Mike Birbiglia, The Sleepwalking Comedy Giant (#176)

Photo credit: Evan Sung
Photo credit: Evan Sung

“Art is socialism, but life is capitalism.” – Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia (@birbigs) is one of the best-known and busiest working comedians in the world, both behind and in front of the camera. His standup blends elements of theater, film, storytelling, and comedy.

Mike has been deliberate in studying many crafts and tying them together, which is reflected in a diverse string of successes: sold-out tours as a solo theater act, New York Times bestselling books, off-Broadway shows, feature film, TV, and more. In recent years, his work has appeared on public radio’s This American Life, where he began a meaningful collaboration with host and producer Ira Glass.

Currently, he is the creator, writer, and star of the new film Don’t Think Twice, which was just released. I loved it, which I do not say lightly. Check it out.

So…how the hell does he do it all? I aimed to find out.

In this conversation, we cover a ton, including:

  • His writing process and schedule
  • Favorite books, documentaries, and TV shows
  • Morning routines
  • Stories and lessons from Oliver Stone, Ron Howard, and others
  • How he “workshops” and develops material
  • Hilarious interactions with POTUS
  • The best pizza joints in NYC
  • Which three comedians he’d combine into one “super comic”
  • How he runs jokes by other people
  • And much, much more…

If you only have 5 minutes (and need a good laugh), here are Mike’s rules for good sex.


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#176: Mike Birbiglia, The Sleepwalking Comedy Giant

Want to hear another podcast related to comedy? — Listen to my conversation with Bryan Callen, who is a world-class comic and prolific actor. Stream this episode below or right-click here to download.

Ep 47: Bryan Callen on Eating Corgis (Yes, The Dogs) and Improving Creativity

This podcast is brought to you by Four Sigmatic. I reached out to these Finnish entrepreneurs after a very talented acrobat introduced me to one of their products, which blew my mind (in the best way possible). It is mushroom coffee featuring chaga. It tastes like coffee, but there are only 40 milligrams of caffeine, so it has less than half of what you would find in a regular cup of coffee. I do not get any jitters, acid reflux, or any type of stomach burn. It put me on fire for an entire day, and I only had half of the packet.

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Check out wealthfront.com/tim, take their risk assessment quiz, which only takes 2-5 minutes, and they’ll show you — for free — exactly the portfolio they’d put you in. If you want to just take their advice and do it yourself, you can. Well worth a few minutes to explore: wealthfront.com/tim.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…

Selected Links from the Episode

  • Connect with Mike Birbiglia:

Twitter | Website | Facebook

Show Notes

  • Mike loves comedy. Here is his other obsession. [07:24]
  • Mike talks about his writing routine, the value of improv, and how he workshops his movies. [13:14]
  • Mike tells us about his “blessed” journal. [17:45]
  • What are mind writing slogans? [21:54]
  • Why Mike is cautious about being too topical with his references. [22:54]
  • “Art is socialism, but life is capitalism.” [25:05]
  • Mike says there are no stakes to showing your friends your work, and it provides valuable feedback that improves the end result. [26:00]
  • Mike generally doesn’t curse on stage — this is why. [30:40]
  • Who does Mike run his jokes by before sharing on stage? [34:50]
  • What questions does Mike ask when he wants feedback? [37:57]
  • How did Mike succeed in a business where so many fail? [40:35]
  • What is the “ratio” for good comedy? [43:37]
  • Advice Mike would give to his younger self. [46:35]
  • Mike’s thoughts on how technology has been democratized. [47:53]
  • Who does Mike think of when he hears the word “successful?” [50:05]
  • How Mike and his wife successfully solicited parenting advice from President Obama (and how you can engage someone who doesn’t necessarily want to talk to you). [52:13]
  • Mike’s rules for good sex. [55:13]
  • Books and movies Mike gives as gifts. [57:00]
  • Mike’s favorite movies and documentaries. [59:03]
  • If Mike could mix three comedians into one super comedian, who would he pick? [59:41]
  • Low-cost purchase that had the biggest impact on Mike’s life. [1:03:13]
  • Mike’s nighttime rituals. [1:04:45]
  • Mike’s morning rituals. [1:07:10]
  • Mike’s favorite venue in the US. [1:08:37]
  • The worst advice Mike hears most often (and what he keeps in mind when considering stories to share with an audience). [1:09:21]
  • Mike responds to something Jon Favreau said about him. [1:12:43]
  • How chance encounters can unfairly lead people toward unfavorable opinions of celebrities. [1:16:29]
  • Mike on the joy of the cuisine loophole (and why you should order peanut butter and jelly if it’s on the menu at a fancy restaurant). [1:19:03]
  • What would Mike’s billboard say, and where would it be? [1:21:18]
  • What Mike likes about his career niche (and who he’s really working for). [1:22:56]
  • Mike’s advice for finding your own niche in the entertainment industry. [1:23:16]
  • The insanity of Hollywood accounting. [1:24:07]
  • How you can help Mike and other independent filmmakers. [1:29:42]
  • Mike endorses yoga and The 4-Hour Workweek [1:32:12]
  • Parting comments, requests, and disclaimers. [1:36:05]

