It came as a shock to the world to hear that Robin Williams, the man who made us laugh in madness when we were at our lowest, was in constant battle with depression to his very last days. Comedy is brewed from sadness, and the former has no meaning but when coming from a place of desperation and pathos – perhaps there was some truth to Alan Alda’s character describing it as ‘tragedy plus time’ in Crimes and Misdemeanors, although not in the way he meant it. In Don’t Think Twice, we are introduced to ‘the Commune’, a New York improv comedy troupe of six people, each carrying their own blue devils onto stage every night. Mike Birbiglia brings us an incredibly poignant and human film, as we follow each realistic character through their own troubles, as well as they way they deal with each other’s.
Miles (Mike Birbiglia), Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), Sam (Gillian Jacobs), Allison (Kate Micucci), Lindsay (Tami Sagher) and Bill (Chris Gethard) are the Commune, a troupe that puts on improvisational comedy shows for small crowds in New York, each with the hopes of making it big in the comedy showbiz. Being from completely different backgrounds, the group finds themselves most free when on stage, where working together and committing themselves to the act means being free of their own lives. However, life is not the same as improv, and when things get shaken up; each member finds it increasingly difficult to keep their individual dreams and interests hidden, and from conflicting with each other’s. This reaches a tipping point when the troupe hears that the wildly popular television comedy show, ‘Weekend Live’ (an obvious allusion to ‘Saturday Night Live’), is attending one of their shows, scouting for talent. Birbiglia’s film commits to two different tasks – that of bringing the feel and art of improv to the screen, and of playing out the dynamics and emotions of the group as affected by it – and delivers brilliantly on both counts.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of improv, it is essentially a live theatre show, where nothing is prepared, and the characters, story and punch-lines are made up as they go along. What makes improv comedy a good premise for telling stories and exploring emotions is its inherent demand for a group mind and almost telepathic levels of communication between the performers, and it is exactly this aspect that the filmmaker taps into. Don’t Think Twice might seem at first to be your run-of-the-mill group comedy, a generic television sitcom condensed into a runtime of less than two hours, but don’t let yourselves be fooled by the smiling faces on the poster. Don’t get me wrong: what you’re getting is definitely a group comedy, but also a group tragedy, rooting itself in its specific premise, and drawing out its special flavour. By sinking its teeth delicately into the dynamics of the group backstage, on stage and off, the film is able to realise a portrait of humanity that is both intimate and hilarious, and all the more powerful for the same.
What impresses me the most about Don’t Think Twice is its absolute understanding of both its stories: the art of improv comedy, as well as the concerns and motivations that drive us as humans. Clearly stemming from Birbiglia’s personal experiences and passions (he was a member of the Georgetown Improv Players Troupe during college, and went on to stand-up), the effectiveness of the film lies in reaching out to both the funny bone and the heart of its audience, giving us a bittersweet picture that feels very much like real life. Not all thanks are owed to the writer-director though, as the emotional interplay is communicated effectively through the central cast, which also includes Birbiglia. Bringing to life and together a veteran of the improv stage still waiting for his break, a character artist with a tendency to show off, a neglected improviser living off her wealthy parents, an insecure late-joiner afraid to escape her cocoon, a secretly talented graphic novelist, and a son depressed of disappointing his father, the cast plays off each other effortlessly and has us splitting our sides and tearing up in every moment. The script and camerawork complements the dynamics of the group really well; constantly moving and flowing from one scene to the next with no second thoughts, they take on a rhythm that personifies the impromptu nature of improv. This is only enhanced by the special nature of the writing which turns every casual conversation between its characters into improv, as the performers are so tuned into their art that it becomes a way of life.
Despite the attention afforded to each character by the script as well as the actors, the performances by Mike Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs and Key stand out above the rest, for their evocative portrayal of people conflicted between their own interests and what is expected of them. The relationship between Jack and Sam has an incredible realistic quality to it, with not as many sharp notes as there are intricate moments, swinging between laughter and bleakness, pregnant with emotion yet withholding the explosion. In Don’t Think Twice, Birbiglia has crafted a film of small tangible scope, but spanning the expanse of human relationships under the weight of dreams and desperation. With every mind on set completely in tune with the art of improv comedy, and integrating it into every aspect of the film, it delivers a uniquely captivating portrait of human life, which makes a connection despite the niche premise. If it is true that comedy cannot exist without tragedy, this is the film that makes the case.