As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.
Mike Birbiglia's stand-up career began as a server at a comedy club when he was in college. His part-time, minimum-wage job wasn't very glamorous.
"I would clean up and sell tickets at the door and run quesadillas and chicken fingers to tables," he says.
When comedians were late or didn't show up to perform, Birbiglia's manager sent him on stage to fill time.
"I would say, 'Hey, I'm Mike Birbiglia. You might recognize me from the door. I might have seated you, I might have brought you a cocktail. That was me, and here I am. So your expectations must be very low at this point,' " he says. "I was always performing by the seat of my pants."
After Birbiglia graduated college, he quit his job and took his show on the road.
"I drove my mom's station wagon around the country," he says. "I bought my mom's car. I paid $2,000 for a car with 80,000 miles on it."
He performed small venues around Ohio, West Virginia and Michigan, working his way up to gigs in New York.
In 2002, at 24 years old, Birbiglia was booked on the Late Show with David Letterman. His brother Joe was with him backstage when a producer asked if he wanted cue cards.
"I was like, 'No, I think it'll be OK,' " Birbiglia says. "And my brother Joe goes, 'Yeah, he wants that.' "
"And then I found myself on stage, and I say my first joke and it goes pretty well. And then my mind goes completely blank," he says. "Completely blank. I have no idea what I'm going to say next."
He looked over and saw the cue cards with a bullet point to his next joke, about hippos. His set was saved. His parents were watching from home.
"My parents really didn't want me to be a comedian and they thought I was going to be a complete failure," Birbiglia says. "When they saw me on the Letterman show, I think they thought, 'Oh, I guess other people think he's OK at this.' "
Birbiglia says knowing his parents accepted his career choice was his biggest break.
"In some ways, it was like a doctor's note to my parents saying, 'It's OK if Mike continues to be a comedian.' "