Don’t Think Twice (which has nothing to do with Bob Dylan) is such a cathartic tear-jerker it even got to its own director. A few people sitting near Mike Birbiglia for the SXSW premiere reported that the comedian and second-time film director had a noticeably shiny face during the climactic scene, an emotional moment between two characters played by Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs. Normally a scene like this might seem phony, or out of touch — get a hold of yourself, man, it’s just a movie! one you’ve probably seen 30 times, no less! — but in this case, Birbiglia’s reaction seemed not only earned, but reassuring. At least I wasn’t the only one feeling like I’d been punched in the stomach.
I knocked Keanu for not getting personal enough, but the other movie starring Key playing at SXSW is the flip side of that, a comedy so real you occasionally yearn for fakery. Birbiglia’s follow-up to 2012’s Sleepwalk With Me follows an improv troupe — wait, where are you going, come back and read the rest of this review I worked really hard on it! — trying to deal with the stresses of success, failure, jealousy, relationships, trying to get on SNL, and aging. I can understand being resistant to seeing it after reading that, but it’s not a “sad clown” movie, and thank God. Dear comedian, no one wants to go inside your process, or hear what deep thoughts and childhood turmoil those dick jokes are disguising, I promise. No, Don’t Think Twice is just a straightforward depiction of a certain kind of lifestyle, as told by someone who understands it. Trying to make jokes for a living? It’s a bitch, man. As Birbiglia explained during the post-screening Q & A, art is socialism, life is capitalism. That’s the central conflict of Don’t Think Twice.
Birbiglia cast his real improv pal Chris Gethard alongside himself, Key, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, and Gillian Jacobs as members of an improv group who basically are to Don’t Think Twice what The Wonders were to That Thing You Do! The cast runs the gamut from primarily comedian/improvisers like Gethard and Birbiglia to non-comedian actors like Micucci and Jacobs. (Sagher, meanwhile, is not only a big deal in improv but also wrote the “3 Buttholes” episode of Inside Amy Schumer, fun fact.) You’d never suspect their disparate backgrounds in the final product, though, an ensemble symphony without a sour note. It feels like this cast’s been working together for years. They do fake improv scenes that are not only funny, but feel improvised, the acting/directing degree of difficulty of which must be on par with juggling salamanders.
Anyway, live improv is thrilling and cathartic and fun (or so the movie would have us believe, I have no experience with it myself), but live comedy can be a tough sell (something I do have some experience with). The characters all represent certain “types” you meet in the improv world — Gethard’s character the depressive-ish nerd, Micucci’s a neurotic brainy cartoonist prodigy, Sagher’s a moneyed comedy lover pursuing the improv life on her parents’ dime, Birbiglia the 36-year-old almost-was who’s still living like a college kid and hoping for another shot so he can graduate to full adulthood and stop feeling like a loser.
Without getting too personal… yeah, it hit close to home. But as much as I saw a lot of myself and my friends in there, I don’t think you necessarily need to have told dick jokes into a microphone to enjoy it. It applies to anyone who’s forgoing immediate financial security in order to pursue something that may not ever pay off. And that’s because Mike Birbiglia is, quite simply, an infuriatingly good storyteller.
I avoided checking out his comedy for years, for the simple fact that I’d hear about him on This American Life. I love comedy, and I love Ira Glass and NPR, but I was always resistant to NPR-approved comedy. NPR is great, but it’s just so damned mannered. Ira Glass runs probably my favorite radio show, but the guy can hardly make a joke without apologizing afterwards. I don’t think comedy should be mannered, or be approved as culturally significant. There is no high comedy or low comedy to me, only funny comedy and not-funny comedy. So there was a lot of natural resistance to overcome before discovering that Birbiglia is, without a doubt, one of the best in the game. He tells long, interesting, personal stories, peppering punchlines throughout, while making insightful cultural observations and barely swearing. Now that I think about it, I really hate that motherf*cker. (As Birbiglia told the audience after the screening, he remembered one thing his wife told him after an improv show: “Your improv friends are so nice to each other, and your comedy friends are so mean to each other.”)
Don’t Think Twice probably isn’t Inside Llewyn Davis’ equal as a piece of cinema — there’s no magic cat, for one thing — but it rivals Davis for accuracy in its depiction of the life of a performing artist. It depicts comedy folks mining their personal and professional frustrations for laughs, without getting cheesy or schmaltzy, and with jokes that are actually funny. Do you know how hard that is? It’s really f*cking hard.
Don’t Think Twice is currently seeking distribution, and I hope it gets it, because it deserves to be seen outside the NPR crowd.