Mike Birbiglia is one of our favorite comedic storytellers — examing the goings-on in his life in a manner that balances the mundane and the existential. As we mentioned when we spoke with him at the turn of the year, Birbiglia has continued to practice his craft at a time when that isn’t so easy. Specifically, he’s been keeping busy by broadcasting stand-up shows through Nowhere Comedy Club, where he works out new material by bouncing jokes off his virtual audience.
In Birbiglia’s next batch of shows (updated: new shows added 4/16 and 4/17), he’ll be talking exclusively about pizza, which, to listen to him tell it, is a more natural fit than you might imagine. For one, he has a clear and deep love for the subject matter. Also, he believes that pizza unites us. After all, who doesn’t have a positive experience with or deep affection for pizza?
With Mike Birbiglia’s Worldwide Comedy Pizza Party shows starting tomorrow, we reached out to the comedian to talk, in great detail, about pizza and only pizza.
I did some research on this. I’m more prepared for this than I’ve been for anything in a long time.
That’s very funny.
We’re going to really get serious on the pizza questions. But I guess the first one is what prompts you to do a pizza-centric show?
Well, I’ve written about pizza in both of my movies and all of my specials. There’s at least a reference or a joke, if not multiple, to the extent where in Sleepwalk With Me, we created an actual pizza pillow that was made of pizza. And Jessi Klein, in character, wraps it around my neck, and then I eat it, and then she sprays tomato sauce on me. It’s on the brain, let’s just say.
It’s just something that I’ve written about since the dawn of being interested in comedy. So in the pandemic, I’ve been writing a comedy special about pizza. I had this idea of doing a comedy special where every joke is about pizza. And ultimately the whole thing would be an ad for local pizza. Because my joke about… you see a lot of TV commercials for pizza, but there are no ads for good pizza, there are only ads for “pizza.” Good pizza’s confident in their work, they’re like, “People will find us.” And bad pizza is like, “We’ll do anything. We’ll hire a mascot. We’ll stay open till 3:00 AM. You can stuff pizza inside our pizza.” I say, “There are no ads for Paris, but there are ads for New Hampshire.” When I think about the pizza special, and then the pizza virtual, which is sort of me testing out material for what will become the special, I think of the whole thing as an ad for local pizza.
Obviously, you’re a man of the world. Is there a specific kind of pizza that you prefer? Do you have opinions on deep dish, New York versus… What’s the preference?
I’m pretty open. For example, some people are real New York purists, and then they’ll diss Chicago pizza. I don’t like some Chicago pizza, but, for example, I love Lou Malnati’s in Chicago. And so I don’t know, I’m not willing to write off the genre. And then New Haven has this pizza row of famous pizzerias. I’ve been to four of them, and they’re great. I feel like the only region that has to put a little bit more hustle in their game on the pizza front is California — because all they’ve given us really is California Pizza Kitchen, which is not something to be proud of. But they do have some contenders.
Have you attempted to make your own pizza?
Yeah. Not with that much success. I think any pizza is good pizza to some degree because the fundamental ingredients are bread and tomato sauce and cheese, and so it’s a winning team just based on the lineup. And so even if you fail at it, it’s not really failing, it’s still a pretty good meal.
Do pizza bagels and pizza rolls live in the pizza family, or are they a complete bastardization of the concept?
It’s very controversial. Pizza rolls, I don’t even know really what that is exactly.
It’s basically like an egg roll, but it’s pizza instead.
Oh gosh, I don’t count that. I don’t even know why I don’t count that, but I don’t count it. But pizza bagels are so much a part of my childhood, so I don’t think I can let that go.
Have you ever used the term ‘za?
[Laughs] No, I don’t like the term ‘za. I’m very against the abbreviation ‘za. I just think pizza is a great short word on its own, pizza, pizza, pizza. It’s just got a punch to it, like pizza, pizza, pizza. So, if you go za, it’s almost like the breath that you took to lead into the ‘za took as much energy as it would have to taken to just say pi. It just feels like you’re trying too hard if you’re calling something ‘za.
Do you prefer pizza in a parlor or at home?
Oh, that’s a phenomenal question. It depends on the parlor, because you look at somewhere like Arturo’s in New York, or John’s Pizza in New York… The parlor is part of the experience. You’re surrounded by the ghosts of pizza in the parlor, the ghosts of positive experiences, and the smells and tastes are infused in the walls, and you’re surrounded by people who are enjoying the pizza at the same time. So it’s almost like watching a movie in a theater.
