Mike Birbiglia on ‘Don’t Think Twice,’ his funny little film about failure
A warning about Mike Birbiglia’s new movie: It’s a little stressful.
“Don’t Think Twice,” about an unsung improvisational troupe in New York, is supposed to be funny — and it is — but it’s also honest, and that can be uncomfortable.
It’s the kind of sharply observed story that Birbiglia is good at telling, as anyone knows who’s seen the Shrewsbury native do stand-up, heard him on public radio’s “This American Life,” or watched his 2012 film, “Sleepwalk With Me.” Bittersweet is kind of Birbiglia’s thing.
Most moviegoers won’t be familiar with the comedy-club milieu of “Don’t Think Twice,” which Birbiglia wrote, directed, and stars in. They’ll still recognize all of the feelings — the ambition, envy, and jealousy — that are conjured up when the troupe’s members try, and mostly fail, to find the next step leading from obscurity to success.
“Mike goes out of his way to make his stories relatable,” says “This American Life” host Ira Glass, an executive producer of “Don’t Think Twice.” “Even if he’s describing a situation you’ve never been in, he makes it easy to understand how it feels to be him.”
In the movie, which opens on Friday, Birbiglia plays the nominal leader of The Commune, a comedy collective — its members played by Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci, and Tami Sagher — that has an all-for-one, one-for-all spirit. But when Key’s character gets a coveted spot on a “Saturday Night Live”-type show, the group quickly falls apart.
“I wrote something on my bulletin board: ‘Art is socialism, but life is capitalism,’ ” says Birbiglia, who sat down to talk about “Don’t Think Twice” after a recent appearance at ImprovBoston, in Cambridge. “It’s never said in the movie because it’d be too on-the-nose, but it was a guiding principle, this idea that they can’t all make it together because the world doesn’t work like that.”
By traditional Hollywood standards, where success is measured in box-offices receipts, Birbiglia himself hasn’t made it. But he’s on his way. “Sleepwalk With Me,” which began as a one-person off-Broadway show, charmed critics and audiences with its story of a commitment-phobic comic with a debilitating sleep disorder. (Birbiglia wrote, directed, and starred in that film, which grossed a modest $2.3 million in the United States). He’s won additional fans with everyman acting roles in Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck” and Netflix hit “Orange Is the New Black.”
Birbiglia, 38, is still best known as a comedian and monologist. (In addition to appearances on “This American Life,” he’s a regular on “The Moth Radio Hour.”) He was just a kid when he resolved to make a career of comedy. His older brother Joe took him to see Steven Wright at the Cape Cod Melody Tent, and Birbiglia was more than amused. He recalls his teenage self being bowled over by Wright’s absurd observations and deadpan delivery.
“I had one of those cliché epiphany moments. I said, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’ ” Birbiglia says. “He was saying everything I was thinking, which is the illusion of stand-up comedy. You think you could’ve thought of the things Steven Wright is saying, which, of course, none of us ever could.”
Entering Georgetown, Birbiglia had hoped to join a sketch comedy group, but there wasn’t one. Instead he began doing improv, and quickly discovered he relished the high-wire aspect of unscripted, collaborative comedy. It required him to be nimble and focused. As a sophomore, Birbiglia entered the Funniest Person on Campus contest — and won. His reward was opening for Dave Chappelle at DC Improv, a comedy club in Washington. He parlayed that into a job working the door and filling in occasionally when comics didn’t show up.
“I was simultaneously developing as a stand-up comedian and an improviser, and completely ignoring school work, except for screenwriting classes,” Birgbiglia says. “I love improv. You’re flying without a net. It’s the only time I feel like I’m achieving the thing people say you get from sky-diving or skiing. You can’t think about anything else. The moment you do, you die.”
Because the improv scenes in “Don’t Think Twice” are, in fact, scripted, the challenge for Birbiglia and cinematographer Joe Anderson was to shoot The Commune’s faux performances in a way that doesn’t feel rehearsed or static. Birbiglia says he watched dance and fight scenes in other movies, notably the boxing sequences in director David O. Russell’s “The Fighter.”
“Theater, with few exceptions, is shot terribly in film,” he says. “Typically, it’s shot from the perspective of the audience, which, if you’re trying to understand the perspective of the actors, is not helpful at all.”
It was also important that the actors bonded off-screen in a way that would make their close, on-screen relationships more believable.
“The very first thing Mike did was take the cast bowling,” says Gethard, a stand-up comedian and writer who hosts “The Chris Gethard Show,” on Fusion. “That was the very first interaction I had as a part of this movie. It kind of speaks to Mike’s priorities as a director. He wanted to make this an ensemble in a very real way.”
To promote the film, Birbiglia has been doing a series of Q&A’s with Glass and also leading improv workshops at comedy clubs. Invariably, he’s asked for advice and always says the same thing: Do what you want and pay as little as attention as possible to what others, especially the suits in Hollywood, say you should do. Birbiglia is adamant about this. During the interview, the affable auteur suddenly turns serious.
“My bottom line is don’t kneel to the gatekeepers of show business. Create your own work and the gatekeepers will come to you,” he says, leaning forward in his chair. “No studio would ever make ‘Don’t Think Twice.’ You’d go in and say ‘So this movie is about failure, about coping with failure, and what it’s like when your friends are successful.’ No one wants to make that movie — not because it won’t be successful, but it won’t be successful in the way studios want movies to be successful.
“Make whatever you want to make,” Birbiglia says, citing, as an example, director Sean Baker, who shot his 2015 film “Tangerine” on an iPhone 5S. “Do what you want. There are no more gatekeepers.”
Still, it’s fair to wonder if Birbiglia will be able find an audience for his funny little film about the recondite world of improv. He thinks so.
“I know people doubt it,” he says. “But I had 70- and 80-year-olds — people who don’t know a thing about this world — coming up to me at the Nantucket Film Festival saying they loved the movie. Look, we’ve all been in situations where some people get what they want and some people don’t.”