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Improv’s no joke

Comedian and director Mike Birbiglia talks about his latest, Don’t Think Twice

Gillian Jacobs and Mike Birbiglia star as improv troupe troopers in an honest comedy you don’t have to think twice about seeing.
Gillian Jacobs and Mike Birbiglia star as improv troupe troopers in an honest comedy you don’t have to think twice about seeing.

Don’t Think Twice, opening August 12 at Landmark’s Ken Cinema, is Mike Birbiglia’s second feature as a director. The comedy introduces us to a six-person improv troupe that dwindles in size as the top floaters are reeled in by network scouts. Mike stars as one of the terminally left-behind.

The veteran stand-up recently made San Diego a stop on his promotional tour. Our talk took place in a poolside cabana at a luxurious downtown hotel where a malfunctioning security siren punctuated every other question by sounding a false alarm.

Video:

Don’t Think Twice official trailer

Scott Marks: Birbiglia is a name likely to be mispronounced frequently. You’ve had to have been introduced at comedy clubs at least several hundred times. What emcee gave it the best garbling?

Mike Birbiglia: There have been so many. One of them was at a college where someone said, “Please welcome Mike Behuski!” That’s not even close. That’s just the letter “B” and whatever you can think of. One time I performed at a college where there were handwritten signs up on campus that said, “Tonight: Comedian Mike Briglesby.” What was amazing was, they misspelled it everywhere.

SM: They got the “Mike” right.

MB: I always say Birbiglia is Italian, but we’re not real Italian. We’re like Olive Garden Italian. We’re suburban Italian.

SM: Do you have any favorite movies about stand-up comedy? I think it qualifies as a sub-genre.

MB: King of Comedy is probably my favorite one.

SM: Bingo!

MB: That’s the best. In my opinion a perfect movie.

SM: We can stop there. I’m from Chicago. I took a class at Second City with improv guru Charna Halpren. I learned one thing: you can teach people how to sing, dance, play an instrument, but you can’t teach funny.

MB: That’s correct. You either have it or you don’t.

SM: Improv is tough for me. Ideally, you have to know the end in order to come up with the beginning. And a lot of improv comedians — most notably Robin Williams — spend more time breaking character than they do making character.

MB: Improv as an art form has strengths and weaknesses. You’ve identified some weaknesses, aptly. (Laughing.) The strength is you are creating something in the moment, in real time, for an audience. When it works, it’s like nothing else on earth. I think it was Paul Sills — one of the original Compass Players in the ’50s and ’60s — who said, “When improv works, you’re performing the best, most timely play on earth that night.” That’s one of the big upsides.

Philosophically, it’s a really interesting art form because it’s all about listening and agreement and collaboration. If I hadn’t learned the principles of improv when I was in college, I wouldn’t have known how to direct a movie. In improv, you learn that anything is possible. You may not know how to direct a movie, but you can take a stab at it. That’s how I got though Sleepwalk With Me.

Improv olympians Gillian Armstrong, Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard, Keegan-Michael Key, and Tami Sagher co-star in Don’t Think Twice.

SM: After watching Don’t Think Twice, I was only half-surprised to learn that people who make their living being funny have within them a huge capacity for petty assholism. There’s a telling moment toward the beginning of the film when the group is in a club staring at a photo on the wall of comics who have surpassed them.

MB: I think we all have that to some degree. We’re always looking at what other people have. It’s a very American quality this concept of how come this person has this thing, but I don’t have that thing. I’ve heard the term “compare and despair” before, which I think is a good one. One of the things I tried to hit on is when you’re in your 20s, you and your friends all have the same goal. We all want this one type of success. In your 30s you begin to realize that life is more complex than that. Not only are you not going achieve the same kind of dream, it’s impossible. And the person who achieves it is not necessarily so happy after all.

SM: Have you ever auditioned for Saturday Night Live?

MB: No. I was so low on the totem pole when I was younger, I didn’t even get an audition for the show. I was so off the radar I might as well have lived in Antarctica. I was never part of the conversation. In some ways I dodged a bullet by not going in that direction. I don’t think that’s what I’m good act.

SM: So, how is the director thing working out for you?

MB: I’m still trying to figure out how to make movies with bigger budgets and still retain final cut. It’s not the easiest thing to do.

SM: Why the need to kick it up to a larger scale when you’re succeeding so well at what you do?

MB: I don’t necessarily. You’re right.

SM: For your second feature they sprung for Panavision. That’s a step up! The chair shot alone justified the use of the lens.

