In the world of show business, very, very few performers actually hit reach the biggest stages, and most budding comedians do not achieve their dreams. Opening in movie theatres later this summer, “Don’t Think Twice” – written and directed by comedian Mike Birbiglia – stars six comics of a fictional New York City improv troupe called The Commune, and this comedy/drama makes us laugh, while it also explores the difficult realities of the comedy world.
Mike and his costar, Chris Gethard, stopped by Phoenix during a national promotion tour of the film and found some time to speak with me and three other journalists: Nick Spake, Kaely Monahan and Bill Binder (and all four of us contributed to the interview).
Mike and Chris chat about their experiences in the comedy industry, the messages that “Don’t Think Twice” communicates and the genius camerawork captured during the movie’s improv segments.
Q: “Don’t Think Twice” demonstrates that being in show business is full of tribulations. What do you think is the hardest part about being a comedian?
CG: I think there is a weird loneliness that comes with being a comedian. There is something definitely inside the personality of a person who wants to be a comedian, and (he or she) is looking to connect (to the audience) at all times. Outside of performing, (a comedian) is someone who is analyzing life, thinking about it and trying to be observing so much. In my opinion, it can make you feel on the outside looking in. I get very jealous of my friends who have traditional families and 9-to-5 jobs, because I feel like just by the nature of being a comedian…(Mike jumps in)
MB: You are always on. I shouldn’t say (that) you are always on, but you are always on duty, because you are in a constant state of observation. Whether we like it or not, it’s a profession that requires failure. It just doesn’t encourage failure, it requires it, because it’s all trial and error. You need to know what doesn’t work to know what works. It’s especially true in improv and stand-up. Failure is hard. There is no way around it, bombing on stage never feels great. You feel judged. You feel alone, but when it works, it’s transcendent.
Q: I loved the onstage camerawork with the cameraperson becoming the seventh cast member during the improv scenes. Having the camera onstage with the performers reminded me of the 2008 Rolling Stones concert film, “Shine a Light”. Was it a good experience, and how do you think it helped the finished product?
MB: We spent a lot of time with Joe Anderson, my cinematographer. He’s a very smart guy and a real rising star. We wanted the camera to be the seventh member of the group. We wanted the Steadicam working in and out of the actors so (the movie audience) feels like (the performers) are their friends.
We filmed scripted improv and actual improv with the moving Steadicam, and it required improvisation on the part of the cinematographer, the camera operator and all six of us actors. (Everyone) was amazing, and I feel like after a while we all had a third eye that was watching the camera to make sure we didn’t slam into it.
CG: As an actor too, it was surprisingly not distracting, which speaks to the skill of the camera operator, in particular. For a guy who was wearing a rig that probably weights about eighty pounds with hoists and wires, it was pretty seamless, and he managed to be a fly on the wall, even though there were times when this giant contraption would be 18 inches from your face.
I give a lot of credit to Mike too, because as someone who has done improv for 16 years, it’s a notoriously hard thing to film. When you try to go back and watch improv on tape, it almost never feels as good as it did when a crowd was laughing at it. I think that Mike isolated the way to do it, where it actually is palatable, exciting and makes you feel like you are in the room.
MB: I was inspired by some of David O. Russell’s films like “The Fighter” (2010) and “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012), which I always thought were very skillful. When my cinematographer and I talked, we thought to shoot it like a dance or fight sequence, where we really feel like we are living inside of it.
Q: Having come from stand-up, how does your scriptwriting process work? Stand-up and film are two separate mediums. Was it a challenge?
MB: My writing process is very feedback-based. When I do stand-up, I listen to the audience. I try to understand what’s connecting, what’s not connecting, and then rewrite, rewrite and rewrite. Chris and I have been on the road a lot together where we get on the bus at night, and we talk about the jokes that didn’t work and the joke possibilities that could work, and so that never ends.
I think (my film approach) is a little different from other writers. I had about 10 or 11 readings at my house, and I invited Chris, Tami Sagher (who is in the movie) and other writers to read the script with me and give (their) thoughts. What’s working? What’s not working?
Over the course of that process, we arrived at a script that we were really proud of, and once we got on set, we hired five brilliant actors.
Q: “Don’t Think Twice” shows how success can sometimes get in the way of your friendships, and it also shows how envy and failure can get in the way of your relationships. Do either of you identify with that at all?
CG: Yes, I dated another comedian for a number of years, and she’s a lovely person who I have great respect and affection towards, (however), it’s very, very rare that two people will be equally successful at the same time. My career got rolling a little bit, and there was some weirdness there, and she would achieve some things, and there was competitiveness and jealousy that you don’t want inside a personal relationship. Many comedians – both male and female – do have an “I will never date another comedian” rule.
