Pizza is a lot of things to a lot of people, but it means more to Mike Birbiglia than most. In just a year, he’s turned a love for it into bit, that bit into a live streamed improv show, and hopes to ultimately turn that into “an entire comedy pizza special.” He’s erected the People’s Republic of Pizza, which now includes him, Jo Firestone (who was a recent guest on Mike’s Working it Out podcast) and myself. He’s the real deal, even if he sometimes sullies the pizza experience for himself.
“My favorite pizza is like so much different type of pizza, like I love Lou Malnati’s in Chicago, I love Lucali in Brooklyn. I love, in New Haven, Frank Pepe,” Birbiglia tells me. “All of these places give me so much joy, it’s like picking a favorite child or whatever.”
I shot back, “Well luckily, you only have the one [child]. So you kind of got an easy out there.”
At this point, Mike laughs, which, let me tell you: getting your favorite comedian to laugh is nothing to shirk at.
I followed up, “So in short, you order from Domino’s all the time?”
“Yeah, I won’t even joke about that being my answer.”
Despite enjoying Domino’s a bit too frequently, Mike’s grasp on pizza shouldn’t be called into question. When I asked what he enjoyed in the background while eating some, he actually told me, “I actually don’t eat pizza at the same time that I do other things because it’s disrespectful to pizza. When I eat pizza, I want to give it my full attention because the chef gave it his or her full attention.” Pizza consumption is “meaningful” to Mike, or “sacred” as we’d land on shortly after, which I respect a great deal.
Mike Birbiglia, clearly a man in his element here, has a really simple guiding principle for his love for and recent fixation on pizza. “You know I think pizza is a uniter, not a divider. I think it brings people together. I think it’s something people can do in their respective towns and I can do.” With the pandemic forcing everyone indoors, there’s very little to possibly bring people together, so he’s taken to the two things he does best: eat pizza and crack jokes. Thus, the Worldwide Comedy Pizza Party was born.
The Worldwide Comedy Pizza Party is a show that Birbiglia can do from anywhere, or rather, from “Nowhere,” as it’s billed on the show’s promotional material. What does it consist of? Well pizza jokes for sure, but outside of that, no one knows. “Literally no one knows what’s gonna happen,” he tells me. “When I say no one, I mean me. I also don’t know what’s gonna happen. That’s what’s so strange about it.”
For months now, I’ve been unsure of what to make of the Worldwide Comedy Pizza Party, and I think fans of Birbiglia probably haven’t been too sure either. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who gets to watch him work his material out of Union Hall for the “three and six years” it takes him to sometimes develop a show, you probably know a different side of him—one that likes to tell jokes and heartfelt, often embarrassing stories more than just straight up jokes. That isn’t gone, but this show, if it even becomes one, isn’t quite there yet.
“If and when [Worldwide Comedy Pizza Party] becomes a comedy special, it will probably have some kind of an emotional arc to it. Cause that’s usually the way my shows develop, you know” Birbiglia assures me. “It’s only when I get to the stage of putting something in the theater that it starts to have this kind of arc where you can sort of like lock into the narrative and go on a journey.”
Birbiglia seems to already have fixed his sights on what the emotional core of that show might be, whether he knows it or not. “I definitely think there’s a lot there and I think the reason there’s a lot there is that for me, I feel pizza is nostalgic,” he shares. “It just goes back to childhood and whenever you have a topic that is tapping into your childhood, it’s personal whether you like it or not.”
In the meantime, having fun with pizza jokes is taking priority. “The pizza special will be special if we release it eventually, and in the meantime the ‘working it out’ version of it, which is the virtual show which we’re doing, is just going to be silly and fun and goofy,” he says. It seems to be working quite well for Birbiglia, who’s holding two of these shows this week, on Friday, April 16, and Saturday, April 17. Unlike past Pizza Party shows, though, these are encores that’ll consist of the same material that’s shown up in previous ones, just with a different audience now. “I’m trying to understand, like, what is the venn diagram connection between what I find funny and interesting and what the audience finds funny and interesting.” It seems that over time, the show that may or may not come at the end of this is falling into place.
People just also seem to be enjoying the actual pizza party and the goofiness of it all too. “Pizza Party’s been a riot,” Birbiglia tells me. Between the jokes and the pizza (which he encourages you to obtain locally), the vibes could not be better. “The best part of the pizza party is it’s like a work Zoom except no one gets fired.” With a pitch like that, who could possibly turn that down?
Don’t expect a series of food shows after this though. As Birbiglia puts it, food isn’t his territory as much as it is Jim Gaffigan’s. “I’m not in Jim Gaffigan’s territory. Jim Gaffigan’s territory is food. My territory is pizza. Food is made by mortals, and pizza is made by gods and it’s made in heaven.” And because of this, it’s uniquely due his reverence and singular focus.
Before letting him go, I had to test this idea of pizza as a “great uniter,” and so, inspired by jokes in his Netflix special Thank God for Jokes, I asked him who he would rather mend bridges over pizza with: the Muppets he cursed in front of or David O’Russell, whom he roasted at an awards ceremony where he was being honored.
“The Muppets…I feel like I’m good with, you know? Because I feel like, even in that story I cursed in front of the Muppets but I think only the audience was really affected by it…I think that the Muppets are really cool and so I feel I’m good with the Muppets.”
With the Muppets out of the way, David O’Russell seems like the likely recipient of the pizza, if they ever get around to talking about it. I did learn asking this that Birbiglia and David O’Russell have actually met outside of the infamous roast.
“I actually had a funny thing. A few years ago, I was at an event. A film event, like an independent film event, and he and I were in the same room and it was like only 15 of us, 20 of us maybe at this little reception, and I was talking to him. And I talked to him for like 15 minutes about this, that and whatever. And I think, I’m almost certain, he had no idea that I had done this huge bit about him in my comedy special. And I didn’t bring it up, and he didn’t bring it up. I don’t think that we’re ever going to talk about it. I just don’t think it’s in the cards.”
While Birbiglia may not be getting pizza with either party anytime soon, he’s still going to try and bring the world together to eat and laugh at it at the same time. It’s an admirable task, but something tells me he’s got what it takes.
Tickets for this weekend’s Pizza Party Encore shows can be purchased at Eventbrite.
Moises Taveras is an intern for Paste Magazine and the managing editor of his college newspaper, the Brooklyn College Vanguard. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.