Mike Birbiglia & J. Hope Stein raise support, lift spirits on digital book tour

Via Artist

For better or worse, the internet (and Zoom in particular) has been a major constant in keeping people connected over the last several months during the pandemic and the resulting quarantine. Comedian and Shrewsbury native Mike Birbiglia and his wife, poet J. Hope Stein, bring that type of connection to the next level in their own way, and they’re getting their fans in on the fun.

As they make their way through cyberspace to bring their recent collaborative effort, The New One, to audiences all over the country on their 12-date Jokes and Poems and Pizza digital book tour, Birbiglia and Stein have found that the world of Zoom isn’t as lacking in crowd interaction and warmth as they had previously thought.

Before Jokes and Poems and Pizza makes a virtual stop at Cambridge’s Harvard Bookstore on Sunday (August 9), Vanyaland caught up with the creative couple over email to discuss the tour and its digital format, their feelings on their first creative collaboration, their continued philanthropy geared toward local and independent businesses all over the country, and of course, pizza.

Jason Greenough: I guess the most natural place to start is really just asking the question: How is the Birbiglia family holding up during the pandemic?

Mike Birbiglia: Well, our daughter pointed out last night — last night we did a reading from our living room all the way to San Francisco, at Green Apple Books, and Oona pointed out that the pandemic has been good for our family because normally we would do that book reading, and we would have to go out for a night and the babysitter would have to put her to bed but last night we put her to bed. She’s five years old and she told us that. So the answer is we’re struggling like everybody, but also there’s moments like that, where it feels like a nice piece of perspective from our daughter.

So, the main reason why we’re here is to talk about your Jokes and Poems and Pizza digital book tour to share The New One. You’re a few dates in at this point. How has the experience and reaction been thus far, especially with the digital format changing the whole environment of this type of thing?

Birbiglia: Well, it’s so simple of a concept but it’s surprisingly connecting. We’ve done events in Tulsa, and San Francisco, and Spokane, Washington, and it sort of felt like we visited those places. Or at least made contact with some people in those places. I don’t know. It’s very hard to describe. 

J. Hope Stein: I was dreading this. I don’t like Zoom. And I am kind of shocked by the experience of it and the intimacy of it. It’s like being in someone’s living room at the end of their probably not-so-great day goofing around telling jokes. We’re just being kind of goofs and telling jokes and poems.

Birbiglia: To be clear, that’s not to say that people couldn’t be currently living their best lives.

Stein: Of course. But there’s certainly something really cool about being in someone’s living room having that fourth wall broken in terms of, like, being there. We always talk about [how] late night shows had that idea — being in someone’s living room at the end of their day, and there’s an intimacy of listening to it. And like, I feel like there’s something about it that feels really comforting to me. I don’t know what it is. But I’m surprised by it.

Birbiglia: What we mean to say is we want our voices to put you to sleep.

Given the obstacles you’ve faced this year, in regards to your careers, with publication dates getting moved around, stand-up dates getting cancelled, and just the general madness that has come along with COVID-19, how does it feel to finally be able to do this book tour and share it with your fans?

Birbiglia: Well, it sort of feels old fashioned, even though it’s using the highest levels of technology conceivable in any of our lifetimes, because it really does feel like we’re going to 20 cities. And so it feels like we’re all over the place. Some of the events have 30 people, and some of the events have 200 people. And it’s sort of like, in some ways, it reminds me of my early career of touring as a stand up where it’s like every night is a surprise as to what it’s going to be. But in general, like, we haven’t come away from one of the events being like ‘that was awful.’ And one of the kinds of people who say that was awful. 

Stein: I think what’s fun about it is, like, we didn’t get a chance to experience the book itself until now. Like reading from it is kind of like reading from it for the first time for us, and we never know what we’re going to read because we let the audience decide throughout. We give them choices of what they want us to read. We kind of set up some options.

Birbiglia: We call it choose your own joke-venture or choose your own poem-venture.

Stein: I like that the audience is so much a part of it. It just makes it feel very fresh for us every night that we don’t know what the journey is going to be. We never do the same thing twice. One time we were like singing half the time and we are not singers. The audience  joined in, and we did not plan that. And so we just don’t know. I like that aspect of it. We don’t know what it’s going to be when we sit down and start it. We literally have no idea. There’s something about that that feels — and the audience doesn’t know, and they’re part of that, in creating it. And there’s something about that that feels very alive right now, for me, in terms of all the communications and the ways we’re trying to connect with people in our lives, it feels very real.

Specifically looking at your event “at” Harvard Bookstore on August 9, how are you feeling about bringing this project back home to the Boston area?

