When I posted my movie consumer’s guide for 2012, among the recommended films was “Sleepwalk With Me”, a quirky “indie” film based on the real life career of Mike Birbiglia, a self-deprecating, mildly amusing standup comedian who is a sleepwalker. Among the things we learn about him in this modest work is that unless he spends the night in a sleeping bag atop a bed, there is a chance that he might walk out a second story window as he once did.
After getting an invitation from a publicist to see his latest film “Don’t Think Twice”, I was eager to see it based on his earlier work. On one level, it is the same kind of breezy entertainment as “Sleepwalk With Me” but on a higher level it is a dark and deeply perceptive meditation on the phenomenon that William James described in a letter to H.G. Wells in 1906: “The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That — with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success — is our national disease.”
Birbiglia stars as Miles, the founder and director of an improvisational comedy group called The Commune that performs in a theater named Improv for America. While there is nothing overtly political about the group’s performances, their improvisational techniques suggest a certain kind of value system familiar to those of us who lived through the 60s:
1/ Say Yes: Always accept your partner’s cue on stage to move the improvisation forward.
2/ It’s All About the Group: The individual is subordinate to the collective performance. Stardom is frowned upon.
3/ Don’t Think: This is about getting out of your head and acting on your impulses. It is also a reference to the film’s title, one of Bob Dylan’s most famous songs that we hear in the closing credits of the film.
The film begins with black-and-white footage of Chicago’s legendary Second City troupe that was co-founded by Bernard Sahlins, the brother of radical anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, who went on to produce SCTV, the comedy show that featured Rick Morainis, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin and other great talents.
The premise of the film is that improvisational comedy groups, including Second City and its counterpart The Improv in New York, were a kind of minor league that prepped up-and-coming actors for jobs in the big league—Saturday Night Live specifically. Once you became a SNL superstar, the next step is to become an egotistical asshole like Chevy Chase, an old friend of mine from Bard College who was part of The Improv.
The sketches performed by The Commune are “observational” in character. When a show begins, the group’s emcee invites an audience member to respond to her question “Has anyone had a particularly bad day?” That leads someone to volunteer that they spent the day hunting for an apartment in NY and only being able to afford one with a bathtub in the kitchen. The improvisation leads to an insane bidding war by cast members over a slummy apartment with one offering two million dollars, not that far-fetched considering what has happened along Avenue A in the past twenty years.
The comedy they extract from New York’s class-divided real estate situation is in sharp contrast to the grim reality they are facing. When the group gets together in an East Village bar the following evening, they consider the consequences of the Improv for America building being sold to Donald Trump from beneath their feet:
BONNIE We had a ten year lease. Like we’ve had for forty years. I thought we’d renew. Or it’d go up three percent. But they’re selling. Another Trump building, I think. We’re done. This devastates the group.
ALLISON I read that Trump doesn’t even own the buildings. They just buy the rights to use his name.
LINDSAY (to herself) New York City is over.
JACK (in Donald Trump accent) “New York City, you’re fired.”
MILES (Trump accent also) “Improv for America, you’re fired.”
One night producers from television’s marquee comedy/variety show Weekend Live show up at Improv for America on a talent-hunting expedition and are impressed by actors Jack, an African-American who tends to grandstand despite the Commune’s ethos, and Sam, his white girlfriend–so much so that Jack and Sam get a phone call the next day inviting them to come in for an audition.
Weekend Live is obviously SNL. When the other members of the Commune learn about their good fortune, they are both glad for them and resentful for their success, particularly Miles who feels that the fact he trained Jack entitles him to get an audition as well. His sense of entitlement is not that different from Hillary Clinton’s and the first sign that the group ethos erodes in a market-driven society where labor is as much of a commodity as a potted plant.
Essentially, Jack’s success drives a wedge into the group’s solidarity and tempts every cast member into grubbing after Jack to help them escape from the minor leagues. Can he put in a good word for them to the show’s producer, show him their writing, line up an audition? Never feeling comfortable with the idea of performing (reasonably so) on Weekend Live or succumbing to careerism, Sam walks away from her audition not long after arriving at the swank office building that houses Weekend Live’s offices, a Trump building conceivably.
Jack is played by Keegan-Michael Key, the co-star of Comedy Central’s “Key and Peele”, and is just terrific. There is zero mention of his race throughout the film but it is of some interest that the most qualified member of the cast is an African-American. One cannot exactly be sure why Birbiglia made this casting choice but it works brilliantly as a way of showing the complexities of class and race in the USA today.
If there is any villain in the film, it is not Jack who is simply reacting to market imperatives like any working stiff. Instead it is the institution of Saturday Night Live that Birbiglia satirizes with a scalpel rather than a broadsword.
The producer of Weekend Live is named Timothy, a character just as repulsive as Lorne Michaels, who he is obviously based on. After Jack is hired for the show, he has an initial meeting with Timothy that Birbiglia’s screenplay portrays vividly:
Jack sits across from TIMOTHY, 60s, who sits behind a desk full of Emmys. Timothy is short, so Jack can barely see him over the Emmys. Jack struggles to follow what he’s saying.
TIMOTHY Thirty years…different ever year…whole new thing…Paul McCartney once told me the same thing.
JACK Right, right. Wow.
TIMOTHY And that’s how it goes.
In his first appearance on Weekend Live, Jack is thrilled to be part of the scene. Birbiglia is shrewd enough to include cultural signifiers that evoke SNL, including a cameo by Lena Dunham who plays herself as the host of the show. She introduces an indie rock band called Elel performing “40 Watt”, the typical college station hit. Birbiglia’s screenplay indicates an ANGLE ON Jack who “watches in awe. This might be the coolest moment of his life. Robbie pats him on the back. He shares a smile with Lena. Music continues…” Someone much less deft than Birbiglia might have been tempted to wring out the faux hipness of Dunham et al but it works much better by letting the scene play out without any sort of directorial italics.
In mid-season Jack works up the nerve to present Timothy with some writing that his former Communards have written in the hopes that they too might be admitted into the inner circle. As might be expected, his boss pisses all over him. When Jack starts off by assuring him that they are a talented bunch, Timothy interrupts him: “Jack, you should worry about yourself.” He continues: “You’re not what we call a pure talent. You’re not a virtuoso. You’re the kind of player who needs to write for himself. Or you’ll be…(signaling out) Ya know.” Out, of course, means being without a job.
Whether Birbiglia was intentionally commenting on American society is almost immaterial. In fact, I’d like to think that he wasn’t. The beauty of “Don’t Think Twice” is that it allows you to draw your own conclusions about American society and its tendency to pit people against each other. Birbiglia is simply offering up his own experiences in this world and by doing so puts the entire dreary and soul-destroying careerism of the professional middle-class under a microscope.
The truth is that Birbiglia knew exactly what he was doing when he made this film, including naming the players the Commune. This is revealed in an interview he gave to Variety on July 25, 2016. When asked about the difference between standup and improv (he’s done both), he answered:
In some ways both fields are cutthroat and competitive, but in stand-up it’s much more overt and comics go after each other. In improv the rules of it are inherently supportive, so they don’t support competition. You’re really not supposed to be competitive in improv, but life gets in the way. Especially when people all want the same thing. When I got the idea for the movie I wrote this idea on the wall — art is socialism, but life is capitalism.
Look for “Don’t Think Twice” that should be available as VOD before long. It is my pick for one of the best films of the year. By embodying the observation in an entertaining and thought-provoking film that art is socialism and life is capitalism, Birbiglia is a prophet for our times.