Mike Birbiglia's Quiet Ambition

The director of Don’t Think Twice discusses his comedic path and dodging fame.

Charles Sykes / AP

Mike Birbiglia’s second feature film, Don’t Think Twice, opens in theaters across the country today. The movie concerns an improv troupe—played by Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci, and Tami Sagher—that’s trying to work its way through the sudden success of one of its members (Keegan-Michael Key), after he’s cast on a Saturday Night Live-type show.

It’s a world with which Birbiglia is intimately familiar. He began his career in standup and improv comedy, received a big boost when he became a regular contributor to This American Life, and has since branched out into comic acting (Trainwreck), comi-dramatic acting (Orange Is the New Black), and directing.  

Last month I had the chance to sit down and talk with Birbiglia at the Nantucket Film Festival. We discussed the ways he’s evolved as a director since his first feature, Sleepwalk With Me, and his ambitions for the future. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Christopher Orr: What I thought was most interesting about Don’t Think Twice is that it’s very much told from the perspective of the comedians who were sort of left behind—the ones who are still struggling while one of their close friends and colleagues makes a big career leap. But in real life, you’re the guy who’s become a big success.

Mike Birbiglia: I wrote the movie from the perspective of how all these different people are on stage with you improvising at once. This person’s done SNL, this person’s in movies, this person’s sharing a one-bedroom in Bushwick with five dudes on air mattresses. In relation to my own success, I think successful is not something I consider myself being. I think of myself as working. So some people view me as successful. Some people view me as unsuccessful.

I actually don’t see it in those terms. I only see it in relation to, if I’m able to work and the work is received well enough for me to make more work, then I’m doing what I want to do. The idea that for six months in my life I might be on the cover of Us Weekly or Rolling Stone, like, it doesn’t appeal to me. If it happens, then I’ll deal with that. But it’s certainly not what I’m aiming for, and I think it would be quite inconvenient actually.

Orr: Whatever success you’ve had, it’s been in a way that hasn’t required some of the sorts of obvious compromises that a lot of people make.

Birbiglia: People always say to me, "Well, I hope you get a sitcom someday.” Or, "I hope you get a TV series." And I’m like, "I don’t want one." I’m sent inquiries constantly, to the point where I went on Jimmy Kimmel once and he called the president of the network and said, "Give this guy a sitcom." And I had to say, "I don’t want that." I think we’re lucky enough to live in an era where you don’t have to have that kind of mass success to continue to create.

Orr: One way in which Don’t Think Twice is different from Sleepwalk With Me is that it’s obviously much more of an ensemble movie. And I was wondering if it was a new challenge for you to write all these other characters that had to live and breathe on their own and couldn’t just be foils for your character in one way or another?  

Birbiglia: It was a huge challenge. I had all these readings at my house where we’d read the script aloud with writers and actors and we’d talk about it and eat pizza—and the pizza was excellent, and the script was sometimes good. But early on, Ira Glass [the host of This American Life] who is a close friend and who ended up being a producer, he was just like, “This isn’t a movie.” And I was like, “No, no, no, Ira, it’s The Big Chill except in the world of improv.” And he goes, "Okay, but if it’s that then the characters have to be more different from one another." At the time it was a lot of mes-talking-to-me kind of thing. And so a lot of my re-writing process was distinguishing these characters. And then fortunately I cast people who were remarkably different from one another. You couldn’t get any more different from Kate Micucci than Keegan-Michael Key.

Orr: I’m just picturing Keegan-Michael Key as Tom Berenger. I mean with the Big Chill comparison, was it that conscious that you have the one guy, the actor who made it big and sort of turned into a Magnum P.I.-type? He’s got this stupid TV show that nobody really likes but that’s made him really famous?

Birbiglia: I didn’t have that in mind. That’s very funny, though. I never thought in those terms, but now that you’re saying it, yes, there is certainly that comparison. I think there’s something about a certain type of ensemble movie from, like, the ’70s and ’80s that I’m really drawn to. To the point where I feel like I made this movie because I wanted to see this movie.

So we spent an enormous amount of the time in the edit pulling things away to respect the audience’s intelligence. Let’s pull out this reference so this character’s name isn’t said like 19 times just so you know who it is.

Orr: One of the things that drives me nuts is when a movie gives you no credit as a viewer. There will be a flashback, and it’s like “I remember that scene. It happened five minutes ago.”

Birbiglia: Gillian’s character in the movie, Sam, originally had more of a backstory in the script, to explain why she’s self-sabotaging in some ways. And you realize when you shoot the movie, the audience doesn’t need that. They get it. They relate to it.

Orr: I think backstory is one of the great banes of modern cinema. Obviously there are cases where you really need it. But then they remake Willy Wonka and his dad’s got to be a demented dentist. Willy Wonka is sui generis. He doesn’t need to have a demented dentist as a dad to make him love candy.

