Don't Think Twice Nails the Tragedy of Comedy

Mike Birbiglia’s new film mines humor and realism from the work of a struggling improv troupe.

The Film Arcade

If comedy is tragedy plus time, then Mike Birbiglia’s new film Don’t Think Twice focuses on time—the interim period in which the sad twists and turns of fate transform into humor. The tale of an improv troupe struggling to climb to the next rung of the comedy ladder without climbing over each other has a granular, true-to-life appreciation for its subject from its writer and director, himself a comedian, but manages to avoid feeling like inside baseball. Birbiglia is telling the story of the UCB generation of comedy to an audience that might not even know what UCB stands for—and he does it by making it a universally recognizable tale of artists trying to create work they can be proud of.

Birbiglia made his feature debut in 2012 with Sleepwalk With Me, a filmed version of his one-man show, which essayed his breakup with his fiancée, his career as a stand-up comic, and his struggles with sleepwalking. Though small in scale, it had a strong sense of its characters and their emotional shortcomings, while also communicating the energy and passion of stand-up comedy on screen. With Don’t Think Twice, he ventures into the even tougher ground of improv (the word alone may summon flashbacks to stilted college shows), while focusing on a bigger, messier ensemble. The result is still low-key but similarly intelligent—it’s laugh-out-loud funny, while never shying away from the narcissism and personal shortcomings that fuel many a performer’s life. Sleepwalk With Me was promising, and Don’t Think Twice delivers on that promise: It’s one of the best comedies of the year.

As he did in his last film, Birbiglia stars, writing himself as perhaps the most unlikable character of the bunch. As Miles, he’s the leader of The Commune, a well-regarded improv group that toils away with weekly shows in the comedy theaters of New York, praying that TV casting agents will drop by. Miles is approaching 40, but still dating girls right out of college, charming them into his loft bed with stories of his near miss at a spot in the cast of Weekend Live (the film’s Saturday Night Live analogue).

Along with Miles, The Commune is made up of Allison (Kate Micucci), a mousey cartoonist; Bill (Chris Gethard), a neurotic sad-sack who seems ever-prepared for the worst; Lindsay (Tami Sagher), whose family wealth inspires jealousy among the group; and Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) and Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), a couple who seem bound for stardom, though only Jack seems to have the ambition to follow through on his talent. Birbiglia takes great pleasure in laying out each character’s behind-the-scenes awkwardness, then showing them snap into performer mode onstage. The improv itself feels remarkably true to life: sometimes uproarious, other times in search of a groove, with things working best when the team shies away from showboating.

The real joy of Don’t Think Twice, though, comes in the tragedy, which ranges from minor spats to professional jealousy to deaths in the family. The film’s core premise is that these six performers are all in search of fame, but we know they’re not all going to make it. Birbiglia gets to the meat of that plot quickly and efficiently—some members of The Commune get asked to audition for television, while others look on anxiously—because he knows the real drama comes from whether or not they can stay friends and allies in the face of wealth and fame.

The twin problems of any film about the wrenching process of making comedy are that they have to be funny without forgetting to be serious. That’s the achievement of Don’t Think Twice, which does a beautiful job exploring the myriad ways that comedians exploit their own tragic circumstances to score meaningful laughs. There’s no scene sadder, yet hilariously apt, than one about a car ride in the middle of the movie, where the troupe returns from visiting Bill’s sick father in the hospital. After a few moments of weighty silence (something few comedians can abhor), the gang quickly starts spitballing jokes about him, the only way they know to wrestle with their emotions in the face of something so stark. Just like the film as a whole, it’s heartbreaking—and yet, you can’t help but laugh.