“Don’t Think Twice,” Mike Birbiglia’s ensemble comedy about an improv troupe in New York struggling as some members of the troupe become more successful than others, is driven by a concept, which Birbiglia articulated on the podcast, “You Made It Weird.” He said, “Art is socialism, but life is capitalism.”
Birbiglia’s film authentically explores what it is like for artists to come up against capitalism or life. All artists face the choice to hold on to aspirations or possibly put those aspirations forever on hold to make ends meet.
I have taken improv classes at Second City and iO Theater in Chicago for the past two years. I also have performed in a few improv shows and sketch shows that were part of the annual Chicago Sketchfest. Like others with lived experiences in improv, many of the moments in the film carry a stark realness.
The troupe in the film is called The Commune and consists of Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), Alison (Kate Micucci), Lindsay (Tami Sagher), Chris Gethard (Bill), Keegan-Michael Key (Jack), and Miles (Birbiglia). They perform at a small venue, Improv For America. They have a dedicated following of fans, but they learn it will be shutting down because of lack of funds.
One evening, before the venue has closed, talent scouts from “Weekend Live” attend a performance by the troupe. Jack makes a move on stage during the show that upsets the group. It violates core values of improv, yet it also helps him get an audition for himself and his girlfriend, Samantha.
Later, the characters realize they will probably never get auditions so they try to become writers for the show. However, the show will never hire all of them. They must compete against each other, and that also threatens to destroy what the ensemble has built together as a creative team.
Birbiglia recognizes most viewers may not be familiar with the art form of improvisation so a very brief history of improv, narrated by cast members, opens the film. The basic rules of improv are described as well: say yes and accept the reality created, make improv moves that serve the group instead of the individual, and don’t think. Being too inside one’s mind will lead to hesitation and concern about failure on stage.
Improv teaches actors it is okay to fail. One of the pioneers of improv, Del Close, who co-founded the iO Theater in Chicago, said, “Fall and then figure out what to do on the way down.” Remarkably, it is the fear of failure as a comedian or artist, which creates most of the drama in the film.
The film relies on a concept developed by Close called “truth in comedy” to communicate the honest reflections of characters and show us the fallout of success on the ensemble.
On “You Made It Weird,” hosted by Pete Holmes (who has a cameo in the film), he elaborated on the idea behind, “Art is socialism, but life is capitalism.”
“Art is done by groups, and it’s done with friends. And we’re all equal,” Birbiglia suggested. Each person in a group has the ability to achieve their dream or create that thing they want as an artist, but then capitalism enters. It is now “every man or woman for him or herself, and it’s hard.”
A finite amount of jobs exist at the end of paths already established in comedy. Each character has some level of fear or insecurity about being left behind. Not making it while others, especially friends, succeed is the source of the worst anxiety.
In many ways, the improvisers or actors, who you regularly spend time with, become family. They make you feel at home. If they move on, you think you will no longer feel at home, which makes it very easy to resent members of your ensemble, who want to pursue ambitions outside the group. It is also easy to shy away from pursuing opportunities outside the group because you don’t want to be the one who deprives your friends of feeling at home.
Birbiglia fully captures this dynamic. Each of the characters bring out the best in each other when they are together. They perform bits and make each other laugh. They stick together during tragedies and cry with each other. But they are their worst enemies when dealing with their troubles and anxieties separately.
Many ensembles want to stay together as long as possible. They struggle with the reality that what they are involved in is part of a fleeting moment.
To a certain extent, Birbiglia’s ability to richly present this reality on screen is why the independent film became a bit of a summer sensation and has screened at 150 theaters. It is why it has 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. (One grouchy Beltway film critic from the Washington Post didn’t like it. Go figure.)
The film also feels bold because Birbiglia is in a sense giving up the game. There are paths for success, and those include getting an audition for the premier sketch comedy show on television. You can spend thousands of dollars on classes, fight for auditions to get on house teams, and never get noticed by anyone. Or your ensemble can collectively forge a path and maybe even perform at a smaller theater in a smaller community that will soon appreciate you for building a culture that supports comedy. Or you can accept that you no longer share the ambitions of others in your group, and that is okay because that is what happens as life unfolds.
There is a kind of liberation in knowing that trying to become a star on a legendary television show isn’t the right path to pursue. It frees you—and probably others you collaborate with—to chart your own course and create something through commitment, creative exploration, and struggle that will likely be just as rewarding and magnificent.