You find a lot of comedians who say, “I’ve tried that, and it’s just too hard.”
Now, I’m married to a dancer, which is the perfect world. She is an artist who understands the lifestyle, and I am not jealous of her getting dance roles.
MB: I think that it’s really hard, especially when you are younger. One of the inspirations for this film is (while) in my 20s, I was best friends with a group of people who all shared the same dream. We all wanted the same thing, and as we got older, we realized that we all don’t have to have the same dream, and the person who gets the dream – or the closest thing to it – maybe isn’t so happy after all, which is a little bit reflected in the film.
Q: The money plight of The Commune improv players was painfully evident in many ways. When does one hit a breaking point when economic reality trumps one’s dreams in comedy?
MB: One of things that I wrote on my wall as inspiration was, “What happens when life gets in the way of dreams?”
That’s the question that I don’t know the answer to, but the movie tries to take a stab at what it feels like.
CG: In my experience, I was working a lot of freelance gigs and cobbling together rent while also trying to be a comedian, and my shrink stepped in and said, “You’ve got to go for it, because you are driving yourself nuts. You have to figure out if you are going to go all in on this or eventually walk away.”
She said that I need to give myself no other option and only make money (from) things that are related to what I actually want to be doing. It was great advice, although it was scary. I went through about a year under that advice, and I hit the first point in my adult life, where if I had to pay my rent that day, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
I was not living in a nice place, and I didn’t have $650 in my bank account. It was really demoralizing. I remember I cried, called a friend of mine and commiserated on the phone with him and said, “This might be it, Dude. I might have to give this one up.”
Karmically, at the end of that week, I was cast in my first ever movie, a very tiny part in “The Other Guys” (2010) with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. That gave me enough money to get through the end of the year, and it was just a momentum burst. Ever since then, I’ve been able to pay my rent as a comedian, but I knock on wood, because I am also very aware that this could end tomorrow.
I think for a lot of people, the financial barrier is the biggest leap (that) you have to take. A lot of people don’t want to stick their necks out and take that risk which is totally understandable. Until you are ready to totally bet on yourself and put all of your chips on the table, it doesn’t happen.
MB: I agree. I made artistic leaps and bounds when I quit my day job, (but) I was living on an air mattress in Queens. I couldn’t afford a dresser for my clothes. When you are broke, everything is low to the ground. You wake up, you roll off your air mattress, and you grab pants from the floor. You cook noodles on a hot plate.
One falls on the ground, you say, “Oh, that’s not too far.”
That’s what it’s like for a while. There’s kind of no way around it.
Q: For some people, this film could be their first exposure to improv. How do you think “Don’t Think Twice” will influence the general awareness of the art form?
CG: I remember when I started in 2000. I signed up for classes at “Upright Citizens Brigade”, and I never had seen long form. I lived in northern New Jersey, and I was as close as you could get. Now it’s really spread. Most colleges have one – if not more – long form improv troupes, and it still feels like a relatively underground thing. I do think “Don’t Think Twice” will be an entry point where a lot of people can find it.
There are probably a lot of (improv comedians) who will show their parents this movie and say, “This is what I am doing.”
MB: I’ve had a lot of people say to me at screenings, “Finally, I can explain this to my parents.”
CG: It’s a really impactful thing. I remember my parents said – what can only be described as real concern – when I (told them) that I wanted to do improv in New York City, while I was living in their basement in New Jersey. It didn’t necessarily seem like a path towards anything stable. I think this movie will prove that it’s not (necessarily stable), but also prove that – like any other type of art – it has some validity that’s worth taking a risk.
Q: In the press notes, it states, “Principles of art are like socialism, and life is capitalism”. Mike, is that your personal quote?
MB: That’s something (that) I wrote down on my wall at one point. It came from an observation my wife made who is a very wise, brilliant person. She was watching an improv show that we were performing at Del Close Marathon. On stage, we were improvising with Ellie Kemper and a bunch of people who are really successful and some (others) who may be less successful in that traditional way.
My wife said that it’s so interesting that one of the principles of improv is “everyone is equal”, but in fact, off stage, this person’s sitcom has started, this person’s movie has started, this person is on “Saturday Night Live”, and this person shares a one-bedroom (apartment) with four dudes.
The moment she said that, I spun out and said, “That’s a movie. That’s a movie. That idea is a movie.”
Q: One character drops the ball on a golden opportunity, and it was so painful to watch. Have you seen a similar situation in your comedy careers? Was this character just afraid of success?
CG: I know about a half-dozen people that self-sabotage. It’s very interesting being an artist and a comedian, (because) you aim for jobs that will feed your ego, but when you get up to the precipice of them, you actually have to deliver. You actually have to understand that you’re reaching a new level where there are way more eyes on you, way more expectations and way more pressure.
