Don't Think Twice

Got your back! Got your back!” a troupe of improv actors chant to each other as they prepare to hit the stage in Mike Birbiglia’s incisive showbiz comedy Don’t Think Twice. Birbiglia, a veteran comedy writer and performer who made his screen directing debut with the stellar rom-com Sleepwalk With Me (2012), frames his second feature as a love letter to the art of improv and its attendant values of trust, openness, and spontaneity. But Don’t Think Twice also exposes the backstage politics of improv and finds beneath the players’ camaraderie an undercurrent of jealousy, rivalry, and professional despair. It has more laughs than any big-studio comedy I’ve seen this year, but it’s dead serious about the difficulty of creating something collectively in a world where everyone’s chasing the spotlight.

The movie also delivers a wicked send-up of Saturday Night Live, portrayed by Birbiglia as the contrived product of a crushingly negative corporate culture. For years the six young players of the Commune have been building a reputation as one of the sharpest improv teams in New York City, but now their longtime venue has lost its lease, and their close friendships begin to fray after producers from the late-night warhorse Weekend Live come to the little theater to scout for fresh talent. When one of the players makes the cut, leaving his companions in the dust, Birbiglia follows him inside the organization and offers a thoughtful critique, showing how its values of ruthless competition, cold exploitation, withering sarcasm, and coveted privilege inhibit the sort of creative impulse that a good comedian needs to take chances and get laughs. Everyone rips on SNL, but Don’t Think Twice actually reveals why it’s never funny and never will be.

Birbiglia opens with a little tutorial on improv, the players supplying voice-over to black-and-white clips of the original Second City cast and enunciating three basic principles of the art. First, say yes: as Allison (Kate Micucci) explains, improv demands openness, “agreeing with the reality your partner creates and then building on that, and then building on that.” Second, it’s all about the group: for her, improv means “working together in the moment to create something that never happened before or will never happen again.” Third, don’t think: for Miles (Birbiglia), who founded the Commune and trained most of its players, improv is “all about getting out of your head. It’s about impulse.” The improv scenes in Don’t Think Twice are magical, showing how all these values combine to create a good working environment onstage; the actors, trusting each other and themselves, have arrived at a collective point of view that helps them turn random ideas into pointed satire.

All these principles require discipline, but honoring the group turns out to be the toughest, especially once the players’ professional ambitions are introduced. When the Commune’s members learn about the Weekend Live scouts, Miles warns the handsome Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) not to ruin the performance with his showboating as he does whenever important people are in the audience: “You turn into a one-man audition tape.” Jack promises to behave, but onstage he can’t help himself. An audience member gives them a wonderful story suggestion—that afternoon, she hopped into a cab only to discover that the driver was her estranged father—and the players develop it into a loopy little narrative. But when they hit a lull, Jack hijacks the performance with his Barack Obama impression, effectively wrecking the story while the others stare daggers at him. As his girlfriend, Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), later tells her improv students, the worst kind of show is one in which “you all sell each other out onstage.”

For most of these characters, Weekend Live is the holy grail—every week they gather around the TV to smoke pot and watch the show, dreaming of the day when they’ll make the big time. (Birbiglia meticulously re-creates SNL‘s hot-night-out credit sequence, with its blaring saxophone and cast members doing comic takes as their names are announced.) Miles, who blew an audition for the show a decade earlier and has since watched one former student leapfrog over him into the cast, can barely contain his bitterness. Calling it “the only live sporting event of comedy,” he interrogates the old cliche that the show isn’t as good as it used to be: “It’s the great paradox of Weekend Live—was it good ever, or did we just think that because we were 12?” Their disdain notwithstanding, almost all of them pressure Jack to get them on the show, and as the group’s last performances near, his growing status spoils the creative rapport they’ve enjoyed for so long.

Jack’s experience on Weekend Live lines up pretty closely with the professional environment at SNL as recalled in Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s oral history Live From New York. “No one takes you under their wing at Saturday Night Live,” cast member Nora Dunn says. “There are no wings.” From the beginning producer Lorne Michaels has encouraged an office in which people compete for attention and only the biggest egos survive. “You have a collection of twenty-five sort of damaged people—thirteen writers, you know, twelve performers—and they’re all trying to get on the air,” says Fred Wolf, who wrote for the show in the 1990s. “And the best way to do it is to be competitive and to work really hard and stay up all night and just make sure that you’re in the right sketches and trying to get writers to write for you or write for yourself and figure out how to suck up to the host and do whatever it takes to get on the air.” No wonder the show isn’t funny—the people who dream it up can’t trust each other.

As Jack soon learns, saying yes isn’t a core principle at Weekend Live. Timothy (Seth Barrish), the show’s legendary creator, is a cold and humorless bureaucrat, stingy with praise and mindful of status. “Don’t ever talk to Timothy about your funny friends,” one of the writers warns Jack. “First year? Just don’t get fired.” Jack launches a new character on the show, an old-time ticket taker, but no sooner has he distinguished himself than Timothy deflates him. “You’re not what we call a pure talent, you’re not a virtuoso,” the producer tells Jack. “You’re the kind of player who should write for himself.” At the same time, Jack’s fame has begun to corrupt what he had with the Commune; when he returns for one of their last shows, audience members single him out for attention, and he winds up taking over the performance with his popular character. The group has always thrived on spontaneity and discovery, but Weekend Live thrives on familiarity.

Birbiglia has written Don’t Think Twice as an ensemble piece, appropriately, and all six players must come to terms with the idea of the Commune disbanding. Most of the players have been working crappy day jobs for years, and Miles, in particular, needs to move on with his life as he nears 40. He likes to quote Del Close on spontaneity—”Fall and then figure out what to do on your way down”—and ironically, that’s exactly what he’s doing. But Samantha will never quit improv comedy; a true believer, she came to the group as a fan and remembers the day she was asked to join as “the greatest day of my life.” Don’t Think Twice ends with the kind of poignance common to backstage dramas, where time is fleeting and no show can go on forever. Like the sketches dreamed up onstage, the company itself is something that never happened before, and never will again. v

 @JR_Jones