Mike Birbiglia and the Drama of Comedy

2016 is turning out to be a fantastic year for films made for, by, and about comedy nerds. David Wain is working on a film about the early days of National Lampoon, SNL writer Chris Kelly’s autobiographical drama Other People hits theaters in September, and Mike Birbiglia’s latest film Don’t Think Twice pulls back the curtain on the world of improv, where a member of a fictional NYC troupe (played by Keegan-Michael Key) hits the jackpot by getting hired on a live Saturday night sketch comedy show called Weekend Live. Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, Tami Sagher, and Kate Micucci play the troupe members forced to reexamine their ideas of ambition, success, and fame in the wake of their friend’s big break, and the resulting film is a sometimes funny, sometimes sweet, and sometimes heartbreaking look at the togetherness that forms when a group of friends love each other and share the same wavelength but need to move off on their own to succeed. I recently spoke with Birbiglia about why he made a film about improv, what he’s learned as a filmmaker, blurring the line between comedy and drama, and the difference between fame and success.

Congratulations on the movie! It’s really funny and really devastating.

Thanks, that’s good!

You’ve been touring the film since June. How many stops are after the New York screening?

Weirdly enough, it’s stop 17 or something. Then we go to LA, then we go to Seattle, Portland, and Denver. Then I may go to Indianapolis and St. Louis and Pittsburgh. I’ve gone to so many places.

How’s it been so far? What’s the response been like?

It’s been great. We’ve been doing these free improv workshops. I don’t teach improv, but Liz Allen, who coached our group, comes around with me and teaches them. And the response has been pretty overwhelming. It doesn’t even feel like it’s mine, it feels like it’s sort of ours in the ether of comedy and improvisers. When I watch the movie, it’s very different than watching Sleepwalk with Me – I can’t watch this movie without crying, because I don’t feel like I’m one of the people in it. I feel like these are six characters, and even though I know the movie so well at this point, it feels like it’s outside of me.

I read somewhere that you worked on the script for 18 months.


How do you know when you’re done?

[laughs] Good question! You don’t. There’s a degree to which you just take a guess, and then there’s a degree to which, when you’re making changes, it’s just the kind of thing that is a dealer’s choice on the day, like “You could have her say this or this.” In other words, your structure’s there and your scene structure is there, and then you’re just kind of haggling over lines of dialogue or you’re haggling over these pieces of minutiae that you have to let go of.

Were there lessons you learned making Sleepwalk with Me that really helped you out while making this movie?

So many. I mean, I had a document on my desktop that was a running document since 2012, “Instructions for Movie #2.” It’s like four or five pages long: Shoot more footage. Roll early and cut late. Interview all your department heads three to six months in advance. Make sure you check three references on every single person you hire.

And this is a lesson from Elia Kazan in his book on directing: When you’re interviewing an actor, ask them what drew them to the project, and don’t lead them to the answer. That’s one of the mistakes I make, because as an improviser I want to say “Why do you want to work on the movie?” and they’ll be like “Cause it’s funny..” and I’ll be like “And dramatic!” You know, I’m finishing their sentence so that they’ll be wanting to do it for the reason I want to do it. But it’s not always the case, you know? And if people aren’t in it for the same reasons, then you are losing a certain piece of synchronicity that you need to have to make a movie. You need every single person – all 100 people who are in production and post-production – to be making the same movie. That’s a big lesson that Sidney Lumet says in his book on directing: Everyone has to make the same movie or else you don’t have it. And I feel really really lucky that we had that with this.

You mentioned the funny/dramatic thing, and I think this movie definitely blurs that genre line. Is that something you thought about while making it? Because, you know, funny things can make you cry, and serious things can make you laugh.

Agreed, agreed. I like to cry when I see comedies and I like to laugh when I see dramas. I love the mixture, and it’s a genre of movie that’s not greenlit too often right now in Hollywood, because I think studios don’t see dollar signs when part of your pitch is “There are shades of grey!” You know what I mean? There’s nuances. There’s no bad guy in the movie – it’s this movie we tried to make feel more like life than a movie.

There’s a whole type of a movie that I feel isn’t made that often anymore, like that whole era of ‘70s and ‘80s with Broadcast News and Hannah and Her Sisters and Big Chill, and even movies in the ‘90s like Jerry Maguire. I love that movie, and yet I don’t think studios make movies like that anymore. And that was as recently as ‘96. It’s a complex movie. And what’s funny about this movie is it’s not that avant-garde. It’s pretty mainstream in a lot of ways, but we made it outside the system because it’s got complexity to it. And also, if I took it to a studio they’d be like “So Tami’s part is gonna be Claire Danes and Chris’s part is gonna be Jon Cryer,” and I’d be like “All right, I guess that’s what it is!” [laughs]

Why improv? You’re obviously more known as a standup, so what about the improv world interested you?

It was kind of my first love. I fell in love with it when I was a freshman in college and I felt transformed by it where, all of a sudden, I went from having no friends to ten improviser friends, and it was going from being very lonesome to feeling very much part of a family with a group of people. It’s just that formative moment in your life where anything that happens in that period just becomes imprinted on you. The rules of improv – say yes, it’s about the group, and don’t think – those are in my bloodstream at this point, those are part of me as a director, and those are the things that got me through directing Sleepwalk with Me. To me, those are rules about life and rules about collaboration, being part of a family, being part of a group. So yeah, that’s what sort of leaned me back toward improv in the last few years. Obviously I’m known as a standup or a filmmaker, but I love improv.

