Comedian--which is a far better representation of the challenges to survive as a stand-up – the machinations of Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk seem superficial and pat. Yes, he made sacrifices to get to where he is now. Who hasn’t? The film does have one hook – Birbiglia’s sleepwalking disorder – but it’s glanced over in the film with such casual aloofness, I almost forgot it was an issue for the entertainer.
Depending on who you ask, we’re in a particularly exciting time for comics. Seinfeld, again, has figured out how to use the Internet to showcase his famous friends. Ricky Gervais continually pops up on cable television with a new, experimental program. You’ve arrived, Mr. Birbiglia, at a time when it’s very difficult to make it. You have an outlet. Use it to push the envelope, like Louis CK does – brilliantly – on a weekly basis … and on a cable network. I’m far more interested in what Birbiglia will do now that he has established himself as a comedian, and far less interested in his journey to recognition. Because it’s far too similar to every other star-is-born sob story the entertainment industry churns out with ease.