Mike Birbiglia Offers Life Lessons for Writers Too

dont-think-twiceLast 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. Not-so-famous comedians who make people laugh by night but work by day to financially stay afloat. They are friends. They are 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 not pretty to watch.

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 small, 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 money or give it up and be a father to his girlfriend’s coming child.

Meanwhile, Jack and Samantha, a couple, are noticed one night on stage and later invited to audition for Weekend Live, an SNL-type of show. That’s when we begin to 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 seemed more the 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 one night 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 before sending 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 apply because the job was writing and not performing. Lindsay ends up hired by Weekend Live but is hesitant to share 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 of the breaks, Lindsay smartly and strongly retorts, “Because I applied!” A wonderful lesson for any artist. She did, indeed, “apply” herself. 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 the exact 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.

Even though some characters chose not to pursue greater success, the film’s messages of persistence and knowing yourself resonated with me. I write creatively for little to no money while I keep quietly knocking on doors and showing people what I have to offer. Occasionally the doors to smaller houses open and I’m greeted warmly. Most of the time the people in the larger houses open the door, check out my material, and politely say, “No, thank you.” That’s okay. Because 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 that you have something worthwhile to contribute. 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.

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