“Don’t Think Twice” Celebrates Improv
Doing improv comedy require a different set of skills than traditional stand-up, or even memorizing lines for a play. You’re on stage literally making it up as you go along.
Don’t Think Twice follows the various relationships of a group of comedians in the Big Apple. “They’re an improv group, but also a group of best friends. Their theater closes when they lose the lease. One of the members gets cast on a television show and that forces everyone to evaluate what they are doing in their life,” Mike Birbiglia explains to a round table of reporters the day after the film’s world premier last March during SXSW.
Birbiglia wrote, directed and stars alongside an ensemble that includes Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci and Tami Sagher. Birbiglia is also one of the producers along with Ira Glass, and the two also collaborated on the popular radio show This American Life.
“As far as I know it’s the first film that captures long form improvisation on film,” says Birbiglia. “The way that we filmed the improv scenes was to specifically use Stedicam shots. It magically puts the viewer on stage.
“We shot it almost like a fight scene or dance scene, as opposed to your typical performance where you’re shooting from the audiences’ perspective. The dramatic scenes of the film are not improvised. I worked on the script for two years.”
Perhaps not oddly there’s a line of dialogue that makes fun of Donald Trump that comes across as very current. “It’s absurd,” says Birbiglia. “I wrote it eighteen months before the campaigns began. He’s everything that New Yorkers can’t stand. Destroying mom and pop businesses and putting in corporate storefronts. We shot this in August 2015 and I remember Gillian saying, you know the Trump thing – it’s getting weirder now.”
To guarantee authenticity, Birbiglia hired a professional coach to work with the cast for two weeks on improvisational technique. “My first improv coach was Liz Allen from Chicago, we hired her to do a workshop at my college. Years later I was improvising with Tami Sagher and she was friends with Allen.
“The first time Allen met Gillian they realized they were both from Pittsburgh,” says Birbiglia.
Jacobs continues the story: “What part of Pittsburgh? Such and such neighborhood. What street? Same street. What house? Same house. Her parents had sold the house to my parents.”
Career-wise this has been a banner year for Jacobs, first making an impression in the popular Netflix series Love and now stealing scenes in Don’t Think Twice. Jacobs graduated from Julliard School in 2004. “Challenges shift,” she says. “When I first graduated from college it was all about will I ever work? And then it became is each job my last? That anxiety has gone. Now its can I become involved in the conversation for a project I want to be involved in.”
On comics stealing jokes Birbiglia noted, “Comedy does have a certain bit of public domain to it. But by the same token there’s a bit of a code in our industry.
“There’s a scene where one of the troupe played by Chris Gethard, playing Bill, comes in naked. And I borrowed that from my friend Mike O’Brian [SNL cast member]. He improvises sometimes and I had heard a story where he walked in backstage before a show naked, and acted like it was no big deal. ‘This is what we’re doing right guys?’
“I called him after I put it in the script. ‘Hey Mike this is a really weird question, but I wrote this scene where one of the guys walks in naked and you were the inspiration.’ He thanked me for calling because no one ever calls.
“I want to make films that use comedy as a tool but not as an end in itself. Life is sad and funny and if you don’t have both, it’s not authentic.”
Don’t Think Twice opens exclusively this weekend at the River Oaks Theatre.