How Mike Birbiglia Applies 'Yes, And ...' To Improv And Beyond

Jul 23, 2016
Originally published on July 23, 2016 11:18 pm

If you ask Mike Birbiglia, the principles of improv apply everywhere: "It changed the way I thought about everything," says the writer, director and actor. "[It] helps in parenting and being a good husband and being a good friend ... any collaborative job."

Best known for his stand-up comedy and roles in GIRLS and Orange Is the New Black, Birbiglia's latest project is Don't Think Twice, a movie that chronicles the ups and downs of a fictional, New York improv group called The Commune.

Right off the bat we learn some improv fundamentals. First: say yes. No matter what the audience or improv member throws out there — go with it. Second, it's not about you, it's about the group. The group will create something greater than the sum of its parts. (Improv guru Del Close once told a workshop: "You have a light within you. Burn it out.") And third, don't think. Don't let your head hold you back; improv is about impulse.

On and offstage The Commune is a tight-knit group of struggling actors and writers. They're into group think — in a good way — but personal ambition can be at odds with the good of the group.

One of the characters — Jack — is accused of "showboating" whenever talent scouts are in the audience. "Anyone from the industry shows up, you turn into a one-man audition tape," Birbiglia's character Miles tells him.

Birbiglia says it certainly happens in New York when producers for shows like SNL and The Daily Show come to see improv groups. "There is an extent to which you freeze up or you think: Should I do my best character?" he says.

When TV producers show up at one of The Commune's shows, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) can't help himself. To impress them, he goes into a very solo impersonation of President Obama. The audience eats it up, but his fellow performers are furious.

Being an improviser means tapping into a part of yourself that's "endlessly generous," says longtime improv coach and performer Liz Allen. That said, getting in front of an audience also requires "a lot of confidence — maybe even confidence/cockiness."

So yes, the group principles of improv can be at odds with the singular drive one needs to be an artist. And yet, some of the most accomplished and influential comedians and writers — think: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Key & Peele — partly credit their success to improv training.

Allen, who studied with Del Close at iO Chicago, says improv teaches comedians to "go with the flow." Embracing spontaneity helps stand-up comics prepare for any kind of audience, she says: "Then you don't get caught up in impatience and ego; There's drunk teenagers making out in the front row? Perfect."

Birbiglia attended one of Allen's workshops when he was in college. ("Liz Allen made me cry," he recalls.) But he says he appreciates her approach to the craft. Improv "can get kind of jokey," he says. "What Liz teaches is something that's really from your gut and heartfelt."

Allen coached some of the actors in Don't Think Twice, and to promote the film, she and Birbiglia have been giving workshops to improv groups around the country. Allen says she's surprised at how much the movie mirrors her own experience. "Being an improviser on stage is a blast, but the rest of the stuff off stage is frequently very unpleasant — and this movie does not shy away from what's unpleasant," she says.

When Jack lands a job on the SNL-style TV show, the others in the group get together to watch his debut. As he impersonates an old-timey ticket-taker at a movie theater, Miles comments, with a hint of satisfaction: "Skillful, but not funny."

Don't Think Twice is ultimately about any group of individuals who simultaneously collaborate and compete. Allen says, when it comes to the improv world, Birbiglia has captured the "supportive, miserable, ambitious, lost, funny, lovable but sometimes irritating people that we are."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Improv is all about collaboration and thinking as a group. Of course, our theme music was a solo effort by B.J. Leiderman. The new movie "Don't Think Twice" chronicles the ups and downs of an improv group in New York City, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Right off the bat, we learn some of the basic principles of improv.

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

GILLIAN JACOBS: (As Samantha) Number one, say yes.

BLAIR: Meaning go with whatever the audience or another improv member throws out there.

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

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: (As Jack) Duck season.

KATE MICUCCI: (As Allison) Duck hunt.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Poo poo (ph).

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: (As Miles) Nintendo.

BLAIR: Number two.

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

JACOBS: (As Samantha) It's all about the group.

TAMI SAGHER: (As Lindsay) Yes.

JACOBS: (As Samantha) It's not about you looking good.

SAGHER: (As Lindsay) And it's also not about looking funny.

JACOBS: (As Samantha) No.

KEY: (As Jack) Or showboating.

