The 'Sleepwalk With Me' Problem: Turning Pain Into Laughs Can Hurt

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.

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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.

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.

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Perhaps I have no business feeling indignant on behalf of Birbiglia's ex-girlfriend. She may not feel exploited or resentful at all; she may feel nothing more than flattered to be played by the cherubic Lauren Ambrose in the movie version of her ex-boyfriend's life. At the screening I attended, Birbiglia made a point of mentioning that he had recently visited his ex-girlfriend, who is now a married mother of two. As he told a reporter at South by Southwest earlier this year, "My ex-fiancée is really supportive of the film. She read the book and the script and she's a wonderful person who is also a great actress, so hopefully in my next film I can have her play a part when it's not about her." I haven't come across any interviews in which Birbiglia's ex either confirms or denies her support, but it's not implausible that a happily married woman would be capable of such generosity.

Why, then, does Birbiglia's movie rub me the wrong way? I can't help but compare him with Lena Dunham, creator of HBO's much-discussed show Girls, another rising young writer/director/actor whose work draws heavily from her life. Dunham's worst and most vulnerable moments frequently appear in some form on her show as well as in her movies and essays. In New York magazine, Emily Nussbaum writes that much of the dialogue in Dunham's movie Tiny Furniture "came verbatim from her life, including those push-pull dynamics with un-boyfriends ... Those same guys were often maddeningly flattered by their portrayals." Nussbaum then quotes Dunham's amused but exasperated reaction to this phenomenon: "It's like, 'I'm not trying to shame you, but this isn't, like, a celebration of your aura.'" Girls is primarily concerned with the emotional life of Dunham's character, Hannah, and her friendships with the show's other female characters. The men Dunham knows in real life are, according to her, thrilled to appear in it at all—even when the lines she writes for the characters who resemble them make them sound like jerks.

Of course, writers are fond of telling ourselves soothing stories about how our subjects will feel when they see themselves in print or onscreen: understanding! happy for me! excited to see his or her story in print/onscreen/plastered all over a billboard! Birbiglia reassures skeptical reporters that his ex-fiancée is supportive of his film; Dunham implies that the men she writes about are "maddeningly flattered." But if a subject felt otherwise, he or she wouldn't necessarily say so. And when the people written about do make their disapproval known, whether by clamming up or stating publicly that they feel wounded and betrayed, writers often hide behind a CEO's rationale: It's nothing personal; it's simply the nature of the business we're in. We tell ourselves everything will be fine as long as we change a name, date, or detail, or wait for someone to move, stop speaking to us, or die prior to publication. To paraphrase Joan Didion, we are always selling somebody out.

Perhaps what Birbiglia and Dunham are doing is morally equivalent. Maybe I love Girls and was put off by Sleepwalk With Me because I identify more closely with Dunham than Birbiglia: I'm a woman, and, when it comes to romantic relationships, I've more often been the one who gets hurt than the one who does the hurting. But I can't help believing that the men Dunham portrays negatively on her show aren't vulnerable to the same degree as Birbiglia's ex-girlfriend, partly because they're men and partly because, by and large, they hurt her. Birbiglia has written a full-length feature film, a large part of which is about how he treated a loving, devoted woman poorly for years. If she had flaws too—and surely she did—we don't see them in this movie.

Lorrie Moore wrote about her child's illness and the act of taking notes about that illness in hopes of selling the tale later in her short story "People Like That Are The Only People Here." The last line of Moore's story is, "There are the notes. Now where is the money?" I've always interpreted that line as meaning that we writers can't have juicy, personal subject matter and keep the moral high ground, too. Particularly for autobiographically inclined comedians and nonfiction writers, the risk of causing pain or embarrassment to loved ones is always there. Maybe assuming this risk is essential. But we might endeavor to be a little less cavalier about it, and a little more aware of the power of true stories about real people to wound.