When comedians confess tales of being terrible to a significant other, the result can be hilarious and poignant. But we shouldn't pretend that it's not also exploitative.
There's a moment in Sleepwalk With Me, the new film that comedian Mike Birbiglia directs, stars in, and co-wrote with radio personality Ira Glass, when Birbiglia turns to the camera and addresses the audience directly: "It's important before I tell you this portion of the story to remind you that you're on my side."
While watching Sleepwalk With Me in its original incarnation as a one-man, off-Broadway show, I didn't need Birbiglia's reminder. I was already very much on his side. Onstage, his stories of personal and professional failure had an intimacy and immediacy that made me feel connected to the man at their center, and I became almost as sympathetic to him as I was to the long-suffering ex-girlfriend who was the subject of many of those stories. Perhaps this was because I saw the staged version in a tiny theater and was seated so close to Birbiglia I could see his spit when he emphasized a word. Perhaps it was because, under those circumstances, I could pretend that he was a close friend inviting me to laugh with him through life's most painful moments, the way close friends so often do.
But on the big screen, this illusion is broken, and it feels less like Birbiglia is sharing painful memories with a small circle of friends and more like he's sifting for comedy gold in the wreckage of a relationship he destroyed. That's not to say the so-far glowing reviews of Sleepwalk With Me—or the film's record-breaking first-weekend haul at the IFC Center in New York City—aren't warranted. It's well-written, well-acted, hilarious, and touching. But for anyone who has ever been in a romantic relationship gone painfully awry, it's also unsettling and even unsavory. Birbiglia's self-deprecating tales of awkward-guy fumbling and everyday humiliations can be winning and sharply funny, but his jokes work best when he is their target. The problem is that when he delves into his relationships with his ex-girlfriend and his parents, Birbiglia is not the only one who suffers.
Turning one's unkindness into a story can be a sly and vicious form of bragging, especially when the storyteller's not driven by a desire to make amends.
Birbiglia doesn't actually play himself in the film version of Sleepwalk With Me. Instead, he plays a character named Matt Pandamiglio, whose life happens to bear a striking resemblance to Birbiglia's. This is a neat attempt at plausible deniability—"That's not how I feel about you, Mom, it's how Matt feels about Mrs. Pandamiglio!"—but from the point of view of Birbiglia's real-life parents and ex-girlfriend, I imagine it's not a convincing one.
Sleepwalk With Me reveals some deeply personal and unbecoming things about the character Matt Pandamiglio—things that also happen to be true of Mike Birbiglia. Both Matt and Mike suffer from a rare sleep disorder, which, if left untreated, can have serious and potentially life-threatening consequences for the sufferer's bedmate as well as the sufferer. Both Matt and Mike refused to seek treatment for this condition until it was almost too late, endangering themselves and their then-girlfriends. Like Mike, Matt freely tells audiences he stayed with his ex-girlfriend for several years longer than he should have, out of a pity-driven sense of obligation and inertia more than love. Like so many comedians, both Matt and Mike appear to be motivated by feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy, coupled with a reasonable suspicion that they are disappointments to their fathers.
In spite of all of this, Matt/Mike manages to come across as a basically nice guy. His memories of the early stages of his relationship with his ex-girlfriend are sweet and tender; he fell for her in college, and they were initially so much in love that it was better, in the boyish Birbiglia's mind, than "eating pizza-flavored ice cream." He was smitten by his ex-girlfriend's kindness and her "big, beautiful smile." It's clear that he once loved her, which makes his willingness to share every sad, sordid detail of their massively painful breakup all the more galling. By the end of the movie, we know that Matt/Mike's ex-girlfriend wanted to marry him, but he didn't want to marry her. We know that he asked her to marry him, then called off the wedding—after his erstwhile fiancée had already picked out a dress and sent out the invitations. We know that he cheated on her while on tour. All of which certainly reflects badly on him—yet it's his ex-girlfriend's pain and humiliation up there on the big screen, too. And unlike Matt/Mike, she didn't choose a career that involves sharing her personal life with millions of strangers.
Anyone who writes about their own life has to wrangle with the ethics of transforming true tales of lovers, friends, and family members into salable goods. Things gets especially tricky when it comes to seemingly self-deprecating stories of being terrible to another person; it can come off as a sly and vicious form of bragging, especially when the storyteller doesn't appear to be driven by a desire to make amends or seek absolution. Turning one's unkindness into a story for mass consumption is a way of emphasizing one's coolness in the face of someone else's vulnerability. Those who do it often feign shame but secretly feel the gleeful pride of a bully escaping punishment.