Last Saturday, I saw a movie about comedy that inspired me as a writer. It was Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice, a sharply realistic yet sweet portrait of a New York improv group. They’re unknown comedians who make people laugh by night but work by day to stay afloat. And they’re friends, and smart, and loving, and sometimes selfish. They’ve performed in The Commune for years but when the manager of the theater announces the building’s been sold and the theater is closing, they are squeezed by change. Often, that squeezing is uncomfortable to watch.
Improvising Their Lives
There are six members in The Commune: Miles, Bill, Lindsay, Allison, Jack, and Samantha. Miles, the founder of the group, faces the challenge of finding another inexpensive performance space. As he fumbles for a plan, he meets an old high school flame whom he’s attracted to but is ultimately more grown up than he at 36. As their relationship deepens, he questions whether he wants to continue the hard task of doing improv for little pay or just being a father to his girlfriend’s coming child.
Meanwhile, a talent scout notices Jack and Samantha, a couple, one night on stage. The scout invites them to audition for Weekend Live, an SNL-type of show. That’s when we see friendships strained and the anxieties of measuring up appear. While Jack, though nervous, shows up for and performs at his audition, Samantha gets cold feet. She goes to the show’s building but blows off the audition. Later, Jack get the job on Weekend Live and Samantha continues to perform improv in obscurity. That Samantha was the one initially noticed by the scout and the first target of recruitment makes her self-sabotage all the more heartbreaking. She passed on the biggest shot of her life, on purpose. As the story unfolds, we learn that she didn’t really want to be a rock star comedian. She was more comfortable out of the spotlight, or “in the well” as she jokes on stage.
Meanwhile, Allison, another Commune member, is a talented cartoonist who’s worked on a graphic novel for years. While she’s full of ideas and her drawings are quirky and adorable, she’s unable to complete her artistic project. It’s only later when the theater closes, Allison realizes she has nothing to lose and finally finishes her graphic novel. She sends out the manuscript to a publisher who earlier expressed interest.
Lindsay, a copyeditor by day, applies for and gets a writing job on Weekend Live, a job which all of The Commune members had been invited to apply for. Some didn’t because the job was writing and not performing. Lindsay ends up hired by Weekend Live but is hesitant to talk about her success with her struggling friends. This situation nicely comes to a head late in the movie. In a great scene, Miles criticizes Lindsay for having such an easy life. Lindsay comes from a wealthy family and her apartment and therapy sessions are paid for. As Miles resentfully asks why she gets to have all the breaks, Lindsay smartly and strongly retorts, “Because I applied!” A wonderful lesson for any artist. She did, indeed, “apply.” She tried, meaning if you truly want to be successful, you have to seize an opportunity when you get one, even if it’s not exactly the one you want.
And so, the movie ends with The Commune characters headed to different life destinations. Jack and Samantha split up, and Jack, on his way to being a famous comedian, realizes that he must now live in a more serious, hardworking world than his friends. Miles is content to let improv fade from his life and be a father. Bill, Samantha, and Allison find that continuing improv in Philadelphia via the gift of a theater space from Bill’s father is the extent of their comedic ambitions.
Being at Ease With What You Decide
The messages of being persistent and knowing yourself resonated with me. I write creatively for little money while I keep quietly knocking on doors and showing people what I have to offer. Occasionally the doors to smaller houses open and people greet me warmly. Most of the time though the people in larger houses open the door, check out my material, and politely say, “No, thank you.” That’s okay. In this journey of becoming a more established artist, the key is to keep believing in your talent until others finally (and often arbitrarily) agree. It’s all about continuing to do what you love, creating more work, getting your work out there, and being patient. Very very patient. Don’t Think Twice teaches us that lesson well.