It’s tempting to say that you won’t get much out of stand-up comic Mike Birbiglia’s latest film, the improv comedy scene indie Don’t Think Twice, unless you’re the kind of comedy nerd who finds yourself regularly reading Splitsider, religiously awaiting the next episode of Comedy Bang Bang, and fostering a lifelong love-hate relationship with Saturday Night Live. I do believe that’s selling the film’s merits a bit short, though, especially since it’s more of a drama than an outright comedy. It just happens to be a drama that centers on characters immersed in that comedy world nerdom, a culture Birbiglia & his stacked cast of up & coming greats (Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, etc.) seem to know intimately well. Much like how the recent Jemaine Clement comedy People Places Things structured its story around a formal, art school lesson on comics & the graphic novel as artistic mediums, Don’t Think Twice offers a history lesson & a crash course instruction on the basic tenets of improv comedy theater. Underneath that specificity of setting, though, lies a heartfelt drama about a tight knit group of friends at an insurmountable impasse. Most of the film’s actual laughs come from a truly dark, black soul sense of humor that contrasts itself sharply with its more crowd-friendly improv sketches, which, like a lot of improv, aren’t really all that funny. It’s kind of a you-had-to-be-there artform. Birbiglia knows how to make that real world melancholy clash nicely with the stage show artificiality in a way that’s both emotionally revealing & intellectually engaging. Don’t Think Twice smartly plays into the strengths of small stakes filmmaking instead of the appeal of improvisational comedy, which is an elusive spirit that evades strict documentation.
Don’t Think Twice details the lives of the fictional improv troupe The Commune as they struggle to hold themselves together in the face of two modes of impending doom: imminent financial ruin & the jealousies that arise when one of their own gets called up to “the big leagues.” The same way their comradery shifts into seething anger when one member finds mainstream success, Don’t Think Twice morphs the comedy institution Saturday Night Live into a nasty fictional surrogate named Weekend Live, a weekly ritual The Commune & other comics treat like a sports event (if you’re the kind of sports fan who mostly like to get drunk & heckle). The film does a great job of contrasting the thrill of watching the live sketch comedy show in person vs. the lifeless bitterness of watching it broadcast at home, especially if you’re resentful that someone “made it” on the cast when you feel you deserved their spot. There’s a Party Down vibe at work here where writers & comedians are stuck in the rut of working menial service industry jobs while their peers find their paths to success seemingly with ease. The Commune and its individual members aren’t able to break this bitterness cycle until they realize that there’s more than one definition of success and that a place on Weekend Live, a very limited window of opportunity, is not necessarily the thing that would make each & every one of them happy. Watching these comics deal with personal & professional jealousy is only the beginning of the journey; the rest is nested in seeing them find their own place in a broad spectrum of comedy outlets, whether that means pursuing a new medium or it means staying put in the less-than-lucrative world of improv theater.
There’s an incredible, knowledgeable attention to detail in Don’t Think Twice’s portrayal of improv comedy, both in capturing the feel of Weekend Live’s obvious source of inspiration & in its depiction of backstage ritual, but what the film nails particularly well is the specificity of its comedy scene personalities. Much like the nasty Tim Heidecker vehicle The Comedy, the film depicts the darkness & discomfort of hanging around with comedians who turn everything into “a bit” instead of dealing with their own emotions in a direct, genuine way. The difference is that Don’t Think Twice’s characters are empathetic & human in a way that makes you want to root for their success, even when they’re mocking a friend’s dying father or, worse yet, “yes-and”ing during sex. In this world characters mask their malice & aggression with an unapologetic, after-the-fact cry of “It was a bit!” There’s a lot of deconstruction of craft at work here that captures how working on an impression can look a lot like madness or how improv survives on the strength of groupthink, but comedy is mostly used as vehicle to mask pain in what’s most essentially a coming-of-middle-age drama about a once-close group of friends seemingly meeting their communal end. Don’t Think Twice is both cruelly truthful about how that dynamic can tear a group apart and hopeful about how it can pull a backs-to-the-wall community together to create exciting art. The film values genuine sincerity over “It was a bit!” sarcasm, but also recognizes why a wounded animal comedian would use that emotional distance as a protective shield. There’s a great empathy at work here for each of the film’s characters, no matter where they are spiritually or emotionally & no matter how much or how little empathy they have for each other at any given moment.
In the Apatow & McKay era of ensemble cast comedies the tendency has been to unravel the scripted work to a sprawling, improv-driven looseness. Don’t Think Twice reverse engineers that alchemy and turns an artform built on spontaneity into a tightly controlled narrative where recurring bits & motifs gain new meaning & significance each time they reappear. Mike Birbiglia accomplishes a lot here that speaks directly to my tastes: he delivers the year’s third unofficial SNL film (after Popstar & Ghosbusters); he provides space for yet another showcase of Gillian Jacobs’s immense wealth of dramatic talent; he finds new modes of promoting the value of sincerity over arm’s length sarcastic engagement, etc. I don’t think you need to be plugged into any of those niche interests or the improv comedy scene at large to enjoy what Don’t Think Twice has to offer, though. Its charms as a small stakes drama hoisted by gallows humor & a uniquely talented cast should be near universal. And if you end up not liking the film at all, it still should be fun to heckle.