Don’t Think Twice

Posted on August 4, 2016 at 5:53 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Sad offscreen death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 5, 2016
Date Released to DVD: December 5, 2016 ASIN: B01IV40HUY

Life is pretty much improv, after all. We are constantly challenged to respond to what we cannot predict. But we do not have the two foundational rules that make performance improvisation so compelling. First is “yes, and.” Whatever anyone on stage says or does, everyone else has to build on it. If someone says, “Wow, it’s cold in here,” no one is allowed to say, “What do you mean? We’re outside and it’s warm.” You have to say something that takes what the first person said to the next level, maybe “Yes, who turned the air conditioning down to 60?” Or even, “Well, there’s really no practical way to heat an igloo.” It is the high-wire without a net act of improv group’s lightning quick, sharply observed, and deftly funny scenes that audiences enjoy.

Copyright 2016 Film Arcade
Copyright 2016 Film Arcade

The other fundamental rule is what improvers say to each other before they go on stage: “I’ve got your back.” Improv is about the group, not the individuals. “Don’t Think Twice” is the story of an improv group called The Commune, suggestive of its familial, interdependent, collegial quality. They are something like a family, if a dysfunctional one. While they have very different backgrounds and goals, the way they come together on stage is, at least for now, enough to make them feel they have a home together.

The closest thing they have to a leader is Miles (writer/director Mike Birbiglia of “Sleepwalk With Me”), who is a little older and taught many of them. He is still teaching improv classes and often has brief affairs with the young women who are his students. Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) and Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) are a couple. Allison (Kate Micucci) is a quiet woman who is working on a graphic novel. Jill (“Inside Amy Schumer” writer Tami Sagher) lives with her parents and is the only one who does not have money problems. And Bill (Chris Gethard) is making ends meet by handing out hummus and chips in the grocery store. “Your 20’s are all about hope. And then your 30’s are all about realizing how dumb it was to hope,” one character says.

The group is presented with some bad news and some good news, two crises that expose the fragility of their connection. They are about to lose their performing space, and there are no alternatives they can afford. And Jack and Samantha achieve the most coveted of opportunities, the chance to audition for a television program that is the equivalent of “Saturday Night Live,” a sketch comedy show that is a major cultural institution. Both put enormous pressure on the group, and the sense of desperation, jealousy, and competition shatters their pretense of unity and endless support for one another. At the same time, Bill’s father becomes critically ill, which gives them a way to continue to connect.

Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk with Me” showed great promise. The transfer from stand-up to screen was awkward, but the atmosphere and the specifics of life on the road as a comedian were exceptionally well handled and he is on screen, as on stage, an engaging character. Here he once again takes us unto a very specific world that we can all relate to, especially when it comes to the way the characters use humor to reach a place of honesty. Birbiglia takes a risk here, making Miles less likeable, but it works as he very effectively creates real and vivid characters who have to figure out who they are when they are offstage. While the first film gave us one perspective, this one expands with a clear-eyed but generous take on each of them. So, the individual stories work and they provide balance and counterpoint. Even family members have to grow up, accept responsibility, and decide when to change course.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, sexual references and an explicit situation, rude humor, sad death of a parent, drinking and drugs.

Family discussion: Why is it important to say “yes, and?” Is it sometimes hard for you to be happy when your friends succeed?

If you like this, try: “Sleepwalk With Me” and Mike Birbiglia’s short film on YouTube, “Fresh Air 2: 2 Fresh 2 Furious”

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Interview: Mike Birbiglia and Gillian Jacobs of “Don’t Think Twice”

Posted on August 2, 2016 at 3:51 pm

Copyright 2016 The Film Arcade
Copyright 2016 The Film Arcade

Writer/director/star Mike Birbiglia calls his new film, “Don’t Think Twice,” “The Big Chill” of improv. Like the all-star 80’s classic, it is a bittersweet and often funny story of the stresses old friends face as the hopefulness and sense of endless possibilities of their 20’s hits the reality of their 30’s.  Keegan-Michael Key plays one member of a small improv group called “The Commune.”  When he gets a chance for breakthrough success on a “Saturday Night Live”-type comedy series, it forces the rest of the group to think about what matters to them and whether they will be able to achieve their dreams.

Birbiglia and co-star Gillian Jacobs spoke about the film in an interview.