Birbiglia: Yeah, it’s frustrating, because Don’t Think Twice would’ve been “noted” to death in the studio system. They would say, “Jack needs to be more likable.” “Miles can’t be a womanizer.” “Sam needs to be more motivated.” Everything would have been sort of fluffed.

Orr: One thing I liked about the film was that the people were all recognizably human but nobody was a villain. Even Jack [the character who got the big SNL-type career break], he’s not made out to be a bad guy at all. I mean, he took an opportunity that almost anybody would take.

Birbiglia: Absolutely. Everybody in that group would’ve taken it.

Orr: So, you talked just a little bit about Ira Glass. How important do you feel This American Life has been to you?

Birbiglia: Ira Glass has made me better as a storyteller across the board. I mean, I’ve learned so much from him. And then This American Life has exposed me to a type of audience that really appreciates heartfelt handspun storytelling. For many years, I struggled to find an audience that fully appreciated what I was trying to do. I always thought, for years in my twenties, if I could just get on This American Life or somewhere in public radio I think people would get what I’m trying to do.

And, it’s true. I mean, this show in New York I just did, “Thank God for Jokes,” it ran for four months. 26,000 people came to the show. It was unbelievable. That’s like playing Madison Square Garden twice. Meanwhile, no one knows who the hell I am. Like if you say to a random person in the street, have you heard of Mike Birbiglia, they say no. Honestly, it’s great.

Orr: So how did you first hook up with This American Life?

Birbiglia: Through The Moth storytelling. I asked Catherine Burns, who’s the artistic director of The Moth, if she would send the audio of my sleepwalking story to This American Life. She said no. And then I asked again. And she said no again. I think the third time I asked her she agreed to do it.

And apparently once Ira and [This American Life producer] Julie Snyder heard it, it was like, we’re going to find a show for this. And things really changed for me. That was the year Sleepwalk With Me came out as a one-man show. And it was the first time I was on that radio show. And it really changed the direction of my entire career.

Orr: It goes back to what we were talking about earlier. You haven't found yourself in a position where in order to make a living you had to take a sitcom or be in Grown Ups 3 or whatever.

Birbiglia: I mean, my career could’ve gone in a very kind of commercial and mediocre direction and I feel like I dodged a bullet. Like, I had developed a sitcom pilot for a network like a year before. And it didn’t get picked up. I just dodged a great bullet by it not getting picked up.

So many of the things I’ve been able to do have come from Sleepwalk With Me. Like, Judd Apatow was a fan of Sleepwalk With Me so he stuck me in Trainwreck. I can think of a handful of things like that. Orange Is the New Black—I think [showrunner] Jenji Kohan knew me from This American Life and put me in that.

Orr: So, you do one-person shows, and comic film roles, and Orange Is the New Black, and, of course, directing. Of all those different career paths, is there one where you’re thinking, this is something I’d like to focus my attention on in the coming years?

Birbiglia: I think that the thing that I have to contribute is, you know, making one-person shows in a universe where there’s not a ton of one-person shows. And creating movies that are ensemble kind of Big Chill films in a marketplace where there aren’t any. And I think there should be. I think films that are funny and touching and from the heart—there should be more of them.

So, when I’m acting, like when I’m in Orange Is the New Black, or act in Trainwreck, a lot of it is apprenticing, you know, with great directors. Like, on Orange I got to work with Nicole Holofcener. With Trainwreck I got to work with Judd. When I did Your Sister’s Sister I got to work with Lynn Shelton. Even something like Hot Pursuit—I got to spend a day playing opposite Reece Witherspoon. That teaches me a lot. And so what I learn I bring in to the stuff that I’m creating. And I hope to create something great someday that is enduring and people watch and re-watch. I mean I’m a person who watches movies almost on a loop the way people listen to records.

Orr: Give me a few examples of movies that you’ve watched like this, over and over.

Birbiglia: Terms of Endearment I’ve watched probably 10 times. Broadcast News I’ve watched about six or eight times. Hannah and Her Sisters I’ve watched probably at least 10 times. Annie Hall I’ve watched 15 times. I mean, there’s Once. Oh my God. If I want to cry my eyes out I turn on Once.

So all this is to say, what can I contribute? I think I can make a handful of those movies when I get good enough. And I will say that Don’t Think Twice is closer to that than Sleepwalk With Me was. For me, it gives me the motivation to keep going and be like, "Oh, I could make one of those movies." Woody Allen made Annie Hall in his early forties. I’m 38 now.

Orr: You’re on the clock.

Birbiglia: I feel like I can make a few great movies in my forties if I’m lucky. I don’t know. We’ll see.