Mike Birbiglia’s Modern-Day Romances
How does category affect film?
I was roped into a sneak preview of Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice (2016) because NPR’s Ira Glass was speaking after the film. As people made their way into Chicago’s Music Box Theater, my friend and I listened to an older gentleman play a vaudeville melody. Across the theater, a dog barked. The show had begun.
Glass, who produced the film, charmed the audience with a vivacious Q&A afterwards. Most questions seemed to skirt around the question of category:
Were the actors improvisers?
Was the movie unscripted?
Was the film a comedy?
That last question was mine, but I didn’t raise my hand.
The questions suggested filmgoers are eager to label their experiences. To placate this ingrained desire, let’s consider Mike Birbiglia’s films as modern-day Romances.
Scholars label Shakespeare’s last four plays — Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest — Romances. This category does not describe the romantic relationships within the plays themselves. Rather, it describes a combination of tragic and comedic elements present in the plays.
According to Jacobean playwright John Fletcher (1579–1625), a Romance “wants deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy.”
More clearly perhaps, professor Russ McDonald describes the Romance: the “comic shape of the action is darkly colored by tragic concerns and perceptions.” For example, McDonald continues, “the marriage or reunion that ends the play is preceded in the middle by some form of catastrophe, either death or some similarly grave loss.”
Yes, the importance of this category hinges on tragedy.
Birbiglia’s films tackle some of the universal concerns of Shakespearean Romances: comedy, tragedy, bypassing individuality, making an argument about humanity. If not for the excellent writing, we might feel bored from the mundane plot-lines. Instead, the film captivates us. We know someone who has been through something similar, and we yearn to understand her story.
The first sequence of Don’t Think Twice presents a narration of the shared rules of improv. Here’s a story about being funny, the film tells us, and we expect a comedic film. But it is also a story about humans, and humans can be sad, disappointed, disjointed, and vulnerable.
Don’t Think Twice centers around an improv team called The Commune. Some of the actors in the main cast are talented and successful improvisers in real life: Mike Birbiglia (Miles), Keegan-Michael Key (Jack), Tami Sagher (Lindsay), Chris Gethard (Bill).
Two actors, Gillian Jacobs (Samantha) and Kate Micucci (Allison), had never tried improv before, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the film. Even their fellow actors, Ira Glass confessed, were surprised at how apt Jacobs and Micucci became during the filming process.
Most of the comedic elements in the film emerge from the actors’ innate sense of humor. In a scene with Ben Stiller (who plays a version of himself), the cast asks Stiller about his life. Glass told us the scene was almost completely unscripted and that the cast, who did not know Stiller, questioned him for seven minutes. This unscripted approach drives the comedic force forward and keeps the audience delighted.
Don’t Think Twice also contains elements of tragedy, pain, and suffering. Bill’s father gets into a motorcycle accident and dies toward the end of the film. Along with this individual tragedy, we witness the looming force of failure and its effect on the main characters. Even Jack, who is able to score a job with Weekend Live (an SNL parody), suffers from the pressures of success.
The characters are in their 30s, wondering if they’re too old to make it and reach their goals. The film also leaves the audience pondering — should I quit pursuing my dreams?
Luckily, humor soothes the tragic elements. After his motorcycle accident, Bill’s father says the only two words he could muster to his son: thank you. On the way back to the city, Bill’s friends imitate his father, repeating thank you.
As I’m writing this, it sounds like bullying, almost perverse. But Birbiglia is a master at combining humor and heart. He makes sure we understand the dynamics of the group. They laugh, and they do so to make Bill laugh because they believe laughing is the cure to any suffering. Laughter is a recurring deus ex machina, the solution that alleviates pain (if only for a moment).
In the end, Don’t Think Twice is about successes and failures and how to cope with our own inadequacies.
Ira Glass shared Judd Apatow’s story as an example. Apatow and Adam Sandler were both friends and struggling comics. Sandler auditioned for SNL and got the part. Shortly after, Apatow stopped doing stand-up and dedicated himself to writing and directing. Some dreams don’t come true, and that’s alright.
Birbiglia’s previous film Sleepwalk With Me (2012) shares similar concerns. Matt (Mike Birbiglia) is a struggling comic in a great relationship, but he fears his relationship is the best aspect of his life. The film documents his discovery of his true passion — autobiographic stand-up comedy. In the pursuit of this dream, his relationship suffers. Yet unlike in mainstream comedies, there is no fix. When a relationship doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. It’s refreshing to see such honesty.
Again, despite ending with joy, Romances tend to end with a hidden layer of sorrow. Sleepwalk With Me ends with Matt sacrificing a meaningful relationship to find himself.
Similarly, Don’t Think Twice doesn’t let us forget the pain the characters have gone through. The last sequence shows the characters hugging in their funeral attire. Birbiglia shows us their faces, his included. They feel joy because there is a second chance at success. At the same time, all good moments come with their negative counterparts. Every gain comes with a loss.
Part of why I felt conflicted on my way out of the theater is due to our current categorical conventions. Don’t Think Twice is marketed as a comedy. The trailer contains no mention of Bill’s father’s death and no mention of most of the characters’ failures. Of course, to sell a movie, it must be heavily categorized and labeled. Those who advertise films want us to believe films are no longer able to transcend genre.
Watching the trailer after having seen the film is bizarre:
But categorizations are helpful, both for creators and audiences. Categorizations allow us to compare Shakespeare and Birbiglia, for instance. They provide context for us to analyze film. Without categories, however limiting they may be, we would have no grounding to discuss the subjectivities of art. But they should not affect how we conceive of an experience.
Ira Glass urged us to share our thoughts about the film with others. Word of mouth, he said, was the best marketing tool for independent films. And that’s how I like to think of films such as Birbiglia’s — independent. Independent of easily digestible labels. Independent of a fabricated representation of reality. Birbiglia acknowledges the evil surrounding our experiences and colors the suffering with joy.
I didn’t raise my hand and ask if the film was a comedy because I knew what Glass would say. If it’s good, who cares?