I have not learned wisdom,
nor have I knowledge of the holy ones.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia co-directs ((with Seth Barrish) and stars in this delightful indie film based on his Off Broadway play and book, all of which are based on his life as a struggling comedian. Matt Pandamiglio (Birbiglia) is a commitment-challenged guy living with the perky Abby (Lauren Ambrose) for eight years. His mother (Carol Kane) and physician father (James Rebhorn) would love to see him follow in the footsteps of his sister Janet (Cristin Milioti) and marry—and so would Abby we see in an awkward scene when the subject comes up during a conversation with Matt. He is too focused on his aspirations to break into the comedy business to consider the possibility for more than five seconds.
It is his career that is No. 1 in his life, even though thus far he ekes out a living working as a bartender and toilet janitor at the bar that has a small stage for low-level entertainers. Once in a while his boss allows Matt to fill in for a few minutes, but the nervous guy is so lacking in stage presence, and his jokes so lame, that during one such moment his sister, husband, and wife are in the audience but tune him out, preferring to talk with each other. Most of the time, however, when Abby shows up, she is supportive of him. Matt is so stressed out by everyone expecting him to marry that he starts sleepwalking, at one point believing that there is a jackal on the roof. As someone observes, most people watch their dreams, but Matt participates in them.
When he manages to land a Broadway Danny-type agent (Sondra James), he gets sent on the road, first to upstate New York, and then to a series of venues such as campus groups whose managers are so desperate to put a live body before a microphone, that they welcome him. The pay is so meager that sometimes it barely covers the cost of his gas, meals and cheap motel rooms. This separates him from Abby for long stretches, as well as costing his bartending job. Then, when a fellow comedian laughs at a comment he makes about putting off marrying Abby and suggests that he should include more such material, Matt follows the advice. Slowly his career starts to blossom.
At one point he is asked if Abby knows he is mining their relationship for his material, he says No, and is warned. But it is not just his exposing their relationship quirks to the public that leads to their break up. His long absences, and such incidents as the one following Janet’s wedding when Matt doesn’t even think of including Abby when his family poses for pictures (it his parents who do) also leads to her withdrawing from him.
The film is a frank and honest one in that Matt not only exposes his relationship with Abby but also his early failures as a comedian and his willingness to choose career over love and a family. I am reminded of the 1956 film with a very different career arc, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit in which Gregory Peck’s Tom Rath is faced with two life important decisions similar to Matt’s. The first is whether or not to tell his boss Ralph Hopkins, played by Frederick March, whether the latter’s speech is any good; and the second, whether to follow in his footsteps of heading up a large company that will consume his every waking moment. In a candid conversation Hopkins reveals his own failed marriage and children’s ruined lives that were the shadow side of his business success.
Whether Matt’s is a wise or a foolish choice, the film leaves it to the viewer to decide. It makes no bones about where Matt’s heart lies. And it certainly bears out another of Jesus’ saying, the one about no one being able to serve two masters. Matt has made his choice, and now he must live with it, something well brought out in his closing words concerning what Abby did following their break up.
1. How do we see Matt develop along two fronts in the film—in his profession and in his personal character?
2. How might Abby be seen as an enabler? Does she seem to have much of a life of her own, or is it all centered on Matt?
3. What do you see as his relationship with his father? What is the latter like? A very good example for Matt to emulate?
4. What do you think of Matt’s choice in putting career before his relationship with Abby? How do the pressures of work/career force many others to make difficult choices?
5. Many comedians base their humor on wives and relatives: how can this be done with integrity? How is this similar to the advice given to fiction writers, “Write about what you know” ? Which comedians can you think of who do this well?
6. What do you think of Abby’s answer to Matt’s question about why she stayed with him so long? How is she an example of being too kind, or perhaps, better, of being foolishly kind?
7. Do you think Matt is any wiser at the end? Do you think he will be able to enter into a meaningful relationship? What are your reasons?