My greatest birthday gift

Friday is my birthday. I will be 53 years old. In improv, that makes me ancient. Each year I have the same birthday ritual: I go into a major depression. It usually stems from thinking about how I wish I was more successful, more famous, and have more money — like my friends that I started out with back in the ’90s do. It then ends up with me getting pissed off at God, yelling at him with a fist clenched to the sky saying, “Why haven’t I made it yet?” This is annual ritual is designed to make me feel crappy about myself, and so far it has never let me down.

But this year is different.

Yes, I still want all those things my friends have, but the desire isn’t as burning. I don’t feel as desperate. I think the one thing the podcast has taught me is that no amount of success will take away my low self-esteem, self-loathing and self-hatred. That is separate work from my art.

There’s no question that improv comedy has given me a way to express myself, but somewhere along the line I misused it as a way to validate myself. That is always dangerous, because you cannot fix your insides with something outside of yourself. Success, fame and money can’t fill that gaping whole inside me; it’s not possible.

Lately I feel more gratitude for the things I do have. Especially my family — my wife, Lauren; my daughter, Betsy; and my cat, Coco — and all the people around us who have given us so much love and support.

If you’ve been reading this blog on a somewhat regular basis, you have noticed that my own personal forecast has gone from cloudy with a chance of thunder to partly sunny. I owe that to my little joy machine, my daughter Betsy Jane. People say kids will change you, and after ten months, I am realizing they are right, and I am looking forward to even more changes in myself. Being a parent is the hardest, most demanding, most rewarding thing I have ever done. I still question our choice of having a kid, now more than ever since she has started to crawl and it’s hard to keep up with her at 53.

When I look back at my tiny little career, the things that I am the proudest of are the things I either created or were a part of that were built from scratch. I don’t why, but they have always been the most fulfilling and rewarding. I think about my first one man show, “I’m 27, I Still Live at Home and Sell Office Supplies,” or being part of Jazz Freddy, or starting the podcast Improv Nerd. All things created out of thin air, and now Betsy is on the list. She is my best creation yet.

So, happy birthday to Betsy’s father. She is the greatest gift he could have ever gotten.

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198: Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia is the writer, director and star of his latest independent film, “Don’t Think Twice,” about a popular New York improv group where one of the members gets his big break. Jimmy talks to Mike about some of the themes in his film, like jealousy, self-sabotage and fame. Mike discusses falling in love with improv and why it’s so important for him to create his own projects.

When Your Friends Move On

Jay Sukow is a great improviser and teacher here in Chicago. He’s part of the old guard; he’s been improvising, teaching and directing for years. His students worship him, and rightfully so. He is so positive and affirming in his approach that it makes me jealous.

This July, Jay and his wife and two kids are packing up and moving to Los Angeles. That makes him yet another person in the long line of improvisers who has moved from Chicago to LA.

Whenever someone from the Chicago improv scene moves to LA, I feel some sadness and a sense of abandonment. It’s like being held back a grade in school and watching your friends move on. My brain processes their move as a rejection, and I think that I’m not good enough and I’m never going to make it, like a 38-year-old relief pitcher in the minor leagues who knows he’s never getting to the majors.

Moving to LA has always been a goal of mine for all the wrong reasons. I always thought LA equals fame, and fame equals happiness. For years, fame was my higher power. I was obsessed by it. I was convinced that if I ever got some, it would stop me from feeling so shitty about myself. I know it’s shallow and I read way too many tabloids, but that’s what I thought.

Now, I realize I had it all backwards. Fame will never fill that I-am-not-good-enough hole. That is work for me and my licensed therapist.

And after seeing so many of my friends leave Chicago for the greener pastures in LA, I have also slowly realized that moving to LA is no guarantee of fame and fortune. For every person from Chicago who’s “made it” in LA, there are 30 other people who are still struggling. And LA doesn’t a give a shit how high you’ve risen on the comedy food chain somewhere else. Once you enter the city limits, you are starting over.

I have friends who have been regulars on network TV shows or have gotten huge parts in major studio movies and a couple of years later, they are worried about how they are going to pay their rent.

People want to believe that fame is luck, and that just being in the right city will be your ticket to a big break. But the truth is, the people who I’ve known who are famous worked their asses off to get there. People who are famous and successful do it through something called hard-fucking-work.

Today, as a result of the work I’ve been doing in my teaching and with my Improv Nerd podcast, my “need” for fame is less. So much so that it is confusing. I don’t know if I am giving up on my dream or my life is getting better. I am not going to lie to you; yes, I would still love to be famous, live in a beach house in Malibu on the ocean and hang out with my other celebrity friends, but I do realize that having those things won’t solve my problems.

