We’re not all successful. We’re not all going to be: not conventionally, at least. “That’s okay,” says Mike Birbiglia (COL ‘00) – comedian, Georgetown alum, and conventionally-successful-person – with his new movie, Don’t Think Twice.
A sendup of “success” and a tender tribute to the ties that bind comedy acts together, Don’t Think Twice chronicles the unraveling of “The Commune,” a minor-league improv troupe whose membership is locked in a years-long struggle to make it big. Ambivalence, ennui, and abounds as each member of “The Commune” separately confronts the inevitably of change. The ensemble cast’s performances, combined with intimate camerawork and thoughtful scripting, make Don’t Think Twice a genuinely affecting film. It’s also genuinely funny. But more than anything, Don’t Think Twice will get you thinking – usefully, especially for students – about finding a new yardstick for measuring personal achievement.
The Voice sat down recently Birbiglia ahead of Don’t Think Twice’s release. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
The Voice: So, what’s it like being back around the stomping grounds?
Birbiglia: I love it here. We held three screenings [the last time I was in town] and in between the first and second, I popped into D.C. Improv, which is where I started doing stand-up when I was in college. It was great see those guys. Usually when I’m in town – I didn’t have enough time this junket – I stop by Georgetown and say “hi” to John Glavin, who was my writing professor. He taught me how to write screenplays and actually gave notes on the script of Don’t Think Twice.
The Voice: Really?
B: Yeah. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that because I feel like Georgetown might somehow charge for it.
The Voice: I’ve heard he’s a very formidable editor.
B: John Glavin is one of the most singular, most impactful people who I’ve ever encountered. He’s not only brilliant but generous and thoughtful: a great listener and a great theoretician in his own right about drama and writing.
The Voice: Switching gears to talk about the film: to what extent would you characterize it as autobiographical? Obviously in contrast to Sleepwalk With Me and some of your stand-up, you’re more of a character in the film than you are yourself.
B: I’m absolutely a character. I’m nothing like Miles, actually. I’ve never taught improv. What’s funny is that Gillian Jacobs would laugh on set when I would go into being Miles in the scenes because she was so used to dealing with Mike Birbiglia the director, but then I would be Miles: I’d be super bitter and sort of mean-spirited. It made her laugh, really! She would always say, “Miles is my favorite character! He’s so ridiculous!” So it’s not autobiographical. As a matter of fact, it’s the first thing I’ve written that is entirely fictional. Of course, it’s about a world I’m familiar with – I do believe in “write what you know” – and I would say that there are pieces of me in all the characters, but none of the characters are me. I aspire to be someone like [Samantha], I have elements of me that are like Jack, I have maybe some of the bitterness of Miles, and certainly the ambition of all of them.
The Voice: I don’t know if you’re a believer in the idea that films have a purpose or that they’re parables, but let’s pretend that they do. Do you think Don’t Think Twice is trying to deter or inspire aspiring comedians or improvisational actors?
B: I think it asks the dramatic question of “what is success?” in a way that is open-ended and intentional. Hopefully, people will take away this idea I experienced between my 20s and 30s – a great contrast in how I felt – which is that, in my 20s, [among] my friends, we all wanted the same thing. We all wanted to write for one of the three big late-night shows, that kind of thing. In my 30s, I realized we’re not all going to be able to get that dream and we’re not all meant to have that dream. And, maybe, the person who gets that dream isn’t so happy after all. I think that’s something that American culture is typically wrong about: what success is. I think American culture typically tells you that if you’re on TV, you’re successful. But I think if you’re doing something fulfilling that is helping people or connecting with an audience, that’s actually successful.
The Voice: Georgetown is often accused of producing too many consultants. People who are maybe not doing things that are fulfilling…
B: I get that.
The Voice: But we’ve also produced a lot of comics: you, John Mulaney, Nick Kroll, Jim Gaffigan. Which do you think is worse for the world, consultants or comics?
B: Which is worse for the world?
The Voice: Or better.
