The first time Mike Birbiglia wrote, directed and starred in a film (Sleepwalk With Me) he played a stand-up comic. This was not a huge stretch for him, as he is, himself, a stand-up comic.
His second film, Don't Think Twice, doesn't stray too far from that model. It's about an improvisational comedy troupe a lot like the one in which Birbiglia got his start. And if this seems like quite a bit of navel-gazing for one filmmaker, rest assured that Birbiglia's been keeping it funny.
The group on screen calls itself The Commune, which feels apt: six young comics working as one, doing improv in Manhattan where, if you're lucky, somebody from television will spot you. One night, it looks as if The Commune might get lucky — a producer from Weekend Live (an SNL-like late-night show) is coming by to give the troupe the once-over.
Nerves are natural, of course, but in this case, no one seems to be looking inward. All eyes instead turn to Jack (Keegan-Michael Key). Whenever scouts come by, says Miles (Birbiglia), Jack turns into a "one-man audition tape."
Still, those worries notwithstanding, the audience is waiting, so out they go, and in no time they're soliciting audience recollections of a "bad day," and riffing off the responses they get. And they are, collectively, very funny, feeding off one another, listening and inventing, bouncing ideas. Their ease at this makes sense as the other troupe members are played by improv veterans Chris Gethard and Tami Sagher, along with comedians Gillian Jacobs and Kate Micucci.
Then Jack pops in and, as expected, his approach is no less funny but it's not about bouncing off the others. He uses the situation they're all responding to as an excuse to do his own best impression (Key's stellar Barack Obama) which prompts guffaws from the crowd, but more or less stops the sketch in its tracks.
Jack apologizes afterwards, but his showboating got results: an audition for Weekend Live. At which point these folks, who are so skilled at improv, must improvise. What would happen to The Commune, they all wonder, if one of them were to become a breakout success.
Much of the material you see the troupe doing on screen was developed during club dates they did together, which is presumably where they also got into character — Birbiglia's Miles is a sad-sack with a wicked sense of humor, Key's Jack is an opportunist with a conscience, and the others are variously ambitious and supportive.
Don't Think Twice is structured to be about what fame does to relationships — specifically what chasing stardom does to the few who catch it, and the many who don't. But mostly, it's a celebration of improv. At the beginning of the film, the cast lays out the form's three rules:
First: Say yes, meaning buy into whatever reality your partner presents you with.
Second: Remember that it's all about the group, not about you.
And finally: Don't think. Get out of your head. Live in the moment.
All good advice — onstage, or in life, or, as it happens, in movies, where, for a snappy 92 minutes, Don't Think Twice manages to convince you it's following those rules to the letter.