A Conversation with Mike Birbiglia
NATIONAL SLEEP FOUNDATION -- National Sleep Foundation’s publication, sleepmatters® , recently spoke with comedian, Mike Birbiglia, about his sleep disorder and what it was like living in a Macy’s window for Downy’s Clean Sheet Week.
sleepmatters®: You are well-known for talking about your experience with a rare sleep disorder (RBD). (I will never forget your description of jumping out a hotel window in Walla-Walla, Washington.) Can you tell us a little about this? How are you doing now?
In my early twenties I was a young comic hustling to get any foothold in the business. I took every gig, every red-eye flight, and drove any distance to make my career work. In my apartment in Brooklyn I had experienced a series of frightening sleepwalking episodes, but I just didn’t think they were serious. I would stand on my bed and try to fight flying jackals, and I had fallen off the bookshelf in my living room, which in my dream was an Olympic podium. Still, I thought I was too busy to see a doctor. On one trip to Washington state, I was performing at 5 colleges in 4 days. I was staying up late, obsessed with cable news coverage of the war, and eating pizza on my bed while on the Internet right before I went to sleep. That night I nearly died when I jumped through my hotel window in my sleep. That’s when I saw a sleep specialist and was diagnosed with REM Behavior Disorder. For the most part, I have been able to control these episodes with medication and behavioral changes. I definitely have a lot more respect for the importance of proper sleep.
Fast-forward from this experience of jumping out of a window to actually living in Macy’s store window for a week for Downy’s Clean Sheet Challenge. How did you get there? Why did you do it?
As I understand it, the people from Downy were familiar with my work. I had performed a show called “Sleepwalk With Me” and written a book of the same name. I think they saw a natural tie-in for their Clean Sheet Week challenge, but at the same time, they’re always quick to point out that their clean sheets do not treat major sleep disorders. That being said, having clean sheets can help you get a better night’s sleep. So I can get on board with that. My wife’s initial reaction was, “You’re not doing it,” but ultimately, the people from Proctor and Gamble did everything they could to make the experience as safe as possible.
What was it like living in Macy’s for a week and how did you sleep?
Surreal is a good word. Exhausting is another one. The bed was certainly comfortable and clean, but it was a little loud, with just one thin pane of glass separating me from 34th Street. Sometimes I would hear people walking by the window and talking loudly about how I wasn’t really in there. That was a tough part, because I couldn’t just run out there and prove them wrong. And I wanted to.
What were some of your most memorable moments?
I really enjoyed interacting with New Yorkers on the street, as well as with the Downy super-fans, who would post on the Facebook event site. On one occasion I was talking with an older Asian gentlemen on the street with a thick accent, and this was being broadcast on the Facebook live feed. And someone on the Facebook event page wrote something like, “Come on, Mike, that man is such a blatant stereotype. I expect more from you.” That was hysterical because this was a real New Yorker. We didn’t cast his part and give him lines. Another memorable moment came from a woman named Gadget Trish, who came by the window twice. On her first visit, she serenaded me with a Michael Jackson song, which was nice. But on her second visit, she came back with a Michael Jackson song with the lyrics completely re-worked to the Downy event. It was really funny, but really thoughtful and supportive.
Anything in particular you’d like to share with our readers—about sleep or anything?
The Clean Sheet Week promotion was a lot of fun. For one week in my life I was sleeping like it was my job. A lot of people with sleep issues ask me for advice, but I’m not an expert of any kind. So I always tell them to see a doctor or read this great book called “The Promise of Sleep,” written by Dr. Dement who is one of the fathers of sleep medicine. Also you can fall asleep reading my book. I won’t be offended.
“Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories” is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, and wherever fine books are sold. Mike’s new comedy album, “Sleepwalk With Me Live” comes out this spring from Comedy Central Records. Mike’s new show, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” begins March 18th at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City. More information is available at www.girlfriendsboyfriend.com. Learn more about the National Sleep Foundation’s Bedroom Poll.