Failure is the key to success Q&A with Don’t Think Twice cast
By Kaely Monahan
Comedy doesn’t just encourage failure. It requires it. That’s what comedian and actor Mike Birbiglia says. His newest film Don’t Think Twice (coming in July) deals specifically with the dynamic between comedy and failure.
The film stars Birbiglia, Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci and Tami Sagher who all are a part of a New York improv group the Commune. Tight-knit, hilarious, sometimes scathing, each of the characters is striving towards an ultimate goal of success.
Filmed with a sort of documentary-fly-on-the-wall feeling, Birbiglia strives to recreate the magic of live long-form improv on the screen. The film pulls from the experiences of what it’s like to try and break out as a comedian and be successful or not.
Birbiglia and fellow comedian-actor Chris Gethard recently shared their experience in a group interview of making the film and life as a comedian at Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix.
The long-form improv art has only been around for about 60 years. Awareness of the craft is-generally—not that broad. Improv is often associated with shows like Whose Line is It Anyway? Or improv games like freeze tag. However, it has greater depth than that.
Birbiglia: In a lot of ways I like to think of it as these are improvised plays happening in the moment. There’s something really special about it. As Sam says in the movie improv is an art form unto itself.
Birbiglia not only acted in the film but he wrote and directed it as well. However, as a comedian, he approached script writing in a different way than most screenwriters.
Birbiglia: My writing process is very feedback based. So when I do stand up, I did my “Thank God For Jokes” show the one I did just off Broadway, I did it in a hundred cities—and Mesa Arts Center was on that tour—I listen to the audience. I try to understand what’s connecting what’s not connecting. And then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite…
I had about 10 readings at my house. I had Chris and Tami Sagher, who is in the movie, and other writers…I invited to read the script with me…and give critical thoughts… Over the course of that process, we arrived at a script that we were really proud of. And then once we got on set you hire five brilliant actors like this, I always say you know whatever comes out and feels most real is what I want on screen. And so don’t feel compelled to be married to these words verbatim—though they’re pretty good. If you need something to fall back on, they’ll work.
In fact, Birbiglia encouraged improv on set. He said that they would do a take verbatim and then go back and paly with it.
Birbiglia: Ultimately I wanted these guys to be comfortable saying kind of whatever came out. There’s this great improvised moment that Chris has where we’re improvising that eulogy scene where we’re like Jack was a great man. And we all have these things to say about it and then I go, ‘His body’s not in there!’ And then Chris improvised ‘It’s his headshot!’ And when he improvised that I broke down laughing.
Gethard: Obviously with the content of this movie and Mike’s background as a comedian I think he was better than most people I’ve worked with in a director’s setting, as far as going ‘Great we got the thing that’s on the page who wants to push it a little bit further? Anybody got anything else? And just like to push it through to a place we’re not seeing. And I think that obviously is a very smart call.
One of the dangers of trying to make a movie about live comedy is that you’re trying to emulate that in a way that will just totally ring false—so I think the idea that Mike consistently pushed the cast and crew to just stay one, two more takes, and just find something else; find some variation on this, some extension of this. I think that kept that feeling of live comedy in a way that was absolutely necessary for people to not like call foul on this movie for trying to represent a live experience.
When it comes to being a comedian, both actors agreed that the most difficult aspect is being performance mode at all times.
Gethard: There’s a weird loneliness that comes with being a comedian. Especially stand up. I think, even with improvisers, there’s like these certain moments of truth where you feel really, really connected to audiences and that’s when you’re on stage, and I think there’s something definitely inside the personality of a person who wants to be a comedian that’s looking to connect at all times and that’s where the adrenaline rushes in their lives comes in.
But I think outside of performing you’re someone who’s analyzing life and thinking about it and kind of observing so much that in my opinion in can make you feel sort of like on the outside looking in of like normal standard—I get very jealous of my friends who have like traditional families and nine to five jobs.
Birbiglia: You’re always on duty because you’re in a constant state of observation. So that’s one of the challenges of it and I think one of other challenges is that whether we like it or not it’s a profession that requires failure…. You need to know what doesn’t work to know what works…And failure is hard. There’s no way around… Bombing on stage never feels great. You feel judged. You feel alone. But then when it works it’s transcendent.
Constant throughout the film is the struggle between chasing “the dream” and making a living. For some of the characters they achieve the highest success, while others never make it.
Birbiglia: One of the things I wrote on my wall as an inspirational line with the film is, ‘What happens when life gets in the way of dreams?’ That’s a question that I don’t know the answer to. But the movie tries to take a stab at what it feels like.
Gethard: I know that in my experience I was working a lot of freelance gigs and cobbling together rent while I was also trying to be a comedian and I actually had a shrink. And the shrink stepped in and was like, ‘You gotta go for it ‘cause you’re driving yourself nuts. You have to figure out if you’re going to go all in on this or if eventually you’re going to walk away from this. You need to give yourself no other option and only make money off of things that you actually want to be doing.’ –And I was like I’ll starve, (she said) well then you’ll starve and then you can move on. You can be at peace with that. And it was great advice although it was scary. I went for about a year under that advice and then I hit the first point in my adult life where if I had to pay my rent that day I wouldn’t have been able to.
Don’t Think Twice comes out August 5.
- Kaely Monahan is an entertainment reporter and creator of the film review podcast Popcorn Fan Film Reviews.