People Mentioned

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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54 Replies to “Mike Birbiglia, The Sleepwalking Comedy Giant (#176)”

  1. Tim, I’m from Springs and I was one of your first customers when you taught speed reading at the Neighborhood House decades ago. Do you mention that experience in any of your podcasts or books? It may be ancient Ferriss archaeology but shows how you have been teaching and commercializing efficiency since the kiddie pool. I would love to hear it woven into an interview.

  2. QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode?

    My favorite piece was about “Peace on a micro level”

    The concept I find very useful to approach macro problems and tasks.

    I want to make the world healthier. I used to think it starts with some world-level projects. Wrong. It starts with one person at a time that you help and it grows from there. One small solution you bring to life to help a couple of people.

    It’s important to have big visions but it’s even more important to understand that all solutions start small. – That also helps to avoid overwhelm of having to make it big from the start – it’s hard to wrap your head around that in the beginning.

    World peace starts with inner peace. Then peace with your neighbor. And it’s a daily commitment with every action we take, no matter how seemingly small and insignificant.

    Thank you Tim. Another amazing episode and great guest!

      1. So often I find myself overwhelmed by the tasks I want to accomplish and then something happens that makes me realize the only thing I got to do really is consistent micro steps and living my message, my mission with every thought, every word, every action, no matter how “small”.

        We are all changing the world constantly by the way we live our “ordinary” lives daily.

  3. Loved this interview. And I loved Don’t Think Twice. It might be the best movie I’ve seen this year. All anyone needs to know about it is that it currently has 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is insane for any movie but especially a comedy.

  4. QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode?

    Loved the quote about not crashing into sleep. We park our car not crash it to a stop. Great job once again!

  5. Tim,

    The Podcast is exceptional and we’d love to talk more about it. If you’re in San Francisco this weekend. The show is Express Written Consent and we’re filming at Levi’s Stadium July 30 during Liverpool v AC Milan. Love to have you as a guest. Here’s a look at an episode: ow.ly/tY1L302HLiv

    Thanks and keep on asking exceptional people exceptional questions.


  6. I hate to admit this but this was my first listen to your podcast. I’m delighted to admit that I’m now completely HOOKED. This was fun, touching, silly, meaningful, hilarious and made me think. And oh my gods, where did the time go?

    Being an extrovert and working for oneself and by oneself, even doing creative art work, can be a lonely and sometimes bumpy road. Listening to this made my day. I’ll be listening to this regularly from now on.

    I hadn’t previously heard of Mike Berbiglia but I will most definitely check out the film.


  7. Hi Tim,

    Earlier in the year you were doing some fasting research, will that be published anytime soon? Thanks, keep up the good work.

  8. Hello Tim!

    I have just recently begun to listen to your show and have found myself delving in and trying to catch up on as many episodes as possible as one feels when they find a novel they cant put down.


    Every episode and every guest is mesmerizing to listen and yet the one thing that I keep asking myself is why the majority of your guests seems to be men (out of the 176 episodes available on itunes I roughly counted 12 women guests). I only ask because I am curious to know if this has been a deliberate choice or rather is just a mere reflection of our current society where the percentage of successful men with high and important positions still trumps that of women. My comment is not a criticism or complaint rather, just a mere question to understand the general context.

    I hope that you or someone will have the time to answer my question. In meanwhile I wish you the very best and thank you infinitely for your contributions!


  9. Hi Tim, it would be great to be able to download the lyrics of your interviews: for deaf people and for all people not native english speakers, who do not understand it well by listening. Thank you.

    Luca (Italy)

  10. Favorite Lesson: Try to banish the word “interesting” from your vocabulary. It will force you to use more meaningful terms and will increase the variety of your word choice.

    Favorite Quote: “If you want to perform five minutes of good comedy, write what you think is three hours of great comedy.” To me, this shows that even the best performers have to work incredibly hard. Preparation is key to success at every level.

  11. Not sure if this has been suggested but I would love to hear an interview with Adam Carolla (love line,crank Yankers, the man show). His comedy and social commentary is incredibly on point and he is self-made. As a hugely opinionated and assertive character it would be cool to see what a TFS interview would reveal.

  12. Dear Tim Sir or Madam:

    My name is Jose Alvarez.

    I will be publishing a book in a few months on how to make the church innovative in the 21 st century.

    I have purchased The Four Hour Work Week.

    In my book I mention five or six things that Tim has said which are important to me.