So, in that sense, yes. But I do think there are instances where the parlor itself is just not clean enough and enjoyable enough to sit in for it to augment the experience.
That’s all very true, and I absolutely respect that answer. However, my issue with that is when I order pizza in a parlor, I lack the discipline to let it sit. So, I always wind up burning my mouth. Also, to me, the window between when you place an order and they deliver it or when you pick something up and bring it home… the cheese has a chance to harden.
You’re 100% correct.
So, the taste to me is always better at home. But yes, the experience, you’re absolutely right. But I think it’s more of a lack of discipline on my part to not let it sit for 10 minutes.
Right. But pizza at home, you run the risk of if you hit traffic or this or that, you’re potentially looking at a really lukewarm pizza by the time it hits your mouth.
This is very true. But again, it’s the discipline, I think, that is the key to the perfect pizza experience, I guess. How much pizza can you eat? What’s your ceiling?
[Laughs] It’s funny because I have a chapter in my book, The New One, which is called A Slice of Life. It’s all about how I used to look at a pizza and only be able to view it as a single serving, which it isn’t. And I would eat a whole large pizza with some regularity, once a week, once every few weeks. And I had some bad medical exams where I realized that pizza, for me, if I was going to continue eating it, it was going to have to be something that I eat one slice or two slices, or at most three slices. And so, that’s where I’m at these days.
You know it’s not good when you’re proud of yourself for things you shouldn’t be proud of, that people would just do normally. But I’m very proud of myself for being down to three slices now that I’m in my 30s.
It seems like the answer is obvious, but do you eat crust first or end first?
As a matter of fact, my brother, Joe, who writes a lot with me and produces the virtual shows, he and I had a long discussion the other day which we might crack into in the show about crust and how there are certain genres of pizza that really botch crust. Arguably, some Greek pizza is making the crust so big that it just becomes… It’s refuse, it’s extra. You don’t even eat it. You feed it to your dog under the table, because it’s just not worth having that much bread without sauce and cheese.
Sicilian is another example of that. I like Sicilian. The edge pieces are great. But once you get into those middle ones, they lack… There’s no handle.
Yeah, that’s true. Yeah, a corner Sicilian slice is gold. You know who has a great one? In Brooklyn, the Sicilian slice at F&F pizzeria which is affiliated with Frankies 457. They have a Sicilian slice that is so good that… Then they also have just focaccia. But their Sicilian slice is so good, I would say it’s as a good as any Sicilian slice I’ve ever had. And what’s funny about it is it’s so in demand that they only make a certain amount, and then when it’s done, it’s done. That’s it. I didn’t even realize this.
F&F, the pizza was developed in collaboration with Chris Bianco. I looked up F&F. I had no idea that they developed that pizza with Chris Bianco, who was a guest on my Sunday show with Jimm Kimmel to benefit Texas food banks. Chris has, if not one, more than one pizzeria in Los Angeles that are great [his Phoenix pizzeria won him “Best Chef Southwest” from the Beard Foundation].
Pineapple on pizza. What’s the stance there?
I’m against it, but I also respect people’s preferences.
People who eat pizza with a fork, what are they? You’ve got to have a judgment on that.
People who eat with a fork, I’m not judgemental of them. I just think that they’re missing out on one of the joys of pizza, which is that it’s a utensil-less food item.
So, you’re forgiving of pineapple, but not into it. Are there any toppings that you just are not feeling at all, any toppings that you prefer?
I have a story that I’m telling in the virtual about how I really don’t like olives on pizza. I have basically a story about how one time someone was staying at our apartment, and really wanted to make a nice gesture, and knew I loved pizza, and made me an olive pizza. I had to pretend I liked it. I’m out on peppers too. I’m out on olives, I’m out on peppers. There are certain things that overpower the pizza.
One of the main things is when I go to a pizzeria for the first time, the first thing I do is have a cheese slice with no toppings, just to you understand the baseline of what we’re working with.
The last question is the stupidest question. Would the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles be as cool if not for their love of pizza?
I have to say I grew up on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The drawings of the pizza in it never seemed alluring to me.
That’s fair because it’s all just this white blob with a couple of little bits that you think are pepperoni, and the cheese is just falling right… There’s just cheese everywhere. It’s chaos there. It’s too much cheese.
I don’t know who drew the turtles, but I don’t feel like the person who drew the pizza loves pizza.
Tickets are available for Mike Birbiglia’s Worldwide Comedy Pizza Party, with new shows added for April 16th and April 17th. Go here for more info.