There are a few people in the stand-up and improv worlds in New York that are legendary…(Mike jumps in)
MB: Local legends.
CG: Very respected people with massive amounts of ability, who for one reason or another, it hasn’t happened for them in a (large scale) way. People ask, why hasn’t that person busted out? Almost always, at the end of it, consciously or subconsciously, it hasn’t happened because that person has chosen for it to not happen. Either walking away, because it wasn’t the life they wanted, or through self-sabotaging.
MB: Some part of their self-conscious just doesn’t want it to happen. We’ve all heard that phrase, “Eddie Murphy is brilliant, but the real guy in New York at the time was …”
There are a million stories like that, and there always will be. Mick Jagger is great, but the real guy in rock ‘n roll in England was ‘blah, blah, blah’.
CG: I hope that guy is doing well.
MB: I hope he’s doing okay. This movie – in a lot of ways – is about the real guy.
CG: It’s interesting too, because (during) my time in the New York comedy scene, some of the people who were the most explosive performers and the most that everybody would watch and say, “Oh, that person has got it,”…they don’t do comedy any more.
This movie made me remember over and over again that there are so many things beyond talent that need to happen. You need an immense amount of luck and perseverance to even be on the playing field for success on a grand scale. What’s the phrase? You work as hard as you can for 10 years, so you have a chance to finally be lucky.
Luck is not a real thing, I don’t think. There are very few people that I have seen in my almost two decades doing this – very, very few people – that were embraced by the industry way too soon, and then also nailed it. You see people – maybe in a frustrating fashion – that don’t get embraced, when they should. You get some people who get embraced too early, and they tend to flame out, but it’s really rare that someone gets lucky. It’s usually a combination of a lot of talent and a lot of hard work.
People who get lucky, also tend to be really great looking, which is luck on some level, but it is also just the fact of the matter.
MB: They are shinier. There are a lot of shinier performers who break young, and then you see a slow decline. I’ve witnessed that a lot.
CG: Even for the prettiest and most handsome performers, when they get that opportunity, they still need to step up to the plate and deliver.
MB: You ultimately have to put in the hours and get lucky. It’s a really hard reality of this business. The amount of people who break through is so small a fraction of the amount of people trying.
CG: That being said, there are many hundreds of millions of people who have jobs harder than (mine), and I also remind myself of that every day. No matter how frustrating this can be, I am very lucky that I have been able to cobble together a little life, in which (comedy) is what I do. I am certainly not in danger of getting stuck in a mine anytime soon.
MB: I can always go back to waiting tables, but I won’t be very good at it. I’ll never be good at it.
Q: How much of the movie do you think is scripted to a “T”, and how much do you think the dialogue was improvised?
MB: It’s scripted in the sense that we shot everything word-for-word. It’s all in “the can”, and then ultimately, I wanted these guys to feel comfortable saying whatever came out (in later takes). There’s this great moment that Chris has, (when) we are improvising the eulogy scene.
We say, “Jack was a great man.”
I then say that his body’s not in there, and Chris improvised and said, “It’s just his headshot.”
I broke down laughing.
CG: With the content of this movie and Mike’s background as a comedian, he was better than most people I’ve worked with in a director’s setting.
He would say, “Great, we got the (shot) that’s on the page, but who wants to push it a little further? Anybody got anything else to push it to a place that we are not seeing?”
I think, obviously, that is a very smart call. Mike consistently pushed the cast and the crew to stay for one or two more takes to see if we can just find some variation on (a scene), some extension, and keep that feeling of live comedy alive.
MB: I always say to the cast that if people see this movie in France in subtitles, wouldn’t it be cool if they thought it was a documentary?
Wouldn’t it be cool if they said, “We should go see The Commune in New York City.”
To me, those are my favorite kinds of movies, movies where you are so lured into the reality of it. When I watch “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986) or “Broadcast News” (1987), by the end, I am so choked up, because I can’t not believe these are people. It’s too real. I like films that are so funny, dramatic and lifelike simultaneously, that you are laughing and cringing simultaneously all throughout the film. At the end, you get choked up almost at the idea that you aren’t going to spend any more time with these people.
I go back and watch some of my favorite movies, because I want to hang with the people in Stillwater from “Almost Famous” (2000). I want to hang out with the characters in “Broadcast News” and “Hannah and Her Sisters”.
A lot of the response that we’ve (received) on the tour is, “I want to watch it again, right now. I want to have this at home on my TV and watch it right now. I can’t wait until this comes out. I’m going to see it again.”
That’s mindboggling for me, because those are the movies that I love.
Image credits: The Film Arcade; Trailer credits: Movieclips Film Festivals & Indie Films