Mike Birbiglia, Keegan-Michael Key, and Gillian Jacobs Explore NYC’s Improv Comedy Scene in ‘Don’t Think Twice’

AUSTIN, TX: There are three rules to improv comedy, we’re told in the pre-title sequence of Mike Birbiglia’s new comedy/drama Don’t Think Twice. They are, simply: Say yes, it’s all about the group, and don’t think. The third one provided the title to his story of the last days of a New York improv troupe; the second provided the inspiration for the story.

“The seed of the idea came from my wife Jen,” Birbiglia said at the Q&A following the film’s world premiere at SXSW Sunday. “She and I were at the [Upright Citizens Brigade’s annual] Del Close Marathon. And she had this observation after one of our shows, she said, ‘It’s so interesting, because your comedian friends are so mean to each other. And your improv friends are so nice to each other.’ And in stand-up, there’s such a hierarchy. It’s like, ‘You’re the opening act, you’re the middle act, you’re the headliner.’ And in improv, you’re all equal, and it’s so different. And I was like, ‘That’s a movie.'”

It only make sense that he should explore that branch of his comic life; his debut feature, Sleepwalk With Me, was (among other things) about the life of a stand-up comic. Don’t Think Twice isn’t quite as great as that film; there are more people, but it somehow seems smaller, particularly in the area of stakes. Yet it’s still a wonderful work, funny and warm, and wise to the ways of creative types. At its center is The Commune, a long-running and longform improv troupe founded by Miles (Mike Birbiglia). They’re legends on the local scene, but that only goes so far; they’re about to lose their space, and they’ve watched friends and earlier members go on to real (read: financial) success.

Kate Micucci, Gillian Jacobs, and Keegan-Michael Key at the SXSW premiere of "Don't Think Twice." (Jason Bailey / Flavorwire)
Kate Micucci, Gillian Jacobs, and Keegan-Michael Key at the SXSW premiere of “Don’t Think Twice.” (Jason Bailey / Flavorwire)

Much of that success comes on Weekend Live, Birbiglia’s barely fictionalized version of Saturday Night Live. One night, producers from Live show up to see The Commune, and everyone’s trying to shine – which isn’t how their thing is supposed to work. Soon enough, two of them get tapped to audition for the late-night juggernaut, and the successes and failures, professional and personal tensions, and jabs and jealousies that follow create the conflicts Birbiglia’s script explores.

Some of these beats are familiar, sure, but the film is grounded in genuine authenticity; Birbiglia knows this world, of people who work shitty day jobs and share tiny apartments and can barely even pay that partial rent, and yet it’s all worth it because they can get on a stage every night and make strangers laugh. That’s the trade-off, and it’s one the filmmaker was acutely aware of; after his wife planted the seed for the movie, he said, he wrote down a phrase to guide the script: “’Art is socialism and life is capitalism.’ And I put it on my wall, and it was the tenet of the film.”

He assembles an impressive array of comic actors to play The Commune (Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci, and Tami Sagher), and their scenes of on- and off-stage improvisations — some scripted, some actually improvised — are uproarious. But there’s also plenty happening under their chuckle-chortle surface: the question of what’s off-limits (nothing, apparently), the specter of competitiveness, the draw of celebrity, and the question of what to do when success eludes you. When do you stop dreaming and get real? When do you throw in the towel? “Your 20s are all about hope,” one of them says, “and your 30s are about realizing how dumb you were to hope.”

Mike Birbiglia, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, Chris Gethard, Gillian Jacobs, and Maggie Kemper at the SXSW premiere of "Don't Think Twice." (Jason Bailey / Flavorwire)
Mike Birbiglia, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, Chris Gethard, Gillian Jacobs, and Maggie Kemper at the SXSW premiere of “Don’t Think Twice.” (Jason Bailey / Flavorwire)

Some of those conflicts are predictable and/or pat, and the drippy score underscores that we’ve seen a few of these scenes before. But even the sketchier scenes get a boost from the terrific cast. Birbiglia is playing a far less likable character than we’re used to, a bitter semi-burnout who keeps sleeping with his improv students to distract himself from the fact that he’s not going anywhere. Key is spot-on as the kind of uber-talent who can’t help but steal the spotlight, and maybe isn’t trying that hard not to. Jacobs has perhaps the most difficult role, as the onetime fan of the group who now finds herself paralyzed in it by her own fears and insecurities. Gethard, Micucci, and Sagher’s roles are smaller, but juicy; each gets at least one moment to shine, and each steps up nicely.

The cast members seem to have the same affection for each other that the characters do, and that feeling permeates the film – and its premiere. “What’s really been cool and emotional about the movie for me,” Birbirglia said, “is there’s this Del Close phrase that improv is something that’s never happened before and will never happen again. And that’s what making the movie was, as well. We all became best friends for this couple of months, and it’s never gonna be like that again, and so it is a pretty emotional thing.”

Don’t Think Twice screens this week at SXSW. It will screen at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and is tentatively set for release this summer. Read my report from the film’s set here.