Birbiglia has created a free-form character study about those who do improv and what motivates them.
Even though people in their thirties and forties doing improv may draw the same eye rolls as those writing a music blog, there is something commendable about going up on stage and winging it. But rather than crash and burn by yourself should you not kill it one evening, you are taking others with you. Unlike stand-up, improv relies on team dynamics. In the opening of Mike Birbiglia’s new comedy, Don’t Think Twice, he lays out the ground rules: Never say no. Keep the sketch going by not blocking one of your teammates. And most of all, never, ever try to shine; subservience to the group is key.
One of my friends is deep into improv, practicing multiple times per week and performing in numerous shows each month. I’ve asked him about advancement. Authors toil away at writing books with the dreams of being published. Garage band members hope to sign with a label. What’s at stake for an improviser? Where do they go? In Birbiglia’s film, the end game is a slot on a “Saturday Night Live”-type sketch comedy show called “Weekend Live.” But if the group is really the most important thing, how does one distinguish himself or herself in the world of improv?
In Don’t Think Twice, we meet the members of the Commune, a New York City collective headed by the fortysomething Miles (Birbiglia). The group seems to live and breathe together, although tensions do exist. They work tedious day jobs and spend their evenings taking or teaching improv classes while working together to further their shows. On Saturdays, they religiously get together to watch “Weekend Live,” slagging off the program and its cast. Yet getting on the show is the unspoken goal and soon, two members of the troupe are asking to audition.
Don’t Think Twice is about a group of people growing together and growing apart. One of its members can’t hold down a job, relying instead on her rich parents. Another is dealing with a dying parent. The love for improv is what ties these disparate folks together. At the center of it all is Miles, the teacher who will be passed over when his disciples are tapped for “Weekend Live” and he isn’t. It also makes sense. Commune members such as Jack (Keegan Michael-Key) and Sam (Gillian Jacobs) are just funnier and more interesting than he ever will be. Keep in mind, the guy lives in a sad apartment and beds his young students. Miles is in need of purpose, not “Weekend Live.”
Birbiglia has created a free-form character study about those who do improv and what motivates them. Although all the characters are likable, some grate and some do hog the limelight. By the film’s end, some say very ugly things to one another. A few months ago I went to my improv friend’s birthday party and some of his group showed up. They seemed compelled to be performing all the time, doing synchronized dances and songs together. It is a credit to their extroversion but also completely draining to be around. Birbiglia catches all these aspects, as well as the struggle to draw a crowd, in his film.
Never explosively hilarious, Don’t Think Twice is actually deceptively dramatic as it deals with some pretty heady subjects such as parenthood, death and the disintegration of relationships. Birbiglia dips one toe into comedy, but he also grounds his film in reality. This tight rope act is a difficult one, but Birbiglia does a good job balancing the serious and the funny. My friend claims that his sphincter tightens whenever he hears the phrase “comedy improv.” I wonder how he would feel about “dramedy improv.”