The Commune leads off their show by asking the audience who had the worst day and using the details of their story to provide the premise for improvising a scene. Where does that come from?

MB: I do an improv show in New York called Mike Birbiglia’s Dream at the UCB Theater. I came up with that prompt one day as an idea because I feel like we can prove in real time the old trope that comedy is tragedy plus time. We had one the other night at the Del Close Marathon where a girl, 19 years old, said. ‘I just realized that my dad was cheating on my mom with prostitutes because we share an iCloud account.’ And so we were all empathetic and sympathetic and trying to create scenes that were respectful of that but also were comedic scenes and it was hard. For about 15 minutes there were not a lot of laughs at all and then eventually we found the laughter, and she found the laughter. Tammy who plays Lindsay in the film, was in that show. She called me the next day and she said, “Wow! That show yesterday, that was wild.The woman who made the suggestion thanked you on Twitter so you should respond.” That was really rewarding. We have to fund that hinge point, that pivot point.

GJ: I remember one show we did at UCB during rehearsals. Someone told us about his friend who had died recently and he was a very young man. For the first couple minutes there was nothing funny but then you realize, “Well, we’re not documentarians.” You’re not telling the story of that person’s life. You’re using that situation as an inspiration. Once people give themselves permission to let themselves be free to associate around any detail in the story, some absurd coincidence or detail about it, and build from there, maybe rather than tackling trying to make raw pain funny then you can sort of laugh around the incident as well.

MB: But also like in the film the scene where something happens to Bill’s dad and they are driving home and they are joking about it is an example of how with friends you can joke about things that are really sad and have it be cathartic. And I think that that can happen in theater also, I think it can happen in film also. You can express love by calling out the truth out of the situation as opposed to dancing around it.

Because The Commune is built on teamwork — the last thing they say to each other before going on stage is “I’ve got your back” — the struggle with feelings of jealousy and competition is especially painful.

MB: I wrote this thing on my wall early in the writing process: ‘Art is socialism but life is capitalism.’ It’s not in the film because it would be too on the nose. One of the guiding principles in the film is that in a lot of ways what you do with the group you’re collaborating with is more idealistic than the actuality.

GJ: I don’t come from an improv background but I really relate to the story in other ways. I went to Juilliard and in your third and fourth years of school there, agents and casting directors and managers start to come and it is really kind of what happens in this movie where some people start getting a lot of appointments and other people don’t. You try to sort of keep it quiet but they would put these yellow envelopes on the board and everybody knew that that was a meeting request and it would start to shift the dynamics because up until then it’s all about the group and much like the improv world. But then you realize you are all about to be set forth into the commercial world of this business and not everybody’s going to have the same career and even if somebody is deemed more talented within the confines of the school it doesn’t mean they’re going to have the most successful career. So I’ve just now start to remember how that starts to affect all of your dynamic. After you do a showcase for agency managers and casting directors and you get this folder and some people had a folder that was thick and some people had a folder that was thin. And there’s no fairness to it because it’s not a fair business.

MB: In a lot of ways, that’s what this movie is about. Life is unfair and improv is a great metaphor of that. My wife said that when she saw my improv group one, “It’s funny that everyone’s equal on stage but offstage that person is a movie star, that person is on “Saturday Night Live,” that person lives on an air mattress in Queens in a one bedroom with five dudes. And I thought that really hit me hard, I was like, “Yes, that’s a movie,” that’s a nice tension to explore.

What the difference between what makes somebody good at improv versus what makes them good at a more structured traditional theater performance?

GJ: I think in theater it demands that you say the same words every night and make it feel fresh and new. Improv demands that you be operating at the highest level of your creativity intelligence. So these two skills are both very important but I’ve seen people who are very skilled at one area struggle with the other. Either improvisers feel constrained by having to say the same thing over and over again or people who are really good at doing scripted work feel intimidated and exposed doing improvisation.

MB: You’ve got to remember that improvisers are writers and actors and directors all simultaneously. That’s what’s happening in real time because you’re writing on your feet, and you are acting out the words and you are directing what the staging is. You’re deciding what staging is. When I’m taking the subway to my improv shows I will be writing in my notebook different actions that I see people doing on the train whether it’s eating yogurt or looking at where their stop is, or tripping or holding a baby. It’s not preparing scenes and ideas as much as it is stoking your brain to think observantly. Just to place observations in your head, so that they are available somewhere.