I remember asking Jeff Garlin about fame when he was a guest on Improv Nerd and he said that that fame just magnifies what you already are: If you are a jerk and you get famous, you become a bigger jerk, and if you are a nice person and you become famous, you become a nicer person. So it was clear to me that if anything, my low self-esteem would just get worse, not better, with fame.

So now, with Jay leaving, I’m not as jealous and bitter as I usually would be. In fact, I’m happy for him and I wish him well. This is good news, and I think it means I am getting healthier. And between us, I secretly hope that since if I let go of trying to be famous, maybe it will increase my chances.

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Fame isn't enough

The death of Robin Williams was sad and sobering. As my friend, Erika, said, it was like “Elvis had died.”

In the comedy/acting world, she was right. Most people reading this blog would love to have a career like his, including myself. And most people reading this blog, including myself, would think having a career like Robin Williams’ would bring them ever-lasting happiness.

Fame has always been my higher power. I used to get a contact high when I was around famous people. I would fantasize that if only I was famous, I would be happy, all my problems would go away, and I would finally I feel comfortable in my own skin. I am told it does not work that way.

I don’t know when doing improv for me went from “Wow, this is the most fun I have ever had in my life,” to “I’ve got to make it. I’ve got to be famous.” It really doesn’t matter. It has plagued me my whole career. It has robbed me of my joy and has given me countless days of comparing myself to others and coming up short. It always cheapens my accomplishments.

I am a slow learner, but with the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and now Robin Williams, I am slowly getting it that being famous doesn’t make you happy.

I will name drop, for the sake of making a point. I started out with Chris Farley at iO-Chicago in the ’80s. We all knew he was going to be a star. He was like a rocket ship and could not be stopped. I was jealous, insanely jealous.

They are many times I would have gladly traded my life for his, because I did not value my own. Even when he died and my wise friends said, “He’s dead and you are still alive,” I did not get it. All I could see was that he had made it and I had not.

Williams suffered from depression and struggled with addiction, two things I can relate to. Addiction and depression are identical twins: it’s hard to tell them apart. They are both diseases, serious deadly diseases that leave you with a gaping hole inside that cannot be filled with anything outside of yourself — not awards, not adulation, not $20 million and a big movie part. In some cases, people get help and they are able to deal with their depression and addiction. And sometimes they don’t.

The thing that sucks about these diseases is that one of the symptoms is telling yourself that you don’t deserve/don’t want/don’t need help, making it almost impossible to get better. And if you don’t get help, these diseases will kill you.

I don’t have any answers here. All I know is the older I get, the clearer I can see that fame will not keep me alive.

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The anxiety of getting bigger

All of us in the performing arts want to get noticed. We improvisers want to get recognition for our work, and most of us would love to be famous — in my case, maybe too much.

I have always looked at fame as something that would take away my years of low self esteem, would make me whole and heal me from a childhood of abandonment and neglect.

I always thought that when I started to get noticed and recognized for my work in improv comedy I would feel elated, joyful, excited. But lately, I’ve come to realize that attention doesn’t make me feel any better.

In less then a year the Improv Nerd comedy podcast has grown beyond my expectations. The comedy podcast keeps getting more and more fans, I am getting amazing feedback from the subscribers and my interview skills are getting better and better, yet I feel worse. Worse because I am much more comfortable dealing with failure than success. As a control freak, success sucks, because you can’t control it. Failure — that’s a feeling I know like a warm bath that I could sit in all day. So instead of joy, I feel anxiety that my life is getting bigger. I still think of myself as a poor schlub whose friends are only doing me a favor by being on my show, instead of thinking that people might want to do the show because it’s fun and I am good interviewer.

I am getting the one thing that is like Kryptonite to me, and that is respect.

You may be saying to yourself “I could take the fame. I want the big movie deal and the TV show and the millions of dollars in the bank.” But trust me, that might be harder to take in than you realize.

My girlfriend, Lauren, said the other day that if I had $3 million I would still be miserable, because I would walk around feeling that I didn’t deserve it. She is right. I’d be like the guy who worked at the liquor store part-time and then won $30 million in the lottery and five years later he’s back at the liquor store because he’s broke. Why? Because on some level he did not think he deserved it.

I think we all deserve success and recognition for our work, and I think we probably all need a little help at being able to take that success in. When I figure out how to take in success without having a panic attack, I’ll let you know.