God, I hate improv troupes.
Okay, hate is a strong word. Let’s just say that if I was stuck in a room for a long time with one, I would probably bust through a window or drug myself. It isn’t that they’re bad people, their personality quirks that make them successful at their job just cut at me like razor blades in your mouth.
Getting past this vivid distaste for a artistic craft is one of the largest hurdles you must jump to enjoy Don’t Think Twice, the latest feature film from stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia. But it was a hurdle I was able to make due to Birbiglia’s adept ability to capture the feeling of being a part of a creative collective and the very basic emotions triggered by growing up and growing apart from each other.
Moving on with life is hard and for the improv troupe known as The Commune, leaving this community that has become so central to their being is even more difficult. Miles (Birbiglia) is a 36-year-old improve teacher who references to the time he was “minutes away” from getting on Weekend Live (the SNL surrogate for the film) and how different his life would’ve been because of that.
The possibility of joining that show is much more plausible for the other members — Sam (Gillian Jacobs), Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), Allison (Kate Micucci), Lindsay (Tami Sagher), and Bill (Chris Gethard) — who are younger and haven’t had the initial opportunity that Miles had. It is especially tangible for Sam and Jack, who are asked to try-out for the show when producers come to one of their nightly performances.
The moment they reveal this news to the group encapsulates the entire theme of the movie — this concept of being friends with creative people and trying to come to terms with why they are finding success when you aren’t. In the scene, Jack and Sam walk over to the rest of the group, who are consoling Bill after he learned that his father had been hospitalized after a motorcycle accident. The moment doesn’t feel right for a major reveal like that, but Jack blurts it out regardless and the time stops for a second.
The collective silence is a powerful moment (and something Birbiglia uses again throughout the movie) and is only broken when Bill, the one who needed the attention at that particular moment, utters an almost passive aggressive “congrats, man” to Jack.
The power in this moment is bred from the connective fibers of this group. Up to that point, we spend most of our time at the stage where The Commune performs and there is that very prototypical collective energy that improv teams strive for with this group of friends. We first meet them as they murmur a flurry of lines in order to prepare for their upcoming show and mimic different people as they enter the frame — in one case, the production assistant says there is five minutes until the show starts and they begin to mock how she said that.
In these moments, there is a clear detachment from this group and the general public. It doesn’t seem like they are actively trying to look down on them — we get a sense through quick flashes that life is dissatisfying for all of them — but their passion requires them to capture a superiority over the members sitting in the room here to see their show.
This also allows them to detach themselves from reality. In one (kind of difficult to watch) sequence, the group has just visited Bill’s father in the hospital and begin to mimic how he said “thank you” to Bill as they left. In the car, they go around with different impressions of the line as Bill passively says how it is kind of offensive until finally giving in and joining the group. Here Birbiglia is able to capture how improv becomes an escape for these artists (even if they may take it too far). In that moment, Bill doesn’t have to think about how his father may die because he can laugh at the silly impressions of him.
Further in the film, other characters find their escape through improv. Instead of looking at an unfinished graphic novel, Allison can toss out random facts and earn the nickname, “Data,” while hanging out with her friends. Instead of going to therapy twice a week while smoking pot and living with her parents, Lindsay can escape into the world of improv and make believe.
Don’t Think Twice is its most effective when it is reckoning with the dissatisfaction of life between these characters and how the success of Jack, who ends up making it on Weekend Live, reflects on them. Being around creative people can be some of the most invigorating times, but it also opens up for resentment when someone does successful.
The film is able to capture this resentment better than most any film I can think of and shows that this doesn’t disintegrate the friendships, but it does force them to drift apart. But in that sense, it captures life because regardless of being around creative people, life is full of drifting apart and moving on from the things that defined us at a given period.
I don’t think Don’t Think Twice cured my dislike for improv, but it gave me more understanding. We are all on the ride of life and whether or not the highs and lows of that ride coincide with where we want them to be is completely up to chance.
And despite its cringe-inducing characters, Don’t Think Twice succeeds at making you reflect on that — regardless of what step you’re on.