Why is ‘yes and’ such an important part of improv?

GJ: Without agreement you just have people arguing. I think that it is important to establish a world of place for the characters in improv and there is nothing to be gained from disagreeing about that. So you have to establish the principle that if some person establishes one thing we’re all going to go along with it and that we are all building from it. Also it is important to stop being critical and judging ideas as good or bad because I think if somebody doesn’t have a lot of experience you worry their idea is going to be bad, it’s not going to be good enough, if not going to be active enough and so you can start to think critically about people’s suggestions or what they bring to it but once you get out of that and think whatever they come up with is the right thing right now and so I’m just going to build on it just makes everything so much easier and better. But I think we are used to being critical and evaluating ideas.

MB: And our fear leads us to say no all the time.

GJ: Or you came up with an idea and you can’t let it go because you think your idea is the right one and the good one. You thought you were coming in as a duck, you thought it was very clever that you were a duck, and they thought that you are a dog and now you are a dog. And now you are dog and it’s better that you are a dog. I also have learned as an actor, this ties in the principles of improv, sometimes someone gives a piece of instruction and my first reaction is “I don’t want to do that.” I’ve always learned that every time I just say yes and go for it something happens. Whether it’s what the intent of the direction was or not or something new happens. It’s just remaining open to other people’s ideas. And I think Keegan-Michael Key is in such a playful open place as a performer that he makes it fun to come along for the ride.

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This American Life: Live “Invisible Made Visible” Show Available Online and on DVD

Posted on November 13, 2012 at 3:33 pm

Radio you can watch – that’s the idea.

On November 15th, 2012, the public radio show This American Life will release a video of a two-hour episode entitled “The Invisible Made Visible.” Fans can download or stream the video for $5.  It will also be released on DVD, exclusively via the show’s web store.

“The Invisible Made Visible” was originally performed onstage and broadcast live into movie theaters in May, 2012, to over 70,000 people across the U.S., Canada and Australia. Host Ira Glass personally curated the show. “The whole point,” he says “was to do stories that are far too visual to ever be on the radio.”

The result is a mix of animation, live dance from Monica Bill Barnes & Company, a wildly funny short film by Mike Birbiglia starring Fresh Air’s Terry Gross (I promise, you will not guess the ending), a classic This American Life story (told by Glass) about the brilliant street photographer Vivian Meier, a Chicago nanny who never showed anyone the pictures she took over decades on her days off.  They were discovered almost by accident after her death.  The show also has comic monologues by David Sedaris, Glynn Washington, and Ryan Knighton. My favorite is the story by comedian Tig Notaro (recently in the news for her monologue about cancer) about repeatedly running into 80’s pop star Taylor Dayne. There is music from OK Go. It’s all performed in front of changing illustrated backgrounds.

Probably the most memorable moment in the episode comes during a story by longtime This American Life contributor David Rakoff. He talks about the abilities he’s lost during his fight with cancer, and then, gracefully, beautifully, does a solo dance onstage. It was the last story Rakoff ever wrote for the radio show. He died three months later, in August.


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Interview: Mike Birbiglia of “Sleepwalk With Me”

Posted on August 28, 2012 at 8:18 am

Mike Birbiglia‘s stories about his experiences with a rare form of sleepwalking became a part of his stand-up routine, a book, monologues on This American Life, and now a movie.  He came to Washington for a screening of the film and was one of the friendliest and most open and engaging people I have ever interviewed.

Were you raised in a religious family?

Iwas raised in Massachusetts in a small town where basically everyone was Catholic.  I was raised Catholic and then I kind of wandered away, somewhere in high-school. I never got confirmed which is a big deal.

Then I moved to New York, and my wife is Jewish.  When I was growing up, I didn’t know who Jewish people were, what it was to be Jewish.  I’ve been thinking a lot about religion and beliefs recently…toying with doing a show about religion.  I used to toy with a joke where I’d say, “I was raised Catholic,” and people go, Catholic guilt…and then I married a Jewish women, and it was “Oh, Jewish guilt!” And I’m like, “well, maybe people just have guilt…maybe that’s just human, maybe it’s not specific to religion.”

Was religion important to your parents?

