Interview: Mike Birbiglia (DON’T THINK TWICE)

June 29, 2012 - Mike Birbiglia at Union Hall, Park Slope, BK Credit: Evan SungMike Birbiglia knows how to tell a great story, as displayed in his acclaimed one-man shows, THANK GOD FOR JOKES or MY GIRLFRIEND’S BOYFRIEND, as well as his numerous appearances on THIS AMERICAN LIFE and with THE MOTH. In 2012, he wrote and directed a feature film adaptation of his solo show SLEEPWALK WITH ME, which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

In DON’T THINK TWICE, Mike has written and directed his first feature film that is not directly based on his own life, but is no less personal or heart-wrenchingly beautiful. The film follows a group of aspiring comics whose improv group is as much a career launching pad as it is a family. The film currently has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

We spoke with Mike about DON’T THINK TWICE, his own experiences with improv and what it means to succeed in the entertainment industry.

How did you get your start in the industry?

It was a circuitous route that got me writing films. I studied screenwriting at Georgetown. I was in class with some excellent screenwriters: Jonah Nolan, Jordan Goldberg, Brendan O’Brien (NEIGHBORS) and Jordan Ardino. I thought I would be a screenwriter right out of the gate. I quickly found out that’s not a job that anyone’s hiring from a listing online.

I was working the door at DC Improv in Washington, DC. I was doing stand-up, opening for comics and realized that I could pursue a career in stand-up comedy. I was hopeful that I would circle back and eventually make films. That’s what I did. I thought it would take about three or four years.

It took me 12 years to make my first film, SLEEPWALK WITH ME. That is how long everything takes—about 8 years longer than you think it will take. I always viewed myself as a writer. I became a director in the way a lot of people become directors, as a defender of my own vision for my writing.

I started writing as a kid. The first impulse I had when I was a kid was to write poems, little plays and jokes.

SLEEPWALK WITH ME was the first thing that I had published and made into a film. I guess I would say it was a hobby for a long time. Only now has it became a profession.

Your new film, DON’T THINK TWICE, follows an improv group who all dream of working on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Is that the career arc you envisioned for yourself?

It wasn’t. It was for a lot of improvisers and comedians. I never had that skill set. I never did voices or impressions. There was a point in my life where I thought I’d love to write for SNL or CONAN or THE DAILY SHOW, but I never really saw myself as being on camera in those places. Somewhere I thought, maybe I’ll end up with my own sitcom. I created a network pilot for myself 8 years ago. It didn’t get picked up to air.

In retrospect, it was the best thing that ever happened to me, because I ended up making all these projects outside of the system. I made three one-person Off-Broadway shows and two feature-length screenplays and films. I feel sort of lucky.

Tell me about the difference of writing from the point of view of a storyteller, as you did with SLEEPWALK WITH ME and MY GIRLFRIEND’S BOYFRIEND, versus writing about improv, like you do in DON’T THINK TWICE.

DON’T THINK TWICE is the first fictional piece of writing I’ve ever had produced.  Everything I’ve done prior to this is autobiographical. Improv is certainly a world I know. The six characters are people I know. They are amalgams of things I’ve seen, witnessed and experienced. In my freshman year in college, I was cast in an improv group and I went from having no friends to having these 10 people who were my best friends.

There’s something about that moment in your life when you’re 18, 19 years old. It’s an impressionable age. What you do in that period of your life really sticks with you for a long time. Learning the rules of improv, which I show in the beginning of the movie: “Say yes,” “It’s all about the group” and “Don’t Think”— were imprinted in me and have stayed with me.

After I directed SLEEPWALK WITH ME, I realized that it was actually learning improv when I was 18 that taught me how to direct a film. There is no way to train to direct a feature film other than directing a feature film. You can go to film school, read all the books, but it’s so much harder and more taxing than you can possibly imagine. A lot of the rules of improv teach you about collaboration and listening more than you talk, as well as handling other people’s ideas. I don’t really know anything about costumes, but I can listen and learn from the costume designer. Same thing with music or photography. You try to learn as much as you can on the job.

After I directed SLEEPWALK, I veered back towards improv and started doing a regular improv show. I did that with Tami Sagher, who is also in the film, and a rotating cast of people in any given week. My wife made this observation at one point that “It’s so interesting because in your improv shows, the cast is all equally talented and funny, yet that person’s on SNL, that person’s a movie star and that person lives on an air mattress in Queens.”

Not only was that a good observation, but I thought it was a whole movie. I could see a BIG CHILL-type comedy set in the world of an improv troupe. That’s how it started. 12 drafts later, here I am. I made the movie.

p12862514_p_v8_aaHow scripted was your movie about improv? Did you leave room for the actors to improvise?

If we had shot the movie exactly word-perfect, I think it would have worked. It would have worked in a different way. It’s a surprisingly written film for a film about improv. I wanted the actors to – I always want the actors to – say things in their own words. The script is plan A. I’m happy to go to plan B if an actor says “I’m not feeling this or I feel like I would say it like this.” I’m really open to that. Occasionally, it is important that a moment be word perfect.

When you hire five brilliant actors like Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard, Tami Sagher, Gillian Jacobs and Keegan-Michael Key, you’re in good hands. Four out of the six actors had improv backgrounds, which was a real asset to the film. You have these people who are thinking of the movie in a 3-dimensional sense. They’re thinking about the whole universe.

I said to everybody, “In rehearsals, you guys can ask to do things differently, but on the day we shoot, you may not be able to because we can’t afford it. Literally, we can’t afford another 20 minutes, never mind another hour.”