MB (Laughing): The chair shot was a visual conceit I came up with during the writing process. One of the metaphors I kept writing down was musical chairs.

SM: You are obviously a seasoned pro when it comes to stand-up. Of the rest of your players, how many have a background in improv?

MB: Four of the six. Me, Keegan-Michael [Key], Tami [Sagher], and Chris [Gethard] all have a background and Kate [Micucci] and Gillian [Armstrong] have never improvised. Although Kate had done a ton of comedy with Garfunkle and Oates, her duo...

[The fire alarm sounds a warning, but the poolside crowd doesn’t budge.]

MB: What if it was an actual fire? Look at all these people. No one’s moving a muscle. This must have been what the Titanic was like. (Laughing.) I had everyone come to town three weeks early to take improv workshops and we performed actual shows. I had to convince these guys to come. It’s not built into a small budget to have three weeks of rehearsal. If we’re not believable as friends, we shouldn’t even bother making this movie.

SM: You are obviously very attached to the picture. How hard will letting go be?

MB (Laughing): It’s very hard. I can’t watch it. It’s too emotional. I start crying.

SM: Don’t you want to see what your baby looks like and how people react to it?

MB: Every time...it would be a spoiler, but there’s a certain moment in the film toward the end where I can’t not cry. It’s so emotional for me. I feel like I’ve had that moment in my life 10 or 15 times. It never stops being emotional for me. It’s that built-in part of life. One of the things I tried to accomplish with this movie was to hearken back to the middle-period Woody Allen films (Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors) and James L. Brooks films (Broadcast News, Terms of Endearment) films that make you laugh and cry all in the same experience. The art of that seems to be...there are very few of those film being made right now. People can’t “ten times” their money with that. That’s the problem.

SM: Like they say in Wolf of Wall Street, how much is enough?

MB: I know. I want to scream that to the heavens. Hollywood has become an artistic Wall St. Is that why we’re all here? Whatever happened to artists who produce art so that people will feel something? Why is it all about “ten-timesing” your money? It’s insanity to me.

SM: I don’t want you to crap where you eat or anything, but isn’t there something amiss in a universe where Albert Brooks can’t get arrested in Hollywood and Judd Apatow owns the town?

MB (Laughing): I admire both of those people very much. I’m not going near that one.

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Gillian Jacobs and Mike Birbiglia star as improv troupe troopers in an honest comedy you don’t have to think twice about seeing.
Gillian Jacobs and Mike Birbiglia star as improv troupe troopers in an honest comedy you don’t have to think twice about seeing.

Don’t Think Twice, opening August 12 at Landmark’s Ken Cinema, is Mike Birbiglia’s second feature as a director. The comedy introduces us to a six-person improv troupe that dwindles in size as the top floaters are reeled in by network scouts. Mike stars as one of the terminally left-behind.

The veteran stand-up recently made San Diego a stop on his promotional tour. Our talk took place in a poolside cabana at a luxurious downtown hotel where a malfunctioning security siren punctuated every other question by sounding a false alarm.

Video:

Don’t Think Twice official trailer

Scott Marks: Birbiglia is a name likely to be mispronounced frequently. You’ve had to have been introduced at comedy clubs at least several hundred times. What emcee gave it the best garbling?

Mike Birbiglia: There have been so many. One of them was at a college where someone said, “Please welcome Mike Behuski!” That’s not even close. That’s just the letter “B” and whatever you can think of. One time I performed at a college where there were handwritten signs up on campus that said, “Tonight: Comedian Mike Briglesby.” What was amazing was, they misspelled it everywhere.

SM: They got the “Mike” right.

MB: I always say Birbiglia is Italian, but we’re not real Italian. We’re like Olive Garden Italian. We’re suburban Italian.

SM: Do you have any favorite movies about stand-up comedy? I think it qualifies as a sub-genre.

MB: King of Comedy is probably my favorite one.

SM: Bingo!

MB: That’s the best. In my opinion a perfect movie.

SM: We can stop there. I’m from Chicago. I took a class at Second City with improv guru Charna Halpren. I learned one thing: you can teach people how to sing, dance, play an instrument, but you can’t teach funny.

MB: That’s correct. You either have it or you don’t.

SM: Improv is tough for me. Ideally, you have to know the end in order to come up with the beginning. And a lot of improv comedians — most notably Robin Williams — spend more time breaking character than they do making character.