    It’s impossible to give a specific attribution since it might have come from one his videos or a tweet or a Facebook status.

    Several do come from the book and are direct quotes.

    In light of this what is the proper attribution I can give to Tim’s work in the bibliography or acknowledgments?

    Thank you,

    Jose Alvarez

  13. Does anyone remember what type of computer screen filter that Tim said that he uses? My girlfriend stays up late also, working on her business. I really want to get her one! Thanks!

  14. I LOVED Sleepwalk With Me, great film. It was hilarious, and I felt I could identify with the insomnia brought upon the lack of a creative outlet. It was awesome to see him tap into a more genuine place in his comedy in the movie, and that’s the one thing that made his jokes better and funnier.

    Been a while since I’ve watched his stand up, but I’ll get back to doing so after listening to this 😀

  15. Please interview Vinay Gupta if you can! He’s the smartest guy I know working on alleviating the biggest problems facing humanity. He invented the hexayurt which is the cheapest form of shelter to build for refugees and the homeless and you can see people building them all over burning man every year. He was involved in e-gold, a precursor to Bitcoin. He directed a project to co-author a book written by 100 people and published in 2 weeks. He’s a big proponent for us to become a multi-planetary species as soon as we can. All that is the tip of the iceberg. Super interesting dude.

  16. OMG. I hope this is the right one! I listen to so many of your podcasts. All great. I think my favorite statement (applies to everyone!) was about not letting people be your gatekeeper. As in… who made “that person” the boss? What if they’re wrong and you’re right for gosh sakes!? THANKS for all your awesomeness. Or is is awsome-inity?:)

  17. Great and entertaining interview, Tim. Always love your questions – they get to the heart of the person.

  18. Where do I find the transcripts of the pod casts. I can read faster than listen. I need to reduce the time it takes to gain information as you taught me

  19. That was fucking fantastic. Great episode. Will re listen tomorrow. Too much good stuff there.

  20. Like the new questions. Loved Doug Benson in Super High Me and I thought for years it was Doug Stanhope. What are the rules for good sex should be a question our therapist asks. Rule #1 have it. This is a male rule. Would like to say have it with someone that is also into having it and relax and have fun and help them to have fun but this rule leaves out many married people (for more than 10 years) unless they have a girl/boyfriend (their prostitutes won’t really be that into it). Just kidding. My audiences walk out of my shows with purpose…they want to be anywhere except listening to me.

  21. Great show, this wasn’t what I had expected by the title, but my expectations were certainly exceeded! Thanks guys. Fun and informative. Well done.

  22. Just wanted to leave a quick comment in the hope that maybe you see this and go check out a blog post I made on my travel blog Escape the Mundane. It’s about the meet up in Sweden last year, where I met you, which was seriously life changing. The post is some kind of a thank you for doing everything you do for other people, so thank you, Tim! I’m not posting the url here, like you have asked, so if you or someone else wants to read it, it can easilly be found on the blog.

  23. Tim! really enjoyed this interview. I didn’t really know who Mike was but his ideas are fascinating. I’m watching the movie tonight!

    Favorite lesson: the insight by Mike’s wife that inspired the movie, about art being socialism and life capitalism. As a performer I can really relate to this idea, and it has made me look at a new perspective in understanding the relationship I have with my peers.

    Thanks as always! Super inspired with every episode.

  24. Really entertaining interview. I heard it 3 times and still i can not choose which quote i loved more but the ¨Art is socialism, but life is capitalism¨ , i loved it to the point of madness . I will watch the movie definitely. Waiting forward for the next podcast 🙂

  25. Hi!

    I already commented before, but I’m not sure if it got lost due to an error or maybe it just hasn’t been reviewed yet, so I’ll keep this short.

    We met at a meet-up in Stockholm in last November and it really had a huge impact on my life. I’m a Finnish blogger and wrote about the experience at the time in Finnish, but now I also started an English blog and wanted to translate that post there. I’m not trying to advertise here and I really don’t care if no-one else sees this comment than you. Just wanted to tell you that you are changing people’s lives for the better. Thank you for what you do. I won’t post a url here, so if you are interested in the post, you can check my page which I have written in the information box. There are only 3 posts so far, so it’s easy to find :). It would be fantastic if you read it, but I know you are busy and might not have time to do so, but thank you for everything.

  26. Tim, Mike is correct. The best pizza ever…is Frank Pepe’s since 1925, can be found on famous Wooster Street https://goo.gl/TBRrdB – Sinatra used to send a driver from Hoboken, NJ to New Haven, Conn. to pick up pie.

  27. Your latest blog post was truly inspiring and had some great insights. I can’t wait to see what else you have in store.

  28. From start to finish, your content is simply amazing. You have a talent for making complex topics easy to understand and I always come away with valuable insights.