If things had gone as planned, Mike Birbiglia would have been honing new material onstage this spring. He was supposed to play colleges and register students to vote in April, then head out on a 20-city tour, and sprinkle in some appearances to promote his book “The New One,” an adaptation of his one-man off-Broadway show reconfigured as a collaboration with his wife, poet J. Hope Stein.
Instead, Birbiglia and Stein will be making a virtual appearance in conjunction with Harvard Book Store Sunday evening. And instead of stage time, the Massachusetts native has been trading thoughts on new bits with comedian and creator friends on Instagram and, for the past month and a half, on a new podcast called “Working It Out.” Upcoming guests include Maria Bamford, Tig Notaro, Judd Apatow, and former Boston comic Sam Jay, whose debut stand-up special, “3 In the Morning,” hit Netflix this week.
It is counterintuitive for comics to reveal unfinished ideas to the public when their usual instinct is to road test the work in front of audiences. But in the midst of a pandemic when stage time isn’t available, the podcast is a novel solution. “I would never in a million years have considered doing that outside of the circumstances that we find ourselves in right now,” says Birbiglia by phone. “Mitch Hedberg once said to me when I opened for him, ‘Don’t ever show anyone your notebook.’ It’s a funny piece of advice. There’s some truth to it. Which is, you don’t want people to see the magic, what the magic trick is.”
“Working It Out” gives listeners a glimpse at the types of conversations comedians would have if they were hanging out at clubs or chatting over the phone, but it is not a nuts-and-bolts, industry-minded show. “It’s actually, in some ways, it’s the opposite,” says Birbiglia, who grew up in Shrewsbury and has dozens of credits for acting, writing, and directing. “It’s a response to there being so many podcasts where it’s just talking about making something, but not actually making something. And I thought: What if we started to make the thing on the podcast in real time?”
Each episode is broken into parts. The first is an informal conversation, which Birbiglia calls “Hello.” The second part is “The Slow Round,” in which Birbiglia draws from a set of standard questions, like “What’s a smell you remember from childhood?” or “Have you ever been punched in the face?” The third part is where the title comes from, a back and forth of unfinished material. And it ends with the guest promoting a charity that’s important to him or her.
In the latest episode, Roy Wood Jr. relates a story about being in the custody of a racist US marshal after his arrest at 19 for stealing jeans. Wood mentions he hasn’t shared intensely personal stories like this with his audience, but Birbiglia encourages him to think about writing a one-man show about his life. “It’s interesting because he says this in the interview, ‘I don’t really talk about myself onstage,’ ” Birbiglia says. “I just found that to be really fascinating.”
In another episode, prompted by one of Birbiglia’s standard questions, Hannah Gadsby talks about an experience when she was younger, going to a rave, taking ecstasy, and learning to juggle. “She literally says, ‘I don’t know how to say that onstage because I don’t think people see me this way. I don’t know how they’ll take it,’ ” says Birbiglia. “That’s the magic of ‘The Slow Round,’ is you coax people into saying things that they wouldn’t feel comfortable having their persona say but just are true.”
Because he has faced similar creative problems and inspirations, Birbiglia knows how to draw these revelations from his guests, who have also included Sarah Cooper, John Mulaney, and Hasan Minhaj, among others. “I think I’m able to somehow get a type of interview that other interviewers aren’t able to get,” he says, “just because I’m a comic.”
It works two ways. Birbiglia can spark new ideas for his guests, and they have helped him develop material for the one-man show he is working on now, tentatively titled “YMCA Pool.” Birbiglia says the show was about 70 percent complete when the pandemic hit.
Birbiglia bonded with one of his guests, David Sedaris, over the title; Sedaris had told a story about swimming at a London-area YMCA where lifeguards would blow their whistle to signal when a child had defecated in the water. An odd inspiration, but Sedaris gave his blessing for Birbiglia to use it. “I wrote this whole metaphor about how the YMCA pool is really like life,” says Birbiglia. “There’s old people and young people and kids and rich people and not rich people and all races and genders, and no matter what you do or what you say, at some point, someone will poop in the pool.”
In the current draft of the new show, Birbiglia contemplates the concept of his own death, including a take on the phrase “over the hill.”
“I never understood that term until I got on the hill and I looked around and I went, ‘Oh, there’s natural causes. They’re not close, but they’re coming,’ ” he says.
Gadsby made him rethink that line. “She had this riff on that, which is, the front of the hill is very different from the back of the hill,” he says. “On the front of the hill, you’re looking around and you’re cataloging and keeping track of things. And on the back of the hill, you start to sort of try to savor moments. A sandwich or a cup of coffee. Littler things bring you joy. And I thought that was so astute. It’s not even comedic as much as it’s just sort of profound. And it definitely made me think, ‘Oh, there’s a lot more there.’ ”
“Working It Out” began as a way to draw attention to charities like TipYourWaitstaff.com, which used GoFundMe campaigns to help support the staff at clubs and theaters around the country, including, locally, the Comedy Studio and the Wilbur Theatre. That is still very present in the podcast, but Birbiglia is excited at the creative possibilities that have emerged from it, to see material from the show pop up in individual comedians’ acts. “The best-case scenario of this podcast experiment,” he says, “is that the podcast itself has a little DNA that finds its way into 50 different comedy specials.”
Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JOKES & POEMS WITH MIKE BIRBIGLIA AND J. HOPE STEIN
Aug. 9 at 7 p.m. Tickets: $33.25 (includes signed and shipped copy of “The New One”), www.harvard.com