'Don't Think Twice' Scripts Improv With Ease

Jul 22, 2016
Originally published on July 25, 2016 6:51 pm

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.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The first time Mike Birbiglia wrote, directed and starred in a film, he played a stand-up comic. It wasn't a huge stretch for him. He is a stand-up comic. His new movie "Don't Think Twice" doesn't stray too far from that model. It's about an improv comedy troupe, a lot like the one in which he got his start. Well, that is a lot of navel-gazing for one filmmaker. Happily, NPR critic Bob Mondello says Birbiglia is keeping it funny.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: They call themselves The Commune, and that feels right - six young comics working as one doing improv in Manhattan, where if you're lucky, someone from television will spot you. One night, it looks like The Commune might get lucky.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DON'T THINK TWICE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) We're going to hold 10.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Wait. Why?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Why?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) I called (unintelligible). He's bringing over some producers from "Weekend Live!"

MONDELLO: Nerves are natural. In this case, all eyes turn to one guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DON'T THINK TWICE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Hey Jack, don't showboat out there.

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: (As Jack) What are you talking about? Why would I do that?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You know you always do that. Anyone from the industry shows up, you turn into a one-man audition.

MONDELLO: But now's not the time. The audience is waiting. So...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DON'T THINK TWICE")

GILLIAN JACOBS: (As Samantha) Hi, I'm Sam.

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: (As Miles) Miles.

KATE MICUCCI: (As Allison) Allison.

TAMI SAGHER: (As Lindsay) Lindsay.

KEY: (As Jack) Jack.

JACOBS: (As Samantha) And we are The Commune.

(APPLAUSE)

JACOBS: (As Samantha) In fact, everything you see tonight is going to be improvised. And it's all about you guys. So did anybody out there have a particularly hard day?

MONDELLO: Someone did.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DON'T THINK TWICE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) Yeah, I saw my dad for the first time in 10 years today.

JACOBS: (As Samantha) Really, where?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) He drives a taxi, and I just randomly got into his cab.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Fact-checking...

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) You got into a taxi. You did not know it was your dad, and then you said, hi, Dad.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) Yeah, I said, hi, Dad.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Well, OK.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Hop in.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As character) Oh.

MONDELLO: And they're off - troupe leader Miles and the others doing the improv thing very amusingly, feeding off each other, listening, bouncing ideas.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DON'T THINK TWICE")

JACOBS: (As Samantha) I have abandonment issues. My father left me, so I basically only relate to men through sex.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) That's challenging for me to hear.

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: When Jack pops in, as expected, his approach is no less funny, but it's not about bouncing off the others.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DON'T THINK TWICE")

KEY: (As Jack) As the president of the United States of America...

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: (As Jack) I believe that it's not only my duty to find your father but also have him pick you up in a cab and take you to your destination.

MONDELLO: Jack apologizes afterwards, but his showboating gets 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 if one of them were to become a breakout success?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DON'T THINK TWICE")

CHRIS GETHARD: (As Bill) For years I was like, it's either Jack or Miles but probably Jack.

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: Miles is played by filmmaker Mike Birbiglia as a sad sack with a wicked sense of humor. Jack is played by Keegan-Michael Key as an opportunist with a conscience, and they're surrounded by folks who are terrific at the improv thing and who in fact did club dates together to develop some of the material you see them doing on screen.

"Don't Think Twice" is structured to be about what fame does to relationships, what chasing fame does to the few who find it and to the many who don't. But mostly it's a celebration of improv. At the beginning of the film, the cast lays out the forum'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 on stage or in life or, as it happens, in movies where for a snappy 92 minutes, "Don't Think Twice" manages to convince you it is following those rules to the letter. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.