Improvident: Mike Birbiglia riffs on the improv comedy subculture in ‘Don’t Think Twice’

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Mike Birbiglia makes movies out of monologues, which essentially is how Woody Allen got started. Both are storytellers who have the courage of their comedy.

With Birbiglia, his standup doesn’t turn directly into silver-screen shenanigans. It’s a long journey—at least five full stops on the non-express train: Sleepwalk with Me, his debut film, went from a club routine to a radio stint (NPR’s “This American Life”) to a book (Sleepwalk with Me and Other Painfully True Stories) to an Off-Broadway solo show and then finally to a feature film version of all of the above. It relayed the heretofore-untold story of a standup comic with rapid-eye-movement behavior disorder, which can cause a guy—so caught up in a dream that he acts it out—to crash through a second-story glass window and land in a parking lot in Walla Walla, WA.

Hey, it happened. Its “sequel,” My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, details all his commitment issues—or the lack thereof. He was on the brink of bringing that to the screen when he made the Woody-like leap of faith into fictionalizing the milieu he knows best.

“This idea just came to me right in the middle of the other screenplay, and I felt I had to write it immediately,” Birbiglia recalls. “I stopped writing My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and started writing Don’t Think Twice before the initial inspiration got away from me.

“After I wrote it, I actually held a whole series of readings in my house in Brooklyn. There were, like, ten screenplay readings. I would invite actors and screenwriters over to read the parts and get their thoughts afterwards. Then, we’d eat pizza. I always offered the best New York pizza—either Lucali or Luchow’s—and said, because these were the early phases of the script and it had a lot of rough edges, ‘The script might be good, it might be bad—but if it’s bad, don’t worry about it because there’ll be pizza afterward, regardless. That was always my sell.”

The title of his new film, which goes into release July 22 from The Film Arcade, comes from an old Bob Dylan song (“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”). This is also the credo of the improv comic. Whereas Sleepwalk with Me was an extreme close-up of a standup comic’s personal woes and triumphs, Don’t Think Twice extends the lens CinemaScopically to include a whole Merry Musketeer-like cluster of similarly disposed artists who act as one, ping-ponging off one another in a desperate search for the elusive laugh.

They call themselves The Commune—this gaggle of six (three men, three women, but otherwise disproportionally divided in terms of talent, cheer and charisma).

It’s all-for-one-and-one-for-all—until one of those ones gets tapped for a network sketch-comedy series (think “Saturday Night Live”) and that philosophy flies right out the window. Then, the close-knit group starts unraveling, and The Chosen One is expected to pave the way for a Communal invasion of the show. It can’t, and doesn’t, happen, so the film gives it a “Them’s are the breaks” shrug, and their show goes on. 

There is a certain dry-eyed reality to the plot because it comes from someone who has been there. Birbiglia, of course, begs to differ, slightly—technically: “This is actually the first fictional film that I’ve written. It’s entirely fictional. The Commune is an improv group that doesn’t exist. I have experienced improv. I learned it in college, and I had an improv group for a few years at the Upright Citizens Brigade [UCB] in New York, but I don’t have a friend who got on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ None of the story elements is from life, but this film is very much inspired by the things I’ve witnessed and the feelings I’ve felt over the years. Otherwise, it’s out of thin air.”

Of course, with his history in improv, people (i.e., potential patrons) will assume that it is Gospel. “Aesthetically, that was the goal,” Birbiglia confesses shamelessly. “I always said to the cast, ‘The goal, in terms of the style of acting, is that people will see this in France, subtitled, and say, “Hey, we should go to New York and see those guys perform,” not realizing we don’t exist.’ I wanted people to think it’s a documentary.”

The cast Birbiglia surrounds himself with has more IMDB miles on them than you might imagine, but this outing constitutes something of a breakthrough for them.

The most familiar face (after Birbiglia’s amiable, benign punum) belongs to Keegan-Michael Key, whose profile has increased via the comedy duo of Key & [Jordan] Peele. Also a much-in-demand voice actor and supporting player, he gives a credible and caustic performance.

It’s not entirely correct to assume Birbiglia hired his pals and ex-playing partners. “Tami Sagher and Chris Gethard are two improvisers I did a lot of shows with at the UCB, but Gillian Jacobs and Kate Micucci I didn’t really know. They were just cast.”

Still, the rapport that photographed was real, even before filming officially began. “I asked the cast to come to New York about three weeks prior to shooting. It was a hard thing to do because there was really no budget for that, so I had to sort of convince them it would be a good thing for the movie for them to donate their time.

“We’d do improv workshops together and rehearse scenes, and we even did some improv shows together at the Magnet and UCB theatres which wound up in the film. I always thought the most important thing was that it feel like a real group of friends. I told the cast, ‘If it doesn’t feel like a bunch of friends, no one will care.’

“We shot it over five weeks in September of 2015, then edited it and premiered it in March at SXSW [the South by Southwest fest in Austin]. It was a whirlwind.

“Right now, we’re pre-selling tickets for the Landmark Sunshine Theatre in New York. We’ve already sold 3,000. Ira Glass, my producer, and I are doing live Q&As at most screenings. We’re trying to break that theatre’s current record-holder, Tree of Life, which did $103,000 there one weekend. We’re going to chop down that Tree.”

So, what was it like to write, direct, produce and perform in a movie all at the same time? Birbiglia likes to start in an understated mode, then build: “I can’t say it was easy. No, it definitely was not easy. It was grueling because I also now have a one-year-old daughter, so I’m definitely not short on tasks, but it was very rewarding to make a film where you feel very passionately about the story and you are able to work with these really excellent actors and a splendid crew. It was all worth it.”

Yes, he’ll do it again. “This is my second feature film and, hopefully, it’ll be second of nine or ten. You only get so many shots at directing features. Right now I’m kicking around three different ideas. I’m letting them percolate, seeing which ones feel most compelling. My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is still on the list. I’ve written three or four drafts of it. I want to make sure I get it just right. It’s really important to me that the cinema version of it lives up to what the show and special were. I think it’ll happen.

“But first, I think I’m just going to hang out with my wife and daughter a few months, take in some Life and see if anything occurs to me about Life I can write about next.”