Birbiglia: Well, it’s the closest I’ll ever come to getting into Harvard. In that sense, it’s a huge victory. I’m hoping to get an honorary book-ploma. I actually am an honorary member of the Harvard Lampoon, which is a big late in life victory. Which by the way, we’ll tell the full story of the night of the bookstore event. We try to tell stories about local things when we do this. And since I’m from Worcester, I have quite a few local stories — like my whole childhood.

In your announcement about the tour, you said that you’ll be donating some proceeds to support local bookstores in every city you “visit.” What went into that decision process of figuring out how to give back to the community in this way? And what made you choose these specific shops to work with on this tour?

Birbiglia: Well, personally, after we started sheltering in place I started a non-profit comedy, Instagram called Tip Your Waitstaff. And it still exists. It’s TipYourWaitstaff.com. We’ve raised  money for The Comedy Studio in Somerville, The waitstaff of The Wilbur Theatre in Boston, and many others. Actually actually the local beer company Sam Adams has pitched in thousands of dollars for that as well. We’ve raised a total of over $600,000  for all these different GoFundMes for different comedy clubs across the country.

And then with Working it Out, my podcast, each show we shine a light on a different nonprofit. And then we do the same thing with the book events. It just feels like in this moment, everyone in our country, in the world, we’re so reliant on one another to get through this crisis together. And I feel like any event that doesn’t include some kind of nonprofit component is in some ways ignoring, like, what’s right in front of all of us.

Stein: Also, when Mike tours during the year he usually donates to each city’s food bank, as just, like, a general practice. So this sort of mirrors that “giving back locally” spirit.

MB: And for the Harvard Event, we are giving to Boston826, which I was actually turned on to by Judd Apatow, who’s actually a guest on the podcast this Monday. He’s been a huge advocate of 826 for years, he really believes in their mission. We’ve done benefits for them in Los Angeles before. And so, yeah, we’re proud to get behind them. 


Speaking of helping local businesses — while folks in different cities have their own pizza places to support during these events, do you have your own favorite spot you’re ordering from? And how long will it be before you eat pizza again after this?

Birbiglia: Yeah. I mean, I would send a quick shout out to local pizzerias across America. And generally, like, we should all be supporting local books, local pizza, and local grocery stores. I’d throw a shout out to my hometown Shrewsbury Pizzeria and Dean Park Pizzeria, which are pizzerias that I grew up within one mile of and visited regularly.

Did this collab spawn any noticeable interest or additional appreciation for each other’s creative focuses, meaning Mike’s view of poetry and Jen’s view of comedy?

Birbiglia: I always hated poetry. I will, for the rest of my life. [Storms out of the room.]

Stein: And I have no sense of humor.

Did either of you have any sort of takeaways after finishing this project that still stand out to you? And, for Mike, how different was the writing experience with this book as opposed to writing the stage show, or even the Sleepwalk With Me book?

Birbiglia: Well, it’s, like, a hundred times different. Like, I actually have to say, writing a book with another person is an entirely different thing, and I think in this instance, was really crucial for the experience of the reader. Because so much of this book thematically is about when you share an experience with someone else where there’s two different sides of a story. And with parenting, that’s particularly the case. And so I feel like it’ll be a cathartic book because it represents two sides of the same story.

Stein: I don’t know if this answers the question [but] I was just thinking — you know how when you’re in high school and you think like, ‘I was such a loser in middle school, but now I’m different’. And then you’re a loser in college and after you’re like, ‘but now I’m different’. And it sort of keeps happening — you look at a younger version of yourself and you’re like, ‘I’m so dumb about that thing, but now I’m not’. For me, this book is a good check on how dumb we both were about certain things as we navigated through an adolescent version of ourselves being parents. And I think laughing at that was good for us and could be good for other people. 

Birbiglia: I think writing a book really cemented for me an understanding of my own perfection. Just to clarify that so I’m not quoted out of context: that was an attempt at a joke that might not work on the page. 

You’ve certainly stayed busy during quarantine, with the book and the Working it Out podcast. Have these projects made it easier to get through these chaotic and uncertain times? If so, how?

Birbiglia: It’s my first pandemic. I’ll call you after the second pandemic.

Stein: It’s hard to answer.

Birbiglia: I think on my third pandemic I’ll have a really good answer for this.

What are you hoping audiences take away from these digital book tour events?

Birbiglia: I think just that we’re all connected and reliant on others. That’s just revealed itself now more than in any other time I’ve experienced.

Stein: Someone called us last night at Green Apple Books in San Fransisco a ‘sweet distraction.’

Any other words of wisdom before we sign off here?

Birbiglia: “Know thyself.” — Aristotle

Stein: Wear a mask. Keep six feet distance.

‘JOKES AND POEMS AND PIZZA’ WITH MIKE BIRBIGLIA AND J. HOPE STEIN :: Saturday, August 9 via Zoom :: 7 p.m. :: Tickets are $33.25 (Book, signed bookplate and shipping included)