‘Don’t Think Twice’ takes a serious look at improv comedy

“Don’t Think Twice” (2016) – Have you ever attended an improv show? I have been a few times over the last 10 years, and I always come away feeling very impressed with the entire experience. Now, the performers seem to have the most difficult jobs, because they need to devise funny material – on the spot – based upon random audience suggestions and work in concert with their comedic brothers and sisters for 90 minutes or so.

Not easy.

“Don’t Think Twice” is a drama about a fictional, NYC improv troupe called The Commune, and although the film captures funny moments – especially on-stage – it is much more about the industry’s challenges and the comedians’ struggles.

Again, not easy.

The movie effectively opens with a shot of six empty chairs placed on-stage, and they represent the six Commune players – Miles (Mike Birbiglia), Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), Lindsay (Tami Sagher), Allison (Kate Micucci), and Bill (Chris Gethard) – who are about to start a show. Backstage, this tightknit group of 30-somethings rev each other up, and then everyone touches an inanimate “good luck bear” – for, of course, good luck – before racing onto the stage.

In their opening and subsequent performances, writer/director Mike Birbiglia and cinematographer Joe Anderson turn the camera into a seventh person. The film’s Steadicam moves effortlessly around and in between the comics as they perform, and the result gives the movie audience a unique and pleasing perspective. We seem to move around the stage with the six actors who dream up their immediate improv ideas, and the effect best resembles a smaller-scaled version of Martin Scorsese’s camerawork of The Rolling Stones in the concert film, “Shine a Light” (2008).

Now, The Rolling Stones are megastars, but The Commune players are not. While they deliver sparkling and hilarious jokes, skits, stories, and quips worthy of huge paydays, the big jobs – like “Weekend Live!” (a sketch comedy show that best resembles “Saturday Night Live”) - are extremely few and far between. Scoring a “Weekend Live!” cast member spot is like winning a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Until one wins such a “lottery”, an improv comic probably deals with difficult financial plights. In the film, they wait tables, struggle to make rent, receive monetary help from parents, and sometimes live off a diet of hummus and chips, and Birbiglia captures all of this in an organic way through their daily trials and tribulations.

In one particular, telling scene, Miles runs into an old friend from high school, Liz (Maggie Kemper). Like Miles, Liz is in her mid-30s, but unlike him, she has most of her life together. She works internationally, dresses professionally and is well-spoken. Meanwhile, Miles, unfortunately, seems trapped in a time warp since his early 20s, and his predicament is almost entirely due to his profession’s financial limitations. A one point, Liz stops by Miles’ apartment but very clearly states that she will not stay overnight at “his dorm”, and her description of his place is 100 percent accurate.

Despite money problems, these comedians are best of friends and a family. Family sticks together through the best and worst of times, but in this case, the best and worst of times can occur on the same day, every day. The best is when they write, practice and perform together, and the worst is the remainder of each day. In fact, as the movie states, there are three rules of improv, and the second rule applies to on and off-stage events: “It’s all about the group.”

This second rule is gravely tested, however, when one Commune player might find a taste of serious success, and the reaction from the other comics is at the heart of Birbiglia’s film. The results are a fascinating look at a figurative family of human beings who learn life’s chief rule: it isn’t fair. With Birbiglia’s years of firsthand improv experience, “Don’t Think Twice” fairly and successfully depicts the joys and troubles of the performers, and we learn the hard way that conjuring up funny material might actually be the easiest part of their job. (3/4 stars)

Image credits: The Film Arcade