Alibi V.25 No.34 • Aug 25-31, 2016 

Film Review

Don’t Think Twice

Tragedy is easy, comedy is hard in Mike Birbiglia’s self-reflexive look at the humor industry

Don't Think Twice
“Ever wonder what would happen if the Jackson 5 and the ghost of Albert Einstein were appointed to the Supreme Court? I think it would go something like this ...”

Don't Think Twice (2016)

Directed by Mike Birbiglia

Cast: Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Mike Birbiglia, Kate Micucci

Comedian Mike Birbiglia conforms to the old writing class adage and sticks with what he knows by writing and directing the improv comedy-based feature Don’t Think Twice. This beautifully balanced ensemble comedy-drama digs deep not just into the building-block world of today’s comedy scene, but into the life-and-death cycle of adult dreams, desires and career goals.

The film is set inside a shabby New York City improv theater where the members are all fiercely dedicated to the art and craft of comedy. Several nights a week they assemble, making up impromptu sketches based on audience suggestions. Every town has got one of these little venues, many of which are staffed by talented writers and actors. Some, like the legendary Second City or the Upright Citizens Brigade, are breeding grounds for the modern film and television industry’s biggest comedy stars. Our fictional troupe, The Commune, is led by Miles (Birbiglia), the poker-faced founder who spends most of his time fretting over lost opportunities and trying to bed his Improv 101 students. Chris Gethard is Bill, the troupe’s resident nebbish. Tami Sagher is Lindsay, the dope-smoking trust funder who lives with her parents. Kate Micucci is Allison, the shy pixie who dreams of producing quirky, semi-autobiographical graphic novels. And Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs are the troupe’s resident power couple, Samantha and Jack, a live-wire pair with comedy in their DNA. Even when they’re home in bed having sex, the two can’t stop workshopping bits.

Despite the enthusiasm of the group, The Commune is on the verge of losing its lease to an Urban Outfitters. “Charging five dollars for tickets isn’t a real solid business plan,” points out one naysayer. But these people do it purely for the love of comedy. Or do they? When word gets out that a scout from the prestigious “Weekend Live” (this film’s none-too-disguised “Saturday Night Live” stand-in) is coming to watch one of their shows, the troupe members all but trip over one another to stand out and hopefully win a coveted audition. As it happens, Jack and Samantha end up getting picked to try out for the TV show. Jack takes to it with gusto, but Samantha—plagued by self-doubt—skips the audition. Thanks to his well-rehearsed characters and his unflagging ambition, Jack succeeds in getting an invitation to join the cast of “Weekend Live.” This sets off a string of sincere congratulations and quiet jealousies on the part of his not-so-lucky troupe members.

The film has many funny moments, a number of which take place on stage. Birbiglia clearly knows his way around the improv scene, and the feeling of these on-stage moments is thoroughly convincing.

The film has many funny moments, a number of which take place on stage. Birbiglia clearly knows his way around the improv scene, and the feeling of these on-stage moments is thoroughly convincing. As in real life, some moments are funny, others fall flat, but you can see the perfomers searching for their groove, that magical moment when something off the top of your head just clicks. What’s really interesting is that the on-stage comedy becomes more bitter and cynical as the various characters stew over their friend’s sudden (and perhaps undeserved) success. There is, of course, the traditional question of whether success will spoil Jack and if he will choose to abandon his longtime pals. But Birbiglia’s evenhanded script spreads the drama around.

The mantra of improv comedy, paraphrased in the film’s title, is that you shouldn’t be thinking, you shouldn’t be planning ahead, you should simply be acting and reacting. That, it seems is the essence of comedy. But it’s also the essence of poor life decisions. As Jack’s star ascends, the other members of The Commune start to question their longtime, success-free dedication to comedy. Is getting stoned, living together in a one-bedroom apartment, failing to pay rent and enduring the scorn of your parents really worth it at age 36? Is improv and standup and local theater really the lifeblood of successful comedy, or is every up-and-coming comic secretly willing to stab a friend in the back for a one-off role on a cheesy sitcom? For all the film’s humor, Birbiglia finds the bittersweet undercurrent flowing beneath this world of punchlines and wacky character voices. In comedy failure is a nightly option. It’s also a likely career outcome. For every successful funnyman or woman in Hollywood, there are hundreds of struggling jokesters who will never be famous.

Birbiglia stages, directs and edits this film with a great deal of confidence. Again, he understands the subject. But his freshman outing, 2012’s good-but-not-as-good Sleepwalk With Me, was also about the life of a comedian. The difference here may be the excellent ensemble cast he’s put together. All are skilled comedians, and Birbiglia wrings a wonderfully wide range of emotions out of them. Bill, for example, is dealing with a terminally ill father back in Philadelphia (a seemingly taboo subject our characters still can’t resist riffing on). Lindsay struggles with guilt over her wealthy, controlling parents. And Samantha, a former comedy fan who worked her way up through the classes, serves as the film’s true believer—someone who’s found her calling in the laughter of audiences and the camaraderie of like-minded people.

Examining one’s own vocation can often result in dull navel gazing. But Don’t Think Twice is an honestly observed, sharply rendered and very funny look at the very real, working-class levels of the comedy industry. At the same time, it touches on universal themes of ego, success, friendship, loyalty, jealousy and the very nagging question of what it is we all want out of this funny old world.