Where Has All the Laughter Gone? Rethinking Don't Think Twice

Anyone who examines the long roster of not-ready-for-prime-time players beyond their Saturday Night Live sketches knows that many came to the NBC warhorse via Los Angeles' Groundlings, Chicago and Toronto's Second City, and Chicago/New York/LA's Upright Citizens Brigade improvisational-comedy troupes.

Don't Think Twice—the sophomore film from writer, director, standup comic, This American Life contributor and Orange Is the New Black cast member Mike Birbiglia—looks not at the success stories mirrored by the likes of Kristen Wiig (Groundlings), Bill Murray (Second City) or Amy Poehler (UCB), but instead focuses on six actors in their 30s standing in for the tens of thousands of troupers who never even got on SNL.

Well, actually, make that five actors. What drives the story is one member of the fictional, 11-year-old New York troupe the Commune getting plucked by Weekend Live, a not-so-subtle title that allows Don't Think Twice producers Birbiglia and Ira Glass to avoid paying a licensing fee to Lorne Michaels.

The call up to the big leagues forces the five actors left behind to re-examine their dream chases as self-doubt, jealousy and fear of the future rear their ugly heads. But it also leaves the Commune member who won the golden ticket feeling wistful over the uncomplicated life being abandoned. Toiling in obscurity, everyone has one another's back. Highly competitive SNL is known for chewing up first-year cast members—just ask Jenny Slate, Sarah Silverman and Robert Downey Jr.

While Birbiglia casts a spotlight on a very small world, it's one relatable to people of a certain age who, say, worked for decades in a dying industry that, other than the occasional radio interview and true-crime television-show appearance, offers zero recognition and even less financial stability, forcing a late-in-life re-examination of whether to keep waiting for that big ivory tower newspaper's call or just give up because . . . erm . . . where was I?

Birbiglia says the seed for his story was his wife remarking on the differences between his standup friends, who mercilessly cut one another down, and his improv pals, who support one another. That got Birbiglia to thinking about how everyone in improv troupes is equal—until they're not, like when success comes a-knockin'.

Having also written and directed his 2012 debut picture Sleepwalk With Me, Birbiglia says he wrote several drafts of the Don't Think Twice screenplay before his cast was assembled, and the script was further refined during readings in his living room.

As the leader of the Commune, Birbiglia balances the charm and smarminess found in his Orange Is the New Black privatized-prison official and his standup in Sleepwalk With Me, which was based on his one-man, off-Broadway show. Compassionate about the troupe, Birbiglia's Miles is also a man-child who lives in the bowels of the theater, sleeps with his first-year improv students and clings to having once been invited to audition for Weekend Live.

Keegan-Michael Key of Key & Peele fame is Jack, the most ambitious of the Commune players. A much-in-demand actor who bounces between roles in major movies and television shows (as well as a long and growing string of indies), Second City alum Key squeezes pathos out of a Don't Think Twice role that does not always cast him in the best light.

Kate Micucci (who, along with Riki Lindhome, makes up the musical comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates) plays Allison, a trouper who could probably find fame and success as a cartoonist, if only she'd let herself. The same can be said of stoner Lindsay, just substitute “writing” for “cartooning”; she's played by Tami Sagher, who in real life was the youngest player ever to make the Second City main stage and is now a writer on Girls, Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer.

The actors who bring the most believability to their roles are Gillian Jacobs, who has been Britta for all six seasons of the cult-adored sitcom Community and currently stars opposite Paul Rust on Judd Apatow's Love on Netflix, and Chris Gethard, a New York UCB regular who hosts The Chris Gethard Show on Fusion.

As Samantha, Jacobs moves beyond Birbiglia's written words to expertly use her face, body and aura to evoke a debilitating fear of success. She is arguably the best troupe member and inarguably the one most resistant to stepping up to the next level. Jacobs' winning turn in Don't Think Twice solidifies the notion that she is an actress to watch.

Gethard's Bill is the Commune member you see struggling most with whether someone his age and in his low station in life should just chuck all this improv nonsense, especially when he must deal with sudden tragedy. Despite playing the troupe's perpetual sad sack, Gethard peels off the film's funniest lines.

Unfortunately, such scenes are few and far between, as Birbiglia bathes his characters in more darkness than light. I can't recall one funny-out-loud moment. As “Mrs. Birbigs” knows, standups are miserable SOBs offstage. But wasn't Don't Think Twice supposed to explore why improv actors are not?

Don't Think Twice was written and directed by Mike Birbiglia; and stars Mike Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci and Tami Sagher. Screening at Regency Rancho Niguel, 25471 Rancho Niguel Rd., Laguna Niguel, (949) 831-0446. Opens Fri. Call for tickets and show times.

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