Thinking About “Don’t Think Twice”
I luckily saw a preview screening of Mike Birbiglia’s improv love letter “Don’t Think Twice” recently, including a Q&A with Mike afterward moderated by my friend (and local improv magnate) Scott Meyer. The movie stripped my skin off and threw my thoughts in my face. In a good way! This is the first time anyone’s made a movie exactly about my life, which examines exactly all my current hopes & fears and anxieties & joys that I have for myself and for my own improv troupe, Narcissists Anonymous.
There are spoilers ahead, but, if you’re an improvisor, your life already spoils a lot of the movie! So, I wouldn’t worry about it too much.
The movie centers around the relationships of a fictional improv team called “The Commune,” made up of nonfictional improvisors who performed together as a metafictional team in order to prep for the movie. They are:
Birbiglia/Miles: elder veteran improvisor, teaching improv, bitter about his former students “exceeding” him.
Key/Jack: young & hungry, sometimes to the point of selfishness. Gets on Not-SNL.
Jacobs/Samantha: dates Jack, thinks she wants what Jack wants, eventually figures out what she actually wants.
Sagher/Lindsay: no day job, seems to just be toking & coasting, but gets a writing job at Not-SNL.
Gethard/Bill: sad sack, super nice, suffers the major tragedy of the film. I.e., the puppy gets kicked.
As was pointed out during the Q&A, that pre-shoot improv work is a major part of what makes the movie work so well. They have real group mind; i.e., an authentic group connection & dynamic that you can only really portray by living it. I imagine it was like the production of “Platoon,” except, you know, fun! And, in stark contrast to the current controversy in the Chicago non-union theatre scene, it’s an excellent example of realism that enhances the quality of a work of art. Without that genuine group dynamic, the whole movie would fall flat, because they wouldn’t feel like a genuine improv team. It’s hard to fake warmups and bits! I know, because I’ve tried to fake being into a warmup before. It doesn’t work well. Zop.
That same level of authenticity pervades the movie. It really is a striking depiction of modern long-form improvisor life, full of truths, and references, and shotouts. You can tell that it was made with love by people who have lived the life. Prime example: they do bits, inappropriate and insensitive bits, throughout the movie, and they show how improvisors frequently use bits to both avoid & process difficult emotions (“Thank youuuu”). Bill’s line “Guys, no bits, this is real” is one that most of us have probably had to actually say—and one that improv spouses probably have to say every ten minutes. Here’s an incomplete list of fantastic details:
Older teacher banging Improv 101 students, nonsense preshow rituals, cluttered weird “green room,” the theatre is run by Not-Charna, bits, goofy black-and-white house team photos, Not-Charna has insiders at Not-SNL, Zip Zap Zop!, aggressively awkward convo with a celebrity, awful Improv 101 scenework, bits, show in a wildly overpriced venue that an improv team couldn’t possibly fill at a profit, backs being got, suggestion hecklers, BITS
To be more technical for a moment, the movie also showcases wonderfully economical filmic storytelling. For the characters who have them, we only briefly see their dismal day jobs. It’s a sequence that’s just long enough to give a sense that they’re dismal, and for a couple of solid gags. We also see just a few lines of the awful 101 students (it’s hilariously bad, and I won’t spoil it), but just that little taste skillfully communicates immediately the gulf between experienced stars like “The Commune" and people who are just beginning their improv journey. The movie wastes neither time nor visual space.
One last bit of technical praise: this movie shot improv more interestingly & energetically than any improv I’ve ever seen on screen! It ought to be the new standard for portraying improv in visual media. OK, enough technical shit! Let’s get back to some FEELINGS.
The arguments and discussions the group has were uncomfortably familiar. I don’t think I’m in danger of Lorne (aside: the Not-Lorne in the film felt a little unfairly villainous) plucking me out of obscurity anytime soon, but even down here at my level, ambition & success are constant topics of conversation. There is much talk of what it means to “make it.” I hope I’ve never steamrolled a scene just to show off an impression, which Jack uncomfortably does twice (I think I groaned out loud the first time), but I do want what he wants, and what Miles thinks Miles wants.
Only a couple of weeks ago, I took a last-second Megabus to LA just for a million-to-one shot at doing comedy for a living, and nobody else in my troupe went with me. If I had gotten the gig (please feel free to tweet me your condolences), I would have had to abandon them, and live in Europe for at least two years. They knew, and we talked about it, but, boy, it was heavy realizing that, actually, we might not get to “make it” as a whole squad. There might be other things that draw some of us away, and others might put down roots that change their priorities, which is what “The Commune” also goes through. Up-and-coming Jack & bitter never-was Miles, two sides of the same ambitious coin, felt like a scary, scary mirror for me.
But, the movie shows us the characters crafting, consciously and unconsciously, many definitions of “making it.” I liked that perhaps most of all. I’ve seen people who mistakenly think their careers are wrecked because they didn’t get what someone else told them they should want. I know more than one Miles. And I don’t wanna be him! But, my troupe has had lots of conversations about moving, about what to do next, about where are we going and what do we want and WHO ARE WE IF WE AREN’T THIS TROUPE????? Which, is a question that Bill asks nearly word-for-word, in a moment of despair. It’s scary, to think you know what you want and to work toward it. The movie explores that fear honestly; Bill really voices a lot of too-close-to-home angst. I’m uncomfortable just remembering it.
For the final “The Commune" show, the last show before the theater shuts down to become an Urban Outfitters (Not-Charna rightly points out that charging just $5 for shows is a tough business model), Samantha is all alone. The group has exploded in drama after Jack desperately steals an improv scene for a Not-SNL sketch and Lindsay gets a job writing there, despite not being a struggling artist like the others. Samantha’s solo improv set is a beautiful tearful statement on realizing what you really want. Jacobs plays it beautifully, and then Key gets a chance to show off his pathos chops as he rushes the stage in to “save” her and the scene, before realizing that he’s not needed by either. Whether you’re an improvisor or a poet, the clear and wise message is: you can’t let other people decide your success for you, or you’ll just wind up unhappy & unfulfilled.
In the end, Miles gives up comedy to raise a Brazilian man’s baby. Jack and Lindsay stay at not-SNL. Allison finishes her graphic novel, and joins Bill & Samantha in opening up their own improv theater, excited to pass on the improv love to a new improv family. And, for all of them, it’s a happy, if bittersweet, ending: finally, they’ve all found their own specific meanings of “success.” I want that ending for all my arts friends! How wonderful would it be if all of us could figure out our version of success, and achieve it?
If you have an improv person in your life, and you want to understand them better, see this movie. If you’re an improv person, you’re morally obligated to see this movie. Really, everyone should see it, because it’s a well-crafted and entertaining movie, but anyone in improv or the arts generally will enjoy it on a very special extra level. And go home with plenty to think about.