It takes a special kind of person to stand before a crowd of strangers, risking emotional immolation and the searing pain of a silent room, and just…be. Let yourself be known. And among those people it’s an even odder type who lays it all out for laughs, a prize as ephemeral and fleeting — and addictive — as anything you’d find on a dodgy street corner in the bad part of town. Producer Ira Glass (the creator of essential NPR listening, “This American Life”) and writer/director Mike Birbiglia (Sleepwalk with Me) have created with Don’t Think Twice, a smart, heart-felt tale about that breed apart. It’s a look at how hard it is to “make it look easy.” It speaks with begrudging acknowledgement that sometimes what it takes hard work, sometimes it’s charisma and selfish grandstanding, but sometimes it’s good old-fashioned luck.
Improv 101 teaches the concept of “Yes, and…,” which means that whenever someone presents an idea, everyone else takes the ball and runs with it. The group has to accept a premise and be willing to make a leap with it even if they don’t know where their feet will land. It’s a leap of faith, which may also be why improv done well is so exhilarating — for the performers as well as the audience. In Don’t Think Twice, the players, The Commune, step toward the wings, literally touching one another, connecting physically as a sign of connecting emotionally, and say, “I got your back.” Don’t Think Twice is about what happens when these people who have spent years together all of a sudden stop having each other’s backs?
Kate Micucci (Allison), Tami Sagher (Lindsay)
The thing about improvisational comedy is that it works best when performed by people who know each other well. Really, really well. History isn’t essential, but it is important to hook into what they refer to in the film as the group mind. The reason improv performers don’t think twice is because they’ve become so comfortable with each other that they know how to create sparks in one another’s minds — or at least have an idea of what can grow out of the seed of an idea. And when someone knows you that well, they know what makes you great as much as what makes you vulnerable.
In this case the vulnerabilities, put into basic terms, include hubris (self-aggrandizing Miles, played by Birbiglia), greed (showboating Jack, played by Keegan-Michael Key), sloth (ever-procrastinating Allison, played by Kate Micucci), gluttony (pot-smoking, still-living-at-home Lindsay, played by Tami Sagher), envy (sad-sack Bill, played by Chris Getherd), and the outlier, Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), who lets fear of an uncertain future keep her from taking any steps forward. Don’t think these aren’t wonderful, delightful characters. They’re all people you’d want to hang out with on a Saturday night. They’re funny and insightful and genuinely good people. But they’re also flawed, and no one reaches the end without having a light shone on the things that make them so sadly human.
The film is predicated on the premise that The Commune’s beloved home, Improv America, a Second City–style theater known for developing the best and brightest comedy minds in the country — the kind who get picked up by SNL knock-off Weekend Live — is shuttering after long years of well-respected but financially modest success. Change is thrust upon them, and they are surprisingly ill equipped to deal with it. Things get even trickier when one of their number, Jack, makes it to the big show. The others are struck by the seeming unfairness of it all. They’re a group; their success has always been mutual and dependent on each other. At this crossroads they have come to the point of realizing that oftentimes talent just isn’t enough. When the unified front falters, however, it’s enough to shift the dynamic from mostly good-natured rivalry to a full-on battle of wills and words.
Mike Birbiglia (Miles), Kate Micucci (Allison)
This cast is a modern comedy mega-band. Every single one of them has contributed something significant to the genre over the last several years to varying degrees of recognition, both critical and as in “hey, it’s that guy!” status. They’re a more disparate group in the real world than they are in the film, but they are all astonishingly good at what they do. As actors, which some of them are more than others, they’re so smart and look so comfortable in front of the camera that it feels like the entire film could have been improvised. When the audience doesn’t play nicely, you can feel the air go out of their sails. When they’re all tuned in, it’s a thing of beauty.
Birbiglia is known for delivering laid-back, sometimes meandering monologues that begin with an idea and follow it through step by awkward step until it reaches its simple but unexpected conclusion. (The thing is, like the best standup routines, these stories have been carefully fine-tuned in order to sound so off the cuff. It’s said that George Carlin went to far as to write when he could take a breath into his performances.) Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice script is another creature entirely. It’s punchy and painfully honest about the various categories of creative types. It also has a level of heart and vulnerability that his standup fans could have suspected possible but might not have seen in full bloom.
The comedic/dramatic tension balance is so good, the characters so believable, that it’s almost possible to feel them holding their breath to see if their lines will land in friendly territory. Perhaps that’s why it feels so terrible when it’s made clear that success and friendship may have to remain mutually exclusive. It’s a hard lesson told with care and honesty. You don’t have to be a comedy buff to appreciate what this very creative team has accomplished. If you have the opportunity to see it, don’t think twice.
Top photo: Counter Clockwise: Keegan-Michael Key (Jack), Gillian Jacobs (Samantha), Chris Gethard (Bill), Kate Micucci (Allison), Mike Birbiglia (Miles), Tami Sagher (Lindsay).
Photos from EPK.TV, courtesy of Jon Pack