Full confession: I’ve never enjoyed improv comedy. There’s something repulsive about people who are so starved for love that they’ll take suggestions from an audience and try to create something funny. Part of my disdain stems from a night many years ago when I was dragged to a Cambridge bar where I endured 90 minutes of unfunny improvising from a group known as ‘The Kamikazes of Comedy.’ I vaguely remember the performers as a bunch of pudgy young males, bearded, probably from the theater department of a local college; I’m sure one of them was the roommate of one of my friends, which is why I got pulled into this painfully humorless evening in the first place. Granted, there wasn’t much the group could do based on the suggestions coming from the customers – when prodded for a location, the crowd could only shout “public toilet” or “gonorrhea clinic” – but I assumed a top flight improvisation team would simply launch into a hysterical bit about gonorrhea. Instead, they flailed around the stage, trying to bowl us over with pep squad energy instead of wit; by the time they were done, I was done, too.
I understand that some of our funniest performers come from improv backgrounds, but I didn’t get a single laugh that night, a night I hadn’t thought about until seeing Don’t Think Twice, a reasonably amusing movie about a New York improv group on their last legs. Writer/director Mike Birbiglia has a background in stand-up comedy, and during his time at Georgetown College, he was part of an improv troupe. I don’t think he was in the Kamikazes of Comedy, but he seems cut from the same cloth. He’s pudgy and bearded, anyway.
The movie focuses on The Commune, a group of New York improv performers who can hear their comedy clocks ticking. One of them has been plucked from the team to be part of Weekend Live (a barely disguised version of SNL). The others, having lost their performance space, do gigs around the city for an ever diminishing audience. We also see them at their dull day jobs; they deliver sandwiches, hand out samples in a supermarket, and, of course, teach improv classes. We’re spared the old line about “Those can’t do, teach,” but the implication is there. At night, though, they still hit the stage and live out their improvisational dreams. One of the players even hauls out the famous quote from Del Close (the Stanislavsky of improvisational theater), about how watching a scene created on the fly is like watching people assemble a plane while it’s in the air. But for all of its crowing about the art and nobility of improv, the movie doesn’t get interesting until seeing one of their own make it to television brings out the group’s jealousy and bitterness. These comedians are bitter fucks, indeed.
Birbiglia gives each of the characters some reality to juggle. One’s father is dying. Another, played by Birbiglia, is nearing 40 and wondering if his comedy prime is over. The others suffer from a fear of moving forward; one gets her chance to audition for Weekend Live, and has a sort of meltdown in the lobby. Even the fellow who makes it onto the TV show has to struggle – his old pals at The Commune are nudging him to help with their careers, and Weekend Live itself is a bit of an embalmed institution. “Thank me if I don’t fire you at the end of the season,” says the stand-in for Lorne Michaels.
Ultimately, Don’t Think Twice is quite watchable. Even if the ending is corny, I like how Birbiglia shows in very clear terms that some people make it in the entertainment business, and some don’t, and it has to less do with talent than it does with timing and bluster. Where the movie flopped for me is due to it not being funny. Admittedly, I’m a tough crowd, but I couldn’t imagine any of these characters getting into network television, certainly not based on anything they do in the movie. The gamble a director takes when depicting the world of comedy is that the material had better be funny. Here, it’s not.
Kate Miccui, who plays one of The Commune members and should’ve been used more (she plays a tired, unhappy version of herself, and I wish Birbiglia had allowed her to cut loose), has a good line about a character she sees on television. The bit, she says, sounds funny but it’s really not. That’s Don’t Think Twice in a nutshell. This might explain why two thirds of the audience walked out of the screening I attended. I stayed with it till the end, but I had to bite my tongue to keep from shouting, “Gonorrhea clinic!”