Don't Think Twice
Improv comedy. There's a theater and groups in every city. Most of our favorite actors credit getting their start to Groundlings or Second City. There's a whole generation that grew up near-religiously watching Who's Line Is It Anyway? before packing up for school and now it's back on the air. But what is it really like? We all know it exists but don't know much about the lifestyle, rules and individuals behind the entertainment. We come for the laughs, shout out suggestions to influence the direction of the show that will never be repeated or recreated again. It was after one of his shows at Upright Citizens Brigade in NYC that Mike Birbiglia's wife made a comment to him, "Everyone onstage is equally brilliant, but somehow that person is a movie star and that person is on SNL and that guy lives on an air mattress in Queens.” She made an observation and he saw a film.
Don't Think Twice centers on an improv group in New York City called The Commune. They're six best friends who have spent the better part of a decade performing together on stage, sitting together post-show at their usual table at the local bar, and watching movies together at their homes. They have shit jobs but they're able to do something that they love. More than anything, they're a kooky, weird family who are set in their routine. Life turns upside-down when their theater gets put up for sale. TV producers for an SNL-type show come to one of the final performances. They put all their effort into preparing, in hopes they'll consider acquiring the group. The producers only ask two of them to audition, putting a rift through the group. As they see what they've come to know as their identity fall apart as relationships split, they're faced with confronting the reality that they won't all make it. And where do they go from there?
Keegan-Michael Key plays Jack, clearly the most ambitious and boisterous of the group. Like much of the cast, he's lived that reality firsthand. "This is the meditation, the exercise of the movie, and that is: what does ‘make it’ mean? Because if I had gone two more years at the second city in Detroit, and then decided that I wanted to teach at the University of Detroit for the rest of my life, and I wrote some papers and was satisfied with them, then that would have been my life. I would have been perfectly satisfied. What does success mean to you? What is your brass ring? Is raising children who become amazing members of society, is that your brass ring? Great! If being the best manager–and this is not being facetious, this is not making a joke–if being the best manager at McDonald’s is your brass ring, you’re allowed to let [that] be your brass ring. Somebody else who says, ‘Well, why would you want to do that?’ That’s their story. Let them have their story."
His story with castmate Tami Sagher precedes their work on the film. They were both part of the improv world. "She’s actually one of my improv heroes," he gushes on his co-star who plays Lindsay, an out-of-work trustfunder. When he heard she was coming to Detroit to do an improv set with him, he argued he was just as excited as when he first heard Key & Peele got picked up. "You’re at a different time in your life," he explained. "You’re at a time in your life where there’s nothing but burgeoning hope. We all think your hero is supposed to be Marlon Brando, your hero’s supposed to be Robert Deniro, and they were my heroes. But when I started improvising, these people became my heroes, so to be able to work with them was and amazing experience."
Prior to filming, the core six of the cast spent two and a half weeks improvising with each other. While most of the improv scenes in the film itself were scripted since many of the key components of the film were built into the acts, they did have some room for creativity. Most importantly, they added a seventh member into the group when they proceeded to filming. "The bigger challenge is when there is a camera running around that gets right in front of your face in the middle of you acting a scene that you’re improvising. So there’s a steady cam roaming around because we wanted to have this seventh member of the group on the stage with us to give you guys a sense of what it actually feels like to be improvising on stage with other people.”
As for his advice for others, in the improv world and out? "I would tell anybody first: get with a group, be with a group, because we’re humans and we’re such social creatures that we need each other. Adopt yourself into a group and have a community. Then, really take the time to figure out in your mind, ‘What does it mean to be fulfilled?’ And then maybe you’ll tell yourself a new story. If you know what you want to be fulfilled in your heart, then you don’t have to achieve a certain thing. If you act, you’re an actor. You don’t have to make money. If you write, you’re a writer. If you dance, you’re a dancer. I believe that to be true. So pursue the dream, but be ever curious that there might be other dreams that fulfill you beyond your wildest imaginings."
The film opened at SXSW and then was taken on a nationwide tour by writer/director/actor/comedian Mike Birbiglia. "I’m going to 30 cities myself because I care about the movie and I care about movies like this," he shared over a wine tasting at a small Melrose cafe. "I felt like I had to tell this story because no one ever makes a movie about how life isn’t fair." He credits his sensibility to not exactly being modern. “I feel like I’m an anachronistic filmmaker in the sense that I like films from the 70's and 80's, like Broadcast News and Hannah and Her Sisters and The Big Chill. There used to be films that would make you feel and make you laugh. At some point, the studios realized that those movies weren’t gonna make ten times their money, or they weren’t a sure thing because they weren’t based on Transformers toys. Because I love those movies, I wanna make those movies."
Making the movies is hard, but being part of the cast while doing so is even worse. Fortunately, Birbiglia surrounded himself by others who looked out for him. “It’s challenging, it’s time consuming, it’s all engulfing," he admitted. "When you have a vision for something, and it’s a really clear vision, the whole crew and cast, if you let them in on that vision, they all want to contribute to that. So everyone is looking out for everyone. I feel like, if my cinematographer or my first AD or this person or that person didn’t feel like we had with one of my takes, then would come over and say, 'I think we should do another one,' and I would know what that means."