Though his new film, Don't Think Twice, focuses on the struggles of the members of an improv comedy troupe, Mike Birbiglia is better known for his solo storytelling hybrid of stand-up comedy and theater than his group work. A frequent guest on NPR's This American Life, Birbiglia's stories are always biographical, whether they're about a mouse infected with toxoplasmosis or his own severe sleepwalking issues (the basis for his first film, Sleepwalk With Me). Don't Think Twice is something of a departure, as it doesn't depict real-life events, but does draw considerably from Birbiglia's experiences with improv.
Birbiglia's character in the film, Miles, is the 36-year-old founder of a New York City improv troupe called the Commune. Though their shows are well-attended, the troupe runs into trouble when the theater that hosts them is sold and two of their members, Jack and Samantha (played brilliantly by Key and Peele's Keegan-Michael Key and Community's Gillian Jacobs), get auditions for Weekend Live, a litigation-free stand-in for Saturday Night Live. When Jack gets a spot on the show but Samantha doesn't, it creates a rift in their personal relationship and the tenuous dynamic of the troupe at large that is difficult to surmount. Boasting a cast that also includes Kate Micucci (Garfunkel and Oates), Chris Gethard (The Chris Gethard Show) and Tami Sagher (Inside Amy Schumer), the film is a bitingly funny meditation on an unfunny topic: failure.
Even though the Commune is good at what they do, the individual members are often chasing dreams that they have no chance of bringing to fruition. For Birbiglia, this was a chance to explore ideas of success and how our concept of it changes in the face of failure. "I think we all think in terms of success as this one thing. And in my 20s, I thought that that was the case, like I wanted to write for Conan or SNL or The Daily Show. And then at a certain point, you realize that no, that's success for someone, but it might not be for me. It might not be my path," says Birbiglia in a phone interview.
The concept of success for comedians has changed over the past few years as the tools available to aspiring performers have changed. While the "formula" for young comedians used to involve getting as much stage time as possible, or joining an improv troupe to work on writing, the advent of social media has supplanted the traditional path. Young comedians now see Twitter as a viable venue in which to work on their material, and some comedy clubs even factor in a comic's follower-to-followed ratio when deciding who to book. When a Weekend Live star tells Keegan-Michael Key's character, "I hate Twitter. My publicist makes me do it," he is taken aback since this goes against his idea of how to make it. "But that's part of it ... right?" he responds.
Birbiglia has taken note of the focus of performers on their social presence or branding when asking him for advice on how to be a successful comic. "I had a run-in in Orlando that was really funny, actually," says Birbiglia. "It was the single most absurd inquiry for advice being a comedian that I've ever received from another comedian. He said, 'I haven't gotten on stage yet, but I do have a logo.'"
The focus on personal branding for a younger generation of performers may have something to do with the fact that ease of entry has created a glut of young performers who have to work harder in order to stand out among their peers. "Comedy is just more popular now," he says. "I do think it's almost too popular right now, where people think it's a viable option for success. I think that's a little bit misleading. It seems like there's this ubiquitousness of comedy success, but actually there's a lot more failure than there is success, and that's sort of what the movie's about."
Don't Think Twice is a movie rooted in ideas of failure and success, both personally and professionally, but manages to overcome the heavy topic with honest humor and sympathy for its subjects. It's a rare comedy that also gives the audience something important to think about, which Birbiglia succinctly describes: "What do you do when you're failing at something you care about and really want to do? I felt like that was an idea worth exploring in a movie, because I feel like it's a more common experience than success."
4 out of 5 stars
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