BLAIR: The idea is that the group will create something greater than the sum of its parts. And number three.

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

BIRBIGLIA: (As Miles) Don't think. It's all about getting out of your head. It's about impulse.

SAGHER: (As Lindsay) It's about living in the moment. It's about now.

BLAIR: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Key and Peele - some of today's most respected comedians and writers have studied improv. For writer, director and actor Mike Birbiglia, the process was a revelation.

BIRBIGLIA: It really changed the way I thought about everything.

BLAIR: Because, he says, improv teaches you how to work with groups of different kinds of people.

BIRBIGLIA: The principles of improv apply to everything. I mean, saying - yes, and - helps in parenting and being a good husband and being a good friend and, you know, any kind of collaborative job - working at the radio or working at an advertising agency.

BLAIR: The movie centers around an improv group that's been performing together for 10 years.

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

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

BIRBIGLIA: (As Miles) Miles.

CHRIS GETHARD: (As Bill) I'm Bill.

MICUCCI: (As Allison) Allison.

SAGHER: (As Lindsay) Lindsay.

KEY: (As Jack) Jack.

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

BLAIR: The Commune is a tight-knit group, on and off stage. They're believers in groupthink, but they're also each trying to make it in showbiz. And that's where Birbiglia creates tension in "Don't Think Twice." One of the characters, Jack, is accused of showboating whenever talent scouts are in the audience.

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

BIRBIGLIA: (As Miles) Anyone from the industry shows up, you turn into a one-man audition tape.

MICUCCI: (As Allison) You did it when the guy from "Conan" came. You did it when "Law And Order" came.

BLAIR: Birbiglia says it happens.

BIRBIGLIA: When "SNL" or "The Daily Show" or any of these TV shows in New York come to see improv groups, there is an extent to which, you know, you freeze up, or you think, like, should I do my best character that I do or whatever it is.

BLAIR: In the movie, when some TV producers come to see the improv group's show, Jack can't help himself. To impress them, he goes into a very solo impersonation.

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

KEY: (As Jack) Now, look, as the president of the United States of America...

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: ...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.

BLAIR: The audience eats it up, but the group is furious.

LIZ ALLEN: To be an improviser, you have to definitely have a part of yourself that you're willing to tap into that is endlessly generous.

BLAIR: Liz Allen is a long-time improv coach and performer.

ALLEN: But in order to get up in front of people and speak spontaneously, you do need a bit of confidence, maybe a lot of confidence-slash-cockiness.

BLAIR: Allen studied with Del Close, the late improv guru, at the Improv Olympic in Chicago. She even taught Mike Birbiglia when he was in college.

BIRBIGLIA: Liz Allen made me cry.

BLAIR: Cry, says Birbiglia, because he felt he didn't perform well for her in college, but also because, he says, Allen is so dedicated to using improv to help people.

BIRBIGLIA: I think sometimes in improv it can get kind of jokey. Liz teaches something that's really from your gut and heartfelt.

ALLEN: Don't think. Don't you think. Go, go, go, go, go. Let group mind guide you.

BLAIR: To promote "Don't Think Twice," Birbiglia and Liz Allen have been giving workshops to improv groups around the country, including Washington Improv Theater in D.C.

ALLEN: Good. Three, two, one, done. Don't overthink it, people. Just do it.

BLAIR: Liz Allen coached some of the actors in "Don't Think Twice." She says she's surprised at how much the movie reflects real life.

ALLEN: Being an improviser on stage is a blast, but the rest of the stuff off stage is frequently very unpleasant. And this movie does not shy away from what's unpleasant. And the actors - they nailed the essence of supportive, miserable, ambitious, lovable, but sometimes irritating people that we are.

BLAIR: When Jack lands a job on the "SNL"-style TV show, the others in the group get together to watch his debut.

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

KEY: (As Jack) Look no further than me, friend. I can get you tickets right here, and I can get them for you a G-R-E-A-T price (laughter).

BIRBIGLIA: (As Miles) Not funny. Skillful, but not funny.

MICUCCI: (As Allison) It's like when something sounds funny, but it isn't funny.

BLAIR: "Don't Think Twice" is ultimately about any group of individuals who simultaneously collaborate and compete with each other. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.