It’s a case of #improveverywhere this year at South by Southwest. Not only is Thank You, Del Close screening, but UCB is doing live shows: last night, Anthony Atamanuik dropped into one of them and just destroyed with his scarily spot-on impression of Donald Trump going after America’s new foe, Italian ISIS (say it out loud and you’ll get it). In addition to all that, Mike Birbiglia world-premiered his new dramedy about a UCB-esque New York City improv troupe on Sunday.
From the moment it kicks off with words of wisdom from Del Close, Don’t Think Twice (coming to theaters this summer) is essentially a love letter to improvised comedy. Birbiglia, taking a break from his one-man show at the Lynn Redgrave Theater, told everyone who stayed for the q&a at the Paramount Theatre in Austin that he was “obsessed with improv and how the principles of improv apply to life.” And that’s exactly what this film is about.
The Commune is a troupe akin to the one Birbiglia leads in New York (regulars of Mike Birbiglia’s Dream, Tami Saghe and Chris Gethard, are also in The Commune), except they have their own theater rather than being a recurring act at UCB. Problem is, they’re losing their lease (this is New York, after all) and rifts are starting to form within the close-knit group: Jack (Keegan Michael-Key) just landed the dream gig at Weekend Live. His friends—one of whom (Birbiglia) is a Marc Maron type who’s obsessed with the idea that he once almost got onto the show— are jockeying to become writers at the spot-on Saturday Night Live spoof. Meanwhile Jack’s girlfriend, who was supposed to have landed the gig with him, is coming to realize that it goes against everything she loves about comedy.
The set-up speaks to something Birbiglia’s wife noted about the collaborative nature of improv: “She pointed out that on stage you guys are all equals,” Birbiglia said. “And off stage, this person shares a one-bedroom with five dudes in Bushwick and this person is a sitcom star and is a millionaire.”
To that end, members of the Commune vary from Birbiglia’s character, who in his mid-30s is still sleeping in a cubbyhole in, yes, what appears to be Bushwick, to Lindsay, who is a target of hidden resentment because she comes from money. And then, of course, there’s Jack, who is suddenly hanging with celebs like Ben Stiller and Lena Dunham (both make cameos), riding a fancy wooden bike given to him by the Lorne Michaels-esque overlord of the show, and skipping out on the troupe’s performances because things are just so crazy for him right now. (Speaking of overlords, Birbiglia’s overlord at This American Life, Ira Glass, is a producer of the film.)
While his Commune comrades are initially jealous of him, it soon becomes obvious that the Weekend Live gig comes with its downsides, not the least of which is the threat of getting canned by his impenetrable, intimidating boss.
Birbiglia said he admired the “sports of comedy aspect” of SNL’s live shoots, but he has never tried to get on the show (aside form the time, at the age of 24, he submitted writing via “an agent that I don’t think could get it to anyone”). But the experience hit home for Gethard, whose character fatefully misses his only chance to audition for Weekend Live when his father gets into a car accident. “I was rejected [by SNL] many times,” Gethard confessed during the q&a.
Gethard was a guest writer for the show in 2007, but wasn’t asked to do anything beyond a two-week stint. “Later a friend of mine was hired as an actor on SNL,” he recalled, “And said to me, ‘It really was so close, for so long, and there were moments where I thought if I don’t get this I’m going to kill myself.’ And I said, 18 months ago that happened to me.”
The moment ended up showing up in the film. “It was nice to see that get a laugh in 2016 when in 2007 it was the darkest aspect of my world,” Gethard said.
Improv tends to be love it or hate it, and if you’re the type who thinks watching improv is like babysitting five crackheads for an hour, you’ll want to think twice about seeing Don’t Think Twice. It contains a fair amount of actual improvisation— in fact, the actors had to take a two-week workshop with improv guru Liz Allen before shooting, partly because Gillian Jacobs and Kate Micucci had never done it before (they were “really scared,” according to Jacobs). But even if you tend to gravitate toward the Comedy Cellar instead of UCB East, you’ll have to admit the improv scenes are nicely shot. Apparently that’s thanks to budding director Greta Gerwig, who isn’t in the film but helped Birbiglia with readings at his Brooklyn home and gave him a key piece of advice: “I would spend a long time thinking about how to shoot the improv.”
In other words, do think twice?