Mike Birbiglia is not just the writer-director-star of the new independent dramedy Don’t Think Twice, about the sometimes not-so-happy behind-the-scenes world of an improvisational comedy troupe — he is a stand-up performer himself who has used his own experience in that world to craft a remarkably authentic film that shows there can be a dark side to those who make us laugh. As I say in my video review above, Don’t Think Twice is about funny people and their far more complex lives once they are out of the limelight. If there is any lesson to be learned from this painfully honest peek inside this universe, it is probably that comedy is serious business.
That is not to say there are no laughs here. The improv bits from this enormously talented cast of fast-on-their-feet comedians are often hilarious (where else can you see someone begged to do an impression of Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under The Influence?). But it is the bitterness, jealously and dashed dreams running underneath that make this such an eye opener for anyone who thought comics live always on the light side of life. Attempting a more sober look at comedy has been done before — notably 1988’s Punchline, but with more modest ambition — this film seems more on the money.
Set in New York City, Birbiglia’s story is about a troupe of six comedy improv performers known as the Commune. They do their nightly show at a rundown theater in Lower Manhattan and have worked as a team for some time. The camaraderie is broken when two of them get a dream opportunity to audition for a Saturday Night Live-style network show called Weekend Live. Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) and his girlfriend Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) both score the big chance, and Jack actually gets the gig. Of course he is elated, but muted reaction not only from Samantha but also his colleagues makes him feel a little guilty and uneasy about the opportunity. Every member has their own POV on this, but clearly, and particularly for Birbiglia’s character, Jack’s good fortune only underlines their own dashed hopes and dreams. Having to put on a good face is difficult when you feel like you are left behind. It is uncomfortable to watch all this at times because it seems so unflinchingly honest and the behavior is not always pretty, often drawing raw emotions. The problems for the troupe pile up when they learn they will also have to find a new venue for their show.
Navigating their way through all of this is the exceptional group of actors Birbiglia has managed to put together including the excellent Key and Jacobs but also Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard and Tami Sagher. Seth Barrish also makes the most of his brief role as the Lorne Michaels-type producer of Weekend Live, an imposing force. Despite a small budget, Birbiglia has managed to craft a handsome looking indie that may be too truthful to have wide appeal, but should be a must for anyone looking for a smart and revealing showbiz story that at its heart is wholly — and unapologetically — human. The Film Arcade opens the film Friday, fittingly, in New York followed by Los Angeles and a wider rollout as the summer continues.
Do you plan to see Don’t Think Twice? Let us know what you think.