MB: Improv as an art form has strengths and weaknesses. You’ve identified some weaknesses, aptly. (Laughing.) The strength is you are creating something in the moment, in real time, for an audience. When it works, it’s like nothing else on earth. I think it was Paul Sills — one of the original Compass Players in the ’50s and ’60s — who said, “When improv works, you’re performing the best, most timely play on earth that night.” That’s one of the big upsides.

Philosophically, it’s a really interesting art form because it’s all about listening and agreement and collaboration. If I hadn’t learned the principles of improv when I was in college, I wouldn’t have known how to direct a movie. In improv, you learn that anything is possible. You may not know how to direct a movie, but you can take a stab at it. That’s how I got though Sleepwalk With Me.

Improv olympians Gillian Armstrong, Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard, Keegan-Michael Key, and Tami Sagher co-star in Don’t Think Twice.

SM: After watching Don’t Think Twice, I was only half-surprised to learn that people who make their living being funny have within them a huge capacity for petty assholism. There’s a telling moment toward the beginning of the film when the group is in a club staring at a photo on the wall of comics who have surpassed them.

MB: I think we all have that to some degree. We’re always looking at what other people have. It’s a very American quality this concept of how come this person has this thing, but I don’t have that thing. I’ve heard the term “compare and despair” before, which I think is a good one. One of the things I tried to hit on is when you’re in your 20s, you and your friends all have the same goal. We all want this one type of success. In your 30s you begin to realize that life is more complex than that. Not only are you not going achieve the same kind of dream, it’s impossible. And the person who achieves it is not necessarily so happy after all.

SM: Have you ever auditioned for Saturday Night Live?

MB: No. I was so low on the totem pole when I was younger, I didn’t even get an audition for the show. I was so off the radar I might as well have lived in Antarctica. I was never part of the conversation. In some ways I dodged a bullet by not going in that direction. I don’t think that’s what I’m good act.

SM: So, how is the director thing working out for you?

MB: I’m still trying to figure out how to make movies with bigger budgets and still retain final cut. It’s not the easiest thing to do.

SM: Why the need to kick it up to a larger scale when you’re succeeding so well at what you do?

MB: I don’t necessarily. You’re right.

SM: For your second feature they sprung for Panavision. That’s a step up! The chair shot alone justified the use of the lens.

MB (Laughing): The chair shot was a visual conceit I came up with during the writing process. One of the metaphors I kept writing down was musical chairs.

SM: You are obviously a seasoned pro when it comes to stand-up. Of the rest of your players, how many have a background in improv?

MB: Four of the six. Me, Keegan-Michael [Key], Tami [Sagher], and Chris [Gethard] all have a background and Kate [Micucci] and Gillian [Armstrong] have never improvised. Although Kate had done a ton of comedy with Garfunkle and Oates, her duo...

[The fire alarm sounds a warning, but the poolside crowd doesn’t budge.]

MB: What if it was an actual fire? Look at all these people. No one’s moving a muscle. This must have been what the Titanic was like. (Laughing.) I had everyone come to town three weeks early to take improv workshops and we performed actual shows. I had to convince these guys to come. It’s not built into a small budget to have three weeks of rehearsal. If we’re not believable as friends, we shouldn’t even bother making this movie.

SM: You are obviously very attached to the picture. How hard will letting go be?

MB (Laughing): It’s very hard. I can’t watch it. It’s too emotional. I start crying.

SM: Don’t you want to see what your baby looks like and how people react to it?

MB: Every time...it would be a spoiler, but there’s a certain moment in the film toward the end where I can’t not cry. It’s so emotional for me. I feel like I’ve had that moment in my life 10 or 15 times. It never stops being emotional for me. It’s that built-in part of life. One of the things I tried to accomplish with this movie was to hearken back to the middle-period Woody Allen films (Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors) and James L. Brooks films (Broadcast News, Terms of Endearment) films that make you laugh and cry all in the same experience. The art of that seems to be...there are very few of those film being made right now. People can’t “ten times” their money with that. That’s the problem.

SM: Like they say in Wolf of Wall Street, how much is enough?

MB: I know. I want to scream that to the heavens. Hollywood has become an artistic Wall St. Is that why we’re all here? Whatever happened to artists who produce art so that people will feel something? Why is it all about “ten-timesing” your money? It’s insanity to me.

SM: I don’t want you to crap where you eat or anything, but isn’t there something amiss in a universe where Albert Brooks can’t get arrested in Hollywood and Judd Apatow owns the town?

MB (Laughing): I admire both of those people very much. I’m not going near that one.

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