Everything you need to know about the tone and message of Don’t Think Twice is in one moment: a guy is leaving a hospital after his dad was in a serious motorcycle accident and he doesn’t want his father to die thinking that he’s a failure. His friend tries to console him by saying, “You’re not a failure, you’re in comedy.” And then there’s that second or two of awkward silence because neither of them wants to admit the guy’s dad will probably die disappointed. Comedy can surely be a barrel a laughs, but writer/director/star Mike Birbiglia (Sleepwalk With Me, The Fault in Our Stars) wants the audience to look just a little closer and see the frowns behind the painted smiles.
Don’t Think Twice focuses on an improv comedy troupe in New York City: Miles (Birbiglia), Sam (Gillian Jacobs), Allison (Kate Micucci), Lindsay (Tami Sagher), Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), and Bill (Chris Gethard). They’ve been performing together for years and are the best of friends, but they all strive for that big break of stardom. Otherwise, it’s back to daily lives of teaching improv, delivering sandwiches, living with their parents, or offering free hummus samples in a grocery store. Some friends of theirs have broken out of the improv scene onto the late night sketch show Weekend Live (sound familiar?), and Sam and Jack just scored an audition. With that comes jealousy, self-doubt, questioning life and how long can making up scenes every night last until real life crashes down on the gang.
Birbiglia, a well-regarded stand-up comic in his own right, clearly has experience in the ups and downs of being an upstart comic. He pulls no punches on the personalities of his characters: sure they mean well and support each other, but they’re also desperate for validation and always think they’re funnier than each other. It’s not out of cruelty or vanity (well, maybe a touch of vanity) but out of the realization that there’s not enough room in the spotlight for everyone. Don’t Think Twice doesn’t just apply to the thought process of improv, but the thought process of one’s comedy career: if you have a shot to make it, don’t think, just go. Birbiglia focuses more on the friendship and what the drive for success can do, and what he gets is a near-pitch black comedy. His characters go through misery not just by embarrassing themselves, but just by seeing them in their daily lives, how empty they feel and the more hopeless their situation becomes. It’s nice to show that they all suffer as a group as well as individuals, each showing different shades of a dire situation.
It’s a simple premise that relies heavily on the actors, and Birbiglia’s got good company. Everyone in the main cast knocks it out of the park, clearly experienced in improv and the failings of living hand to mouth on laughs. The solo gold medal goes to Jacobs (Community) as her Sam not only has to deal with her beloved passion being constantly knocked for its lack of lifespan, but the crippling inner thoughts that she won’t be good enough for the big time. Jacobs, restrained and yet bright as the sun, does it in spades and never feels phony throughout the 92-minute runtime. The silver goes to Micucci in a small but still exceptional role as the resident super nerd of the group (often referred to as “Data” from Star Trek: The Next Generation). She’s a bit OCD whose humor really shines through her drawings, while the rest of her talk is quiet and not well noticed among the group. Micucci makes it work really well as the gang’s kid sister-type, while Birbiglia himself acts as the dad/big brother of the group. His character is the vainest, someone who’s worked with former improv guys that went on to success while he’s still living in the equivalent of a college dorm at 36-years-old. The saddest of the bunch is Gethard, a four-eyed wuss who feels the most like a failure. One scene has the entire group give him a group hug onstage improving as his imaginary friends, and by God it’s hard not to want to jump through the screen and hug him too. Key’s character is the mirror to the average NYC comic success story, a once bright comedian turned obsessive and distant when driven to come up with ideas for a weekly sketch show.
Side note: how much did Birbiglia have to pay to keep from NBC from suing him for this?
When Don’t Think Twice credits start to roll, there are many pictures of the troupe hugging it out. It’s easy to get the sense that there’s an equal sense of genuine love for each other and need to hold on for survival. It’s the story of lonely people sticking together because they’re all they got. Another common rule of improv: never think for yourself, keep the group in mind. Because no matter how bright the spotlight is, it must feel pretty bad to be in there all by yourself.