Did you have any fears about tackling a world like that, which can feel very insidery?

Oh absolutely. My goal was, through the draft process, to make it so that you don’t have to know anything about improv to understand it.

And you gave yourself an interesting role. I mean, I guess he’s a little likable, but…

…not really. He’s a scoundrel.

[laughs] Do you enjoy that? Playing a scoundrel?

It’s fun because it’s just not what I am. Gillian always said on set it was her favorite character to play with because he’s such a jerk and you just never know what he’ll say next. She thought it was funny because it was so starkly different from what I am as a director, so there’d be Mike Birbiglia and then there’d be Miles, and she’d be like “Miles, what the fuck are you talking about?” [laughs] But yeah, he’s kind of a scoundrel, but my producer Miranda Bailey said once that he’s us in a certain way – he’s a bitter audience member who’s like “Yeah, that should be me!”

He’s not cartoonishly terrible. There are lots of people like him!

Absolutely. He’s certainly an archetype in that universe.

Were the other troupe members archetypes in that sense? How did you approach those characters when you were developing them?

To some extent they are. When I was forming the characters, at a certain point my brother Joe suggested “What if the Lindsay character’s just one of these trust fund kids?” And I could see a whole universe for that; I could picture her with her parents and smoking pot and blowing into a Febreze thing or whatever. And like I said, Miles is sort of an archetype of the teacher who hooks up with his students. I really relate to Allison’s character – she’s someone who can’t finish things, and I feel like I know a lot of people like that, and I have that myself sometimes. I mean, I have so many different pieces of writing that are in stacks of papers and in binders and all that.

The key thing was one of [co-producer] Ira Glass’s whole marching orders when he read one of the early drafts. He was like “The characters have to be more different from each other.” That was like draft 3 of 12 or 13, so at each subsequent draft I would make the characters more distinct from one another and sort of have their own arcs be different but also complement each other in some way.

So it wasn’t so much about representing certain archetypes in improv as much as fully fleshing them out as people.

I always say if improv didn’t exist, what is the story? Well, the story’s about a group of friends where someone gets successful and the rest of them don’t, and then it’s about what happens when you start to reevaluate what success is. And that can exist with and without improv.

Fame is undercurrent in the movie, because you don’t see it happen, but you can feel that it’s about to happen. I’m curious: What do you think about fame? Is it good, is it bad? How do you deal with it?

I think that it’s an inevitability of recognition and achievement, so there’s nothing you can do about it, although I will say that I think America has the sense that success equals visibility, and I think that success has more to do with connecting with people and helping people. We’ve been doing these free improv workshops around the country, and I always say to, like, the Torch Theatre in Phoenix, Arizona, “You guys can make here, in front of 30 people, something that is far more powerful and moving and provocative and timely than a mediocre sitcom that’s being half-watched by seven million people.”

We have these improv theaters in America where people can make things that move people and make people laugh. Especially in this climate where all of these tragedies are happening back to back in America, it’s hard to laugh right now, and at these small improv theaters they have the ability to make people laugh on days they didn’t think they would laugh. That’s a real gift. To me, that’s success. So the other stuff – the visibility and the exposure – it’s a little bit misguided. And I was certainly someone who fell into that trap with believing that in my 20s. Now that I’m in my 30s, I feel like I have the perspective of knowing that’s not actually what it’s about.

How’d you land on naming the sketch show in the movie Weekend Live? I’d love to see the list of possible SNL clone names you had for this movie.

[laughs] I had a whole bunch of them at one point.

Weekend Live vs Saturday Night Live – you can’t get much closer than that.

Well you can’t own the word “weekend,” and you can’t own the word “live,” right? One of them is a broad concept – “the weekend” – and one is the broad concept of “it’s live,” and so I thought that would evoke the feeling of the show. And to be clear, I love SNL. I love the show, I’ve been watching it for years. Sometimes I live tweet it. The only thing I agree with that the characters say in the movie about Weekend Live is it’s the sports of comedy. It’s the only thing that comedy nerds can watch that we care about as much as the Warriors and the Cavs. When people are watching the Warriors and Cavs I’m like “When does SNL come back on?” I just couldn’t care less.

And I love this cast right now. SNL casts are like the government – no one thought that Bill Clinton was a good president until ten years later, and I think the same thing’s gonna happen with Obama, and SNL casts are the same way. I grew up with the Sandler cast, and I remember then everyone was like “This cast sucks!” and now they’re like “The Sandler cast, the greatest cast of all time!” To me, there’s no funnier people than Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, and Vanessa Bayer. Vanessa Bayer can do anything and I’ll laugh.

They’re all fantastic. Well, thank you so much for talking with me!

Of course. To comedy nerdom!

Don’t Think Twice opens in theaters in New York today. Head over to Birbiglia’s website for screening tour dates.

Mike Birbiglia and the Drama of Comedy