B: I don’t think any of them are bad necessarily – not in a blanket statement kind of way. I think that Jim and John and Nick all do inspiring work. I’m proud of the work I do. There are a lot of great people who come out of Georgetown and do a lot of great, different things. There are people who take kind of like soulless money jobs, and that’s kind of a bummer. But there are people who do really inspiring things in their work.
The Voice: When all my friends have been asking me to describe your movie, I keep on falling on the word “tender.” I think it’s a romantic movie. You know, it’s about friendship and the thrill of comedy and the magic of making it big in the big city. Do you think that’s a healthy message for graduating seniors like me?
B: Which part?
The Voice: The “follow your dreams, reality be damned” kind of thing.
B: I don’t think that’s the message of the film. Is that what you took away?
The Voice: Partly, yeah. Obviously I think it’s much more nuanced than that, but it did have a certain romantic quality to me.
B: I don’t think it’s about follow your dreams. I think it’s about being open to the idea that success might not be what you think it is. Maybe you become an astronaut and maybe you’re just a really good dad. Both of those are helpful in the ecosystem – or can be. I will say that I don’t think we need more entertainers. I think we need more substantial entertainers. That’s my feeling. I see a lot of smart people doing a lot of smarty things that show how smart they are, and I feel like we don’t need more of that. We need more artists who are giving their hearts and souls to their work. As a writer or performer or director, that’s the gift you’re giving your audience. You’re giving yourself. All you have to give is yourself. Every few years I speak in John Glavin’s writing class, and that’s pretty much the bottom line of what I say. I say, “remember, there are 8,000 people roughly at Princeton who are smarter than you and more clever than you. What you can do better than them is give yourself to the work, because most people are not doing that.”
The Voice: Wow. I should definitely take that home with me.
B: And when I say “you,” I mean me. I mean everybody. There are thousands of artists who are smarter than me. Literally thousands. But I’d like to think that I’m giving my heart and soul to the work more than most. Not all – but most. I once heard a phrase from the guy who wrote Beautiful Girls [Editor’s note: Scott Rosenberg]: “I’m better than most but worse than many.” And I’d say that’s where I am.
The Voice: In our basically-mandatory IR or political science classes, we talk a bit about game theory, particularly the Prisoner’s Dilemma. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it…
B: What is it called?
The Voice: The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Basically, it’s the idea that you have partners in crime who are rational actors, so they act in their self-interest, but if they sell each other out, they end up both losing. Whereas if they cooperate, they lose a little bit less.
B: You mean when you’re a war prisoner.
The Voice: Yeah, but it can be abstracted out.
The Voice: So, I thought about it: do you think that has any relation to improv? The idea that in order to cooperate, you kind of have to be an irrational actor. In that you’re not looking out after your self-interest. There’s a groupthink that goes that defies what IR people would called rationality.
B: I don’t know if it [improv] defies it. I think [improv] transcends some of its parts. You can achieve things in improv that are greater than what individual actors could achieve on their own with a pen and paper.
The Voice: But the moment when someone like Jack starts to…
B: …think for himself, yeah. That’s when it falls apart.
The Voice: But isn’t that a natural thing to do?
B: Yeah. It’s inevitable. It’s inevitable that groups break up the same way that the Beatles and Monty Python broke up. It’s inevitable. It can’t work forever. Because they’re individuals, ultimately. I have [a card] that I keep in my wallet, a guiding principle of the writing process, which is says that “art is socialism but life is capitalism.” That for me was sort of what the movie was about. [The characters] never say it in the movie because I feel like it’s too on-the-nose. If anyone said that, it’d be like “What? No one would say that!”
The Voice: Alright, last one. Since we’re in D.C., I want to get a little political. I noticed you riffed Donald in the movie – The Donald. If you were running for president, what would your hat say? What would you make great again?
B: My slogan would be: “We can all be more generous.” I feel like generosity is missing in the American dialogue – Republican or Democrat. I feel frustrated when the Republican side will say, “There shouldn’t be so many handouts.” OK. Well, what do we do about all these people who living on the streets? You have to answer that if you’re saying the government shouldn’t do it. Or somebody has to.
Don’t Think Twice opens in wide release on July 22, 2016.