My mother is very religious, goes to church every week, sometimes two or three times a week and my grandparents were very Catholic, they went to Latin Mass, so they were pre-Vatican 2.  And I went to Catholic grade school, grade 1 through 6, and so whether I like it or not, I’m very much a product of Catholic teaching. At its really stripped-down elements, I love it. I love the Golden Rule; I think fundamentally, that when applied to all things, I think I would be very religious. I think when you get into the minutiae of the specific religion, I just tend to fall away.

How does something go from being a monologue to being a movie?

I studied film in college.  I got into comedy because it was no overhead — literally, sometimes I was performing outside.  When I had the show running off Broadway for about eight months I was called by a lot of people who said, “This could be a movie!” I think that’s sort of a standard thing.  If something is sort of successful, “Now this should be in the king of media!” Find something successful and, now that it’s doing well in the minors, we could bring it up to the major leagues.

At the time I was working on the screenplay called “Waking Up Ben,” that was about similar issues but had a different story-line.  It was about a guy sort of sleeping through his life who had a hard time waking up in the morning and it was metaphoric in a lot of things. And then Ira Glass and I were becoming friends by that time, we were working on This American Life.  I said to him, “What do you think about this for a movie?” and the way Ira tells the story, is that I tricked him into making it.

 Of course he would.

He says that this is how I deal with everyone, like my crew, actors, my cinematographers, I just have a way of just being like, “oh, it’ll be fun!” And the next thing you know, I’m climbing up a mountain, we’re in winter-gear.  Cut to: disaster.  And of course, it comes from Ira, the king of persuasion — he says, he’s never been so entertained by a pledge drive before…but yeah, so anyway, it came out of that and Ira said, “yeah, that seems like we should do that,” because they were getting into the business of making movies.  A lot of movies had been made from their stories like “The Informant” with Matt Damon.

So, he’s interested in producing some stuff.  It was very hard to translate the monologue.

What made you decide that you would not only talk to the audience but that you would really lead off by talking to the audience, and sort of break the fourth wall that way?

That was always in the script. That was the thing that Ira had always emphasized, to note that “you really ought to talk to the camera because that’s what you do.”

This is kind of an interesting story. I had written the camera monologues within the scenes in other words, we’d be talking like right here, and then I’d look at the camera which was here and I’d go, “well this didn’t go very well” and then I’d get back to talking to them.  It was kind of like “Ferris Bueller.” What we found in the edit was that that wasn’t working because it was taking away from the reality of the theme.  It needed to be in the future or I should say, the present, when things were okay. Here we have him driving the car, and here we see him in a good mood, because there’s something about the movie where it really rides the line between comedy and tragedy.  So we found in the edit we had to go back and re-shoot them.

You’re making comedy out of getting glass picked out of your leg.  How do you do that?

Oh, I know. I like comedy that is also tragic. One of my favorite comedies of all time is “Terms of Endearment,” that’s my pace.

You cast the wonderful actress Lauren Ambrose in a difficult role.  She is so lovable your heart breaks for her.  She is a very experienced actor, so what did you learn from her?

The audience loves her so much, they think: is she going to be okay? This is horrible! The whole movie is building up to this break-up and she goes off and we don’t know what happens to her? And we needed to not have to deal with that repercussion with the audience, so working with her was fascinating because that is home for her, you know? She’s very comfortable on a set, she’s very professional, she puts in the hours and she’s entirely unique.

One thing that is unusual about the film is that the take that it gives us in the life of a stand-up comic, just touring and dependent on the agent and being paid so little. Was it important to you to include that milieu and to make that a part of the story?

I think that was something that I lived in my 20’s in a very real way, and was able to describe in my book, in the film, in a pretty vivid way, and I didn’t even mean for it to become such a noted aspect of the film.  Mark Maron, who has the WTF podcast about comedy and appears in the film, said, “No one has made a film about a road comic, no one has nailed it the way this one does.”Yeah, it just seems  that I accidentally wrote a unique story. I guess I just lived it.

You re-enacted some painful and embarrassing real-life experiences — was that difficult?

You know the expression, “You’re only as sick as your secrets?   I believe that, and I think I try to have my work live by that to a degree. I think that when you open up to people—or kind of when I’ve opened up to people, I’ve opened up to audiences, assuming that it’s funny, the connection with the audience is incomparable, from anything that I’ve experienced in my life, and that’s why I’m drawn to it so much.



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