As an example, we rehearsed a scene where the group confronts Jack (Keegan) at the bar and Samantha (Gillian) said, “I don’t know if I’d go into the bar.” We rehearsed the scene that way and then I put that in the script because it worked much better than what I’d originally written.

Is there any scene in particular that really stands out for you as translating really well from the page to the screen?

There’s a big argument scene where the group is really at each other’s throats. That one was an exciting scene to see come to life. There’s another scene with me and Keegan having brunch and we’re expressing our frustrations with each other about our friendship.

Probably the best execution of the writing is the final scene. I don’t want to give it away, but it’s sort of a romantic scene between Keegan and Gillian. Whenever I see it, it breaks my heart. They give so much of themselves to it, which heightens it to a level that I strive for on the page but couldn’t have dreamed of the execution.

There is another scene in the movie where you deal with the issue of joke stealing. What was your thought going into that scene and trying to illustrate this issue?

A friend asked me if I was thinking of the Jay Mohr incident when I wrote that. I think in his book he talks about how he stole a joke from a stand-up comedian he saw in New York and turned it into a sketch on SNL. I actually wasn’t thinking of that specifically. Joke stealing is a constant source of debate and conversation—did so-and-so steal such-and-such a sketch? I actually think most of the time they’re not. SNL has some of the best writers and performers in the country. I really don’t feel like they have to steal stuff. I think that is the nature of the collective unconscious.  When you have 5,000 comedy writers working, people are going to hit some parallel developments. It’s the nature of it.

Then there’s stuff like in the film where someone develops something with a group, then they go to SNL and they want to do that sketch. I know that’s been the case with Second City over the years. You’re like, “Well, whose is that? Does that belong to Bob Odenkirk, SNL, Second City or Chris Farley?” It’s a grey area.

DON’T THINK TWICE gives improv a level of respect that it is not often shown. You seem to have a great respect for the people who truly commit themselves to improv as an artistic endeavor.

You know, it certainly wasn’t my intention other than to be respectful of the art form. In some ways, I feel insecure about making a film like this, because the greats in New York are Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh and Matt Bessler. They created UCB, which has this massive influence on the entire comedy world. Then, it owes homage to Del Close and Charna Halpern, who started ImprovOlympic in Chicago. You can date that back before that to The Committee in San Francisco. This movie owes a great debt to a lot of the trailblazers of this art form. I’m just trying to be respectful, knowing that I’ll never do it complete justice. I can try my best.

In the film, you also show how long and hard people must stay with their artistic pursuit to achieve, maybe, some success. You talked earlier about how it took you 12 years to get your first project produced. What do you say to people that are still striving to make this their career?

It’s a great question and the hard reality of any creative pursuit. My friend Eugene Mirman gets asked how to become a successful comedian all the time by aspiring comedians. He always says, “Well, start doing it. Keep doing it. Call me in 10 years.”

Talent is kind of the cost of admission to even try it. Then it takes years of doing it and trying to get better before you arrive at a place where you can make a living doing it.

This movie also toys with the idea that maybe there’s a point at which you don’t do it anymore and you try to be great at any number of other things. I feel success in this country is often quantified in the wrong way. Americans think of success only in relation to exposure or visibility. I feel like success has more to do with how you’re helping people, affecting people or contributing.

The thing that I would say is that, whether you’re in Phoenix or Detroit or San Francisco, you can create on any given night the best written, best performed, most provocative, timely piece of theater in the world. It can be for 30 people or 60 people. To me, that’s more powerful than starring on a mediocre sitcom being half watched by 7 million people.

I’ve come to realize—in my late thirties now—that it’s so much more about connecting with people than it is about being seen.

To promote DON’T THINK TWICE, you went on an improv tour.

Instead of giving out t-shirts. I thought it would be fun if we gave out improv workshops. I called Liz Allen, who coached part of the cast on improv, and she was game for it. I sent out a Facebook post, saying, “If you want to submit your improv group to be coached for a free improv workshop, email here.” We got about a 120 theaters and were able to go to about 30. It’s been a fascinating experience. You realize that there’s really talented people all over the country and there’s a lot of really inspiring work happening.

Chris Gethard came to the workshops in Phoenix, Philadelphia, DC and Boston. He’d give this history lesson about how improv is a very young art form. It started in the 50s and 60s. He would explain to the groups that they can and should be trying new things—that they should be experimental and really go outside their comfort zone. When you’re in New York or Los Angeles, people get reticent going on stage when they’re wondering who’s in the audience—is a casting director or producer here? Chris has a really powerful message that you don’t really have to impress people, you can take chances with the work.

I always say that to anyone who is an aspiring writer, director or creator. I think that the heart is more powerful than cleverness. There’s 6,000 people at Princeton who are cleverer than me, but maybe not as many who are putting their heart and soul into their writing.

What’s a line you wrote for DON’T THINK TWICE that really stands out to you?

The line that gets quoted a lot is when Chris Gethard’s character says, “If your 20s are all about hope, then your 30s are about realizing how dumb it was to hope.”

It’s a laughs line, but it’s also sad and somewhat true. It reflects these characters at that moment. I don’t 100% agree with the statement, but I think it’s an interesting and provocative jumping-off point for a conversation.

When my friends and I were in our 20s, we all wanted the same three jobs. When you’re in your 30s, you realize, we don’t all have to have the same dream. We can’t all get the same dream anyway. The person who ends up getting the dream often isn’t so happy after all. I like to poke holes in this notion that we all have to get the same thing out of life. The movie tries to ask the question of what is success exactly.

Follow Mike Birbiglia on Twitter at @birbigs


Back to OnWriting