Sleepwalk With Me: Can 'This American Life' Help Hollywood Find the Funny — Again?

Mike Birbiglia
Mike Birbiglia

As any "This American Life" devotee quickly learns, we're all equally susceptible to making a series of decisions that sends our lives veering off-track into a strange and unpredictable wilderness, where we find ourselves capable of the unfathomable: sending fan letters to Central American dictators or soothing the sting of divorce with the smooth sounds of Phil Collins or impersonating Sigmund Freud in a department store holiday display. And at the same time, the show reliably reminds us that we all harbor an untapped talent for looking back on life's most funny-sad-absurd twists and turns with a matter-of-fact bemusement and a zen acceptance that not every story has a happy ending -- or an ending at all.

Oh, the humanity. The agony and ecstasy in everyday life lies at the heart of the compulsively compelling (or smugly annoying quirks, depending on your point of view) Ira Glass-hosted radio show that launched the likes of David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, and David Rakoff among others into the popular consciousness. The show's essential appeal involves a proprietary mixture of schadenfreude, empathy, and voyeurism: real people tell stories about personal triumphs and disasters with less than triumphant or disastrous consequences.

Mike Birbiglia, a stand-up comic and regular contributor to "This American Life," applies this same unsparing honesty and intensely personal approach to his debut feature film, "Sleepwalk with Me," which examines the emotional disarray and sleep disorders clouding his ability to commit to marrying his first serious girlfriend. Unassuming every-guy Mike Birbiglia is not the most obvious choice to rescue comedy from the purgatory of prat-falls and poop jokes. But "Sleepwalk with Me" offers a refreshingly unpolished and appealing alternative version of the narrative that's become inescapable allegory for our times: the man-child coming-of-age story. Throughout the film, Birbiglia invites an intense intimacy with the audience,  rummaging through a messy breakup and uncovering the uncomfortable connections between his parents' imperfect relationship and his own restlessness, both literal and otherwise.

Hollywood could learn a thing or two from "Sleepwalk with Me," with its caustic confessional storytelling, recognizable characters, and lack of tidy resolution. After years of tolerating the stumbling and bumbling high-concept comedies let loose into theaters each summer, this was the summer Hollywood's juvenile schtick finally came unglued. Superstar funny-men like Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Sascha Baron Cohen saw their souped-up high performance comic vehicles crash into the hard wall of audience indifference. This was an encouraging sign for those of us who have been waiting for a film whose laughs are slightly less telegraphed. It meant comedy had bottomed out and would eventually emerge a wiser, humbler, and funner version of its idiotic former self.

After such a disastrously unfunny summer, we can't help but hope that Hollywood begins to learn from its own slip-ups and that "Sleepwalk with Me" paves the way for more ruthlessly personal comedies to make their way into theaters next summer. For the time being, we're keeping a close watch on the growing list of "This American Life" adaptations in various stages of development, including "Mistakes Were Made," about a TV repairman who starts an amateur cryonics business freezing dead people, and "Heretics," about the evangelical preacher who stopped believing in Hell.

Weigh in with a few of your favorite confessional comedians and your list of the most camera-ready This American Life episodes.