Comedy is big business. It can also be a very lucrative business. Many aspiring comics from all walks of life have sacrificed to make it their personal goal to become professional laugh-makers. The world is at their jocular fingertips if and when that elusive break comes down the opportunistic pike. One can imagine the humble beginnings for some of show businesses famous funny people that became iconic celebrities blessed with fame, money, situation comedies and movies and of course the inevitable adoration of faithful fans everywhere. However, to get to the Promise Land of big-time chuckles, one must climb up the ladder and earn their notable stripes of humor-oriented prestige. For some comical performers the launching pad may consist of an open mike night at the local comedy club. As for others the concentration of pursuing a prospering career in comedy could be realized by joining improvisational comedy troupes. Clearly, mainstream comedy enthusiasts are aware of some famed improv venues that include L.A.’s The Groundlings Theater or Chicago’s Second City Comedy Club for instance.
Writer-director-star Mike Birbiglia’s (“Sleepwalk With Me”) Don’t Think Twice explores the nuances of competitive comedy — particularly in the realm of improvisation as a performance-driven craft. Indeed, Don’t Think Twice is skillfully perceptive in examining the boundaries of showbiz aspirations through comical rituals, rivalries and envy within the confines of opportunistic impov comedians reaching for the golden ticket to stardom. Bitingly honest, revealing, insightful and hysterical, Don’t Think Twice is an off-kilter comedy that resonates because it feels like an inside road map into the chaotic lives of the featured troupe members utilizing improvisation as their creative tool of trade. Birbiglia resourcefully delves into the streams of determination, desperation, urgency and satirized glimpses of what triggers the foundation for chasing the shiny spotlight en route to stagy notoriety.
The premise involves the Manhattan-based six-member improv group known as The Commune. After more than a decade of being in operation things start to unfold that is threatening the demise of The Commune’s headquarters. The small improv theater is about to be sold thus putting in jeopardy the uncertain future of the special “home” that secured so many fond memories for the dedicated improv players. However, the notion of The Commune’s confining improv theater being dealt to a whole new set of owners’ hands was not the only stressful factor to consider. Soon, the group dynamic will implode when one gifted performer is highlighted by his particular talents while the others are forced to sit on the sidelines with understandable jealousy and rejection.
The quiet resentment gradually sets in when breakout star Jack (Keegan-Michael Key, “Keanu”) is fingered to audition for “Weekend Live,” a “Saturday Night Live”-esque variety show with a highly popular following. Jack, the youngest member of the improv troupe, is afforded the opportunity for his girlfriend and fellow improv co-star Samantha (Gillian Jacobs from “Community”) to also accept an invite to the audition. Samantha declines the invitation choosing to stay true to her Commune identity while showing skepticism toward the potential hoopla that may result due to Jack’s good fortune.
The consensus for Jack’s rise to potential comedy royalty is on shaky ground. First, The Commune previously vowed to remain loyal to one another as they promised to work as one unit under the umbrella of improvisational solidarity. Jack instantly jumping at the rare chance for a solo venture into greener pastures is seen as somewhat of a betrayal. The remaining Communes — all pushing age 40 and feeling on borrowed time — wonder when their time to shine in the sun is about to materialize. After all, they have paid their dues longer than Jack.
Roguish Miles (Birbiglia) teaches the improvisational classes at the comedy theater and is considered the founder of The Commune. Miles never hesitates to reminisce about the close calls he has experienced to becoming a cast-member on “Weekend Live” to his students. So it does not come as a surprise that Miles would hold a grudge for something that his protégé accomplished that he could never do despite his clout at the improv setting. Reserved actor Bill (Chris Gethard, “The Dictator”) is busy trying to tend to dire familial matters. Alison (Kate Micucci, “When in Rome”) is a cartoonist whose partnership with Bill as duo comedy writers is declined for consideration by the “Weekend Live” staff. Finally, Lindsay (Tami Sagher, “Women Who Kill”) is the privileged one of the bunch courtesy of her parents’ wealth serving as a safety net for her to preserve her improvisational dreams without hitting financial rock bottom.
Intriguingly, Don’t Think Twice is oddly spiritual in its quest to tackle improvisation as a religious experience. The Commune are undoubtedly talented improvisers and are encouraged to “don’t think twice” when exemplifying a sense of artistic fearlessness on the stage for the sake of their comical art. Birbiglia effectively presents an obligatory wedge between the passion for bringing improvisational comedy to the forefront and the unsettling realities of chasing such showbiz rewards. There is a price to pay for benefiting from comedy entertainment on all scales of exposure. One can certainly relate to the characters’ on-going plight when trying to reach the mountaintop in this specialized corner of the comedy show business spectrum. Sure, “Weekend Live” is the so-called ultimate goal in the stillborn lives of The Commune comedy troupe, but by the same token it also masquerades as a disguised curse for the corrosive competitive juices boiling under unfulfilled expectations.
The correlation between making it as an improvisation comedian and going through the hoop of life in general is thoroughly demonstrated with wicked-minded wit and observational slickness. The fact that we all have to exist on our feet and travel an unknown trail riddled with spontaneity, loose boundaries and uncertainty is something that is not so foreign to us at all.