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Sleepwalk With Me

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Sleepwalk With Me

Mike Birbiglia and Lauren Ambrose in a scene from "Sleepwalk With Me"

The evolution of a joke is more than an introduction or follow through, especially when it requires an explanation from our narrator. That's the catalyst of Sleepwalk With Me, the former bit and off-Broadway play by comedian Mike Birbiglia, who co-wrote, directs and stars in the final phase of his now-famous bit. The evolution of Sleepwalk's transition from story to stage and finally to screen over the course of four years since premiering in New York is a fascinating exposé about what it takes to be funny.
Matt Pandamiglio (Birbiglia) is a struggling stand-up comedian that's essentially a bartender whose girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose) is the only decent part about his life. After his sister's wedding, the relationship gets strained with the looming proposition of marriage and develops a sleepwalking routine that involves jackals, babies and reality show stars. Yet, around this point, Matt begins to develop his stand-up routine and goes from tending bar to taking on whatever shows he can find, from colleges in upstate New York to bars in Philadelphia where he's essentially "taking bullets for the other comics."

The frantic nature behind Birbiglia's stage show is kept alive in the film adaptation, as he routinely interrupts the narrative to lead the audience back to points in how he met Abby or to remind us that we're supposed to be on his side despite the brief moments where he takes us into dark spots about his man-child nature. Even when being pimped out by Abby to a potential agent, his likability with the college crowd is a diss against the near-30-year-old that barely holds down a bartending job in Brooklyn. The groundwork laid through Sleepwalk With Me is brought out side-by-side with Matt's own evolution of the joke, which starts by referencing his hesitant stance on marriage and grows into a self-assured bit that asks if divorce is just the new marriage.

As comedy podcasts have grown in popularity and acceptance, so have the understanding of how being a stand-up comedian can work. In the realm of shows like "WTF with Marc Maron" comes a cameo from the titular host who coaches Matt on a joke. Other appearances from New York comedians, like Jessie Klein, Wyatt Cenac or Kristen Schaal, pepper the world with faces we’re familiar with now due to TV appearances, but came up working clubs and shows. Sleepwalk is the less serious version of The King of Comedy, since audiences now can comprehend what goes into being a stand-up aside from a healthy set of neurosis. Sleepwalk's narrative is peacocked by Matt's dreams, based on Birbiglia's own suffering from REM Sleep disorder, showcased by jumping from the dream-world to how he’s bumbling around his apartment or a hotel room.

At its core, Sleepwalk With Me is a perfect explanation of how a joke evolves from construction into being casually thrown to a crowd. Birbiglia knows how to hit this note since he’s been fashioning the bit for so long, down to how he acts as his own unreliable narrator that breaks into the moment to remind us--the audience--that we’re on “his” side in a moment where clearly we shouldn’t be. In fact, throughout his exploration of becoming a “working” stand-up comedian, the bits become casual and relaxed due to repetition. Birbiglia shows us that comedy isn’t just one-liners, but laying groundwork for a closing joke that’ll be worth it’s weight in pizza-related products and ice cream. As he says earlier in the story, what could be better than pizza flavored ice cream?

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