Mike Birbiglia is perpetually in motion. Sometimes the comic somnambulates—a very real condition he details in a solo show, a book and a film that are all titled Sleepwalk with Me. Sometimes he jitters and twists about—as he did in an impression of the Scrambler carnival ride during his confessional show My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. Sometimes he tours as a stand-up or sells out Off Broadway houses while talking about jokes and religion, and sometimes he pops up in TV shows such as Orange Is the New Black. Now, with his new film, Don’t Think Twice, Birbiglia pays homage to the art form that taught him how to stay on his toes: improv.
Don’t Think Twice—which the 38-year-old wrote, directed, produced and stars in—follows a sextet of improvisers called the Commune as they play comedy shows for packed houses (but for no money) and dream of making it onto SNL surrogate Weekend Live. Cameras get right into the action as the cast, including Key & Peele’s Keegan-Michael Key and Community’s Gillian Jacobs, supports one another onstage and struggles with professional jealousies when the lights go off. I caught up with Birbiglia in the midst of a whirlwind 30-city tour, doing what he calls “hand-delivering the movie” to theaters around the country alongside costar Chris Gethard and improv guru Liz Allen. Keep on truckin’, Birbigs.
In addition to screenings, these tour stops include improv workshops. Do you have some hope that Don’t Think Twice will play an ambassadorial role for improv?
That’s the hope. The film, in a lot of ways, is a love letter to improv and to SNL. It’s funny, a lot of people, when I told them the log line of the movie, they said, “Oh, yeah, improvisers, those motherfuckers had it coming!” and I’m like, “No, no, no, I am one of those motherfuckers.” It’s not a Christopher Guest movie; it’s set in the world. It’s like The Big Chill set in the world of improv theater.
How much were you thinking about the disillusioned former players?
Quite a bit, because I think I am those people also. I feel like, on any given day or year, my success could fly out the window. My wife and I always talk about that. “Well, if it all goes south and people don’t enjoy my humor anymore, we can just live in Burlington, Vermont.” I don’t have any faith that show business is going to be there for me in 20 or 30 years, or even in six months.
How much do your current dreams align with your dreams from early in your comedy life?
All through my twenties, I was trying to get a sitcom on a network. And eight years ago, I got a network sitcom pilot, and it didn’t get picked up. We shot it; Bob Odenkirk played my brother. I thought, I made it! When it didn’t get picked up, I was left with nothing, and I thought, Well, what do I have? The ability to create. I went off the grid of mainstream show business. I created three one-person shows and two feature films. That show not getting picked up—it’s the greatest bullet ever dodged. I genuinely believe that, had that show been picked up, I would have been destined for a career of mediocrity.
You were working from source material with Sleepwalk. How much more difficult was it to build this story from scratch?
Early in the process, Ira Glass—who became a producer in the 11th hour—would say to me, in a solemn way, “Mike, I’m sorry, but what you wrote, it’s not a movie.” Not even, “It could be a movie if you rewrite it.” Kind of like, “Mike, let this one go, you’re being a little crazy, you’ve lost sight of yourself.” And I was like, “No, Ira, it’s The Big Chill set in the world of improv!” Ira insisted that what makes The Big Chill so special [is that] all of the story lines are so distinct from one another. So the rewriting process was continuing to define the characters.
A lot of people, after hearing, “It’s not a movie,” from a close collaborator—much less Ira Glass—would quietly retire that project. Would you say you have a different relationship with failure than most?
I think so. Performing in loud bars is good training for life. There are years and years of rejection and failure. I think failure is the most underrated ingredient of success.
Any other funny feedback?
After one of the early public screenings, there were two older ladies who said, “I hate that.” We were like, “Why do you hate it?” And the one woman goes, “They’re losers!” It’s ironic, because the reason they hate it is the exact reason we made it. By struggling to do what they want to do, they’re relatable; they feel like us. That criticism is the reason, fundamentally, it’s not a studio film. You can’t go to a studio and say, “We want to make this movie about failure.” They’d say, “But one day, they all make it, right?” And you’d say, “No, they actually don’t.”
There’s lots of silliness in the film, but Gillian Jacobs brings such warmth and vulnerability to her role. What was it in her past work that told you she had this in her?
Nothing. Lena Dunham gave me notes on the script and then said, “You should really consider Gillian Jacobs to play Sam.” I called Lena and said, “I don’t think so. Nothing that she plays in Community or Girls or any of these movies is anything like Sam.” And she said, “Gillian Jacobs can do anything.” Gillian put herself on tape, in her living room, doing the final scene of the movie, and it just crushed me. I watched it 10 or 11 times. I direct messaged with [Community creator] Dan Harmon, who I don’t even know. And I said, “Dan, I’m thinking about casting Gillian Jacobs in this movie about improv,” blah blah blah, and Dan said, “You might make her Diane Keaton, so, if you cast her, tell her I helped make the sale.”
New York is lurching into summer—the season often regarded as the least tolerable. What’s your favorite season in NYC?
As everyone knows, the best film ever made in New York City was a film Winona Ryder and Richard Gere made called Autumn in New York. And that’s my favorite season.
But Don’t Think Twice is opening here in July.
Yeah, and it’ll be me and Ira and hopefully some surprise guests from the cast doing 15 Q&As in three days. We’ve already sold $40,000 in ticket sales, a month out. We’re trying to break the record set at Landmark Sunshine by The Tree of Life.
It’s possible. Why not?
Let’s do it. Let’s take down Terrence Malick.
Don’t Think Twice opens July 22.