I’m always interested when a filmmaker uses some obscure art form as a microcosm for art in general. I’m talking about films like All That Jazz, Inside Llewyn Davis and Top Five, which follow one or several members of a community as they struggle to make ends meet doing the thing they love. They might be great at it, but it doesn’t necessarily matter, as it’s a cutthroat business, and you never know if fate will shine upon you, or anyone but you. However, despite the genre using musical theater, folk music, standup comedy, acting or just about every type of creative field I can imagine, the one I never thought I’d see is improv comedy. I spent the better portion of two years watching a friend perform as part of my college’s improv shows, and while they were highly entertaining, and the people were quite funny, I never really thought of it as “art,” if I’m being honest. This is most likely due to the preconceived notion that many people have that improv troupes are subpar comedians, performing bland stereotypes on the spot, and are often a source of fodder amongst the “intellectuals.” However, these notions are not only challenged in Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice, they are completely destroyed, as improv is used for an examination of the creative mind and how it survives in today’s society. And while his film never reaches the level of greatness that is All That Jazz or the cerebral depths of Inside Llewyn Davis, it is highly entertaining, and sits comfortably in such high company.
The film follows the six members of The Commune, a small but well-respected improv troupe in New York City, (think The Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade or Second City). The group was founded a decade ago by Miles (Birbiglia) and his writing partner, who later left him for Weekend Live (Weekend Live is such a blatantly unveiled Saturday Night Live that from this point forward I refuse to play these mind games by using this front). The current team consists of Miles, Allison (Kate Miccuci, Garfunkel and Oates), Bill (Chris Gethard, a popular standup comedian and host of The Chris Gethard Show), Lindsay (Tami Sagher, a writer for How I Met Your Mother and 30 Rock), Miles’ former student Jack (Keegan-Michael Key, Key and Peele), and a former fan with no training but oodles of natural ability, Sam (Gillian Jacobs, Community). The group spends their days working menial jobs at grocery stores, restaurants and teaching improv (except for Lindsay, whose parents are rich). However, at night, when onstage, they are gods, performing sharp comedy bits and bringing joy to the crowd before retiring to the local bar for a few drinks. They even all live together, with Miles, Allison and Bill sharing one apartment while couple Jack and Sam share the other (I would have found this bit a little too far had I not just watched a Viceland show called The Flophouse about this very subject). The group has a strong dynamic; however, as personal issues begin to take over their lives, and Saturday Night Live starts looking at their show to find new cast members, not only are friendships tested, but their very drive as artists.
A film like this lives and dies on its themes, and that is the area where Don’t Think Twice really thrives. It really understands the creative community and the complete anxiety that comes with knowing that the thing you love comes with a deadline, be it from poverty or from reality. Saturday Night Live serves as the perfect metaphor for that wakeup call, as it represents the lofty world of selling out. Sure, the group gathers around on Saturdays and mocks it with the faux-philosophical question of “Was this show ever really good, or were we just kids so we gave it a pass?”* However, despite their mockery, the minute an opportunity presents itself, they’re all writing sketches furiously to create a portfolio, working on characters and impressions, and becoming complete whores to the system. Sure, we like to tell ourselves that we’re in it for the art, and that the money and success don’t matter. But when push comes to shove, reality sets in, and we realize that no matter how talented we know we are, that wealth and fame will not only help us survive, but also serve as the validation all artists crave. To put it in terms of my writing, I absolutely love running this site. If I had my wish, I would just run this site for all eternity, and maybe write a novel or a film while I’m at it, just to say I have. However, even if you read my first post, one of the purposes of this site is to help me find a job writing for someone bigger. Eventually, we have to accept that “doing it for the love of the craft” can only get us so far.
This feeling actually underscores the most important moment of the film, in my opinion. At one of their gatherings to watch SNL, the gang watches in silence as the band plays. The film then cuts between the studio where the show is taped and the faces of those in the apartment watching this. In 30 Rockefeller Center, the atmosphere is loud, everyone is excited and happy, and there’s a sense of realness. In The Commune’s apartment, the sound is channeled through a television to great effect, as everyone else is silent and somber. It’s a stark contrast between “selling out” and being an artist. Sure, they like to think of themselves as better and funnier, but no one will ever know this without the partying world of fame. The looks on their faces is longing, an attempt to cross the void from their own gray lives into a world of financial stability. It’s a hard thing to watch, especially if you’ve decided to bypass financial security in order to do what you love. But it’s the truth, and Birbiglia wants you to acknowledge that, no matter which path you take.
The main reason this film works is the carefully balanced cast. As the clear leads, Birbiglia, Key and Jacobs each give nuanced, emotionally strong performances, with Jacobs really showing range and proving herself as an actress. In multiple scenes, her face portrays so many emotions at once I nearly gave myself an aneurysm trying to keep up with them. Of the lesser-known artists, I would say that the film is very clearly stolen by Gethard, whose Bill is dealing with an ailing father and the fear that he is, in fact, a loser. He gets the film’s greatest line, which also cuts to the heart of the film’s themes: “I feel like your twenties are all about hope, and your thirties are all about how dumb it was to hope.” It’s a sentiment that I’m sure most people can relate to, but it is especially prescient to anyone in the creative community, who spends their twenties desperate to achieve something that has a 1% success rate. I’m well aware that I’m a decent writer, but I think something along these lines at least ten times a day.
However, the cast works at its best when they’re all together, just as any good improv team should, giving a sense of realness to the final product. It didn’t dawn on me until hours after seeing this film how difficult it really is to film a scene where actors are pretending to improvise (or maybe are improvising, I really couldn’t tell, to the movie’s benefit) that actually feels like improv. All six of them are outstandingly funny, with the exception of Sagher, an intentional choice on the actress and writer’s part, in order to demonstrate that anxiety when someone you know (or think you know) isn’t as talented as you gets jobs and gigs that should be outside their reach. It’s brilliant and infuriating, and it was a moment I know I for one related to watching the film. Birbiglia deploys each actor at just the correct time, so right as your thinking to yourself “You know, Kate Miccuci hasn’t done anything in a while, they’re wasting her in this role,” she’ll appear in a strong emotional scene. This is a director who understands actors, and it shows in the film.
So that’s my take on the film. For only his second time writing and directing, Birbiglia has made a deceivingly simple film, and while it gets a bit clunky at times, and gets a little distracted from what it wants its message to be, what he does have in place is artfully told and executed perfectly by a stellar cast. I mean, come on. If a film can manage to make me empathize with, understand, relate to and actually enjoy the art of improv, it must be doing something right.
*This is a question I kinda want to study in an essay of its own. My short answer is that obviously we romanticize Saturday Night Live. I mean, even in the “glory days,” how many OTHER sketches do you remember from the episode where Buckwheat sings, or Chris Farley first played Matt Foley? That being said, the fact they still put out funny material once a week is an incredible feat, and one that I consider to be a peak in creativity and talent.