Flickreel recently got to sit in on a roundtable interview with Mike Birbiglia and Chris Gethard of Don’t Think Twice. This dark comedy centers on a New York improv troupe of six that’s torn apart after one member hits it big. In addition to starring, Birbiglia also wrote and directed the movie. Like Birbiglia, Gethard also has an impressive comedy background. Both actors offered great incite on the art of film, as well as the art of improvisation.
What do you think is the hardest part of being a comedian?
Chris Gethard: There’s a weird loneliness that comes with being a comedian, especially standup. Even with improvisers, I think there are certain moments of truth where you feel really, really connected to audiences, and that’s when you’re on stage. I think there’s definitely something inside the personality of a person who wants to be a comedian that’s looking to connect at all times. That’s where the adrenaline rushes in their lives come from. Outside of performing, you’re someone who’s analyzing life, and thinking about it, and observing so much. In my opinion, it can make you feel sort of on the outside looking in.
Mike Birbiglia: You’re always on duty because you’re in a constant state of observation. That’s one of the challenges of it. I think one of the other challenges is that, whether we like it or not, it’s a profession that requires failure. It doesn’t just encourage failure. It requires it because it’s all trial and error. You need to know what doesn’t work to know what works. It’s especially true in improv. It’s especially true in standup. Failure’s 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.
In the film, the camera feels like another character. How did cinematographer Joe Anderson achieve this effect?
Mike Birbiglia: He’s a real rising star in cinematography. I think he’s someone who’s name is gonna be out there a lot. I think he could be the next Gordon Willis. So we caught him on the rise, which is great. We spent a lot of time talking about how we wanted the camera to be the seventh member of the group. We wanted steadicam working in and out of the actors so we feel like these are our friends. We’re not in the audience – we’re on stage with them. We did a thing I don’t think anybody’s ever done on film before: we filmed scripted improv and then we filmed actual improv with steadicam moving. So it required improvisation on the part of the cinematographer, the camera operator, and all six of us actors. These guys were amazing. I feel like after awhile, we all had a third eye that was watching the camera to make sure that we don’t slam into it.
Chris Gethard: The camera operator in particular – for a guy who was wearing a rig that probably weighs about eighty pounds – he managed to kind of be a fly on the wall. I give a lot of credit to Mike too because, as someone who’s done improv for 16 years, it’s a notoriously hard thing to film and loses a lot of it’s magic – you try to go back and watch improv on tape and it almost never feels as good as it did when a crowd was laughing at it. I think Mike isolated the way to do it where it actually is powerful, and exciting, and it makes you feel like you’re in the room.
Was it hard making a transition from standup to film from a writing perspective?
Mike Birbiglia: My writing process is very feedback based – I listen to the audience. I try to understand what’s connecting, what’s not connecting… and then rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite. Chris and I have been on the road a lot together. When we get on the bus at night, we talk about the jokes that didn’t work and the joke possibilities that could work. I think this is a little different from other writers. I had about ten readings at my house that Chris and Tami Sagher, who’s in the movie, and other writers – Phil Lord, Brian Koppelman, Nicole Holofcener, Greta Gerwig – all kinds of people I invited to read the script with me and give critical thoughts, what’s working, what’s not working. Over the course of that process, we arrived at a script we were really proud of. Then once we got on set, you hire five brilliant actors like this. I always say, whatever comes out and feels most real is what I want on the screen. So don’t feel compelled to be married to these words verbatim… though they’re pretty good.
Don’t Think Twice demonstrates how success and failure can get in the way of relationships. Do either of you identify with that?
Chris Gethard: Yeah, I dated another comedian for a number of years. She’s a lovely person who I have great love and affection towards – It’s very, very rare that two people will be equally successful at the same time. I was once in a relationship where my career got rolling a little bit and there was some weirdness there – There was like a competiveness or a jealousy that you don’t want inside a personal relationship. I do think that speaks to many comedians, both male and female.
Mike Birbiglia: I think it’s really hard, especially when you’re younger – In my 20’s, I was best friends with a group of people who all shared the same dream. We all wanted the same thing. Then as we got older, we realized we don’t all have to have the same dream. The person who gets the dream or the closest thing to it maybe isn’t so happy after all, which is a little bit reflected in the film.
When does economic reality trump one’s dreams?
Chris Gethard: I was working a lot of freelance gigs and coupling together rent while I was also trying to be a comedian. I actually had a shrink. My shrink stepped in and was like, “You gotta go for it because you’re driving yourself nuts. You have to figure out if you’re gonna go all in on this or if eventually you’re going to walk away from this – You need to give yourself no other option. Only make money off of things that are related to what you actually want to be doing.” I was like, “I’ll starve.” And she was like, “Well then you’ll starve. Then you can move on and be at peace with that.” It was great advice, although it was scary. I went for about a year under that advice. 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. I was not living in a nice place. It was like I didn’t have $650 in the bank account – If the landlord knocks on the door, I have to not answer. It was scary and really demoralizing. I remember I cried. I called a friend of mine – Joe Mande, another comedian – and just kind of commiserated on the phone with him. I was like, “This might be it. I might need to give this one up.” Then in a way that karmically was very, very strange, at the end of that week I got cast in my first ever movie. It was a very tiny part in The Other Guys with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. That gave me enough money to get through the end of the year. Then there was just this momentum burst. Ever since then, I’ve been able to pay my rent as a comedian, but I knock on wood because I’m also very aware that this could end tomorrow. It goes in waves and I’ve seen that up close. I think for a lot of people, the financial barrier is the biggest leap you have to take. A lot of people don’t want to stick their necks out and take that risk, which is totally understandable – I think for a lot of people it doesn’t happen because it’s not a necessity. Unless it’s a necessity to do this, it can be a pretty scary process.
Mike Birbiglia: I was living on an air mattress in queens. I couldn’t afford a dresser for my clothes. When you’re broke, everything’s low to the ground. You wake up, you roll off your air mattress, you grab pants from the floor, you cook noodles on a hot plate. One falls on the ground you’re like, “It’s not too far.” That’s what it’s like for a while. There’s kind of no way around it.
How do you think the film will help raise awareness of long-form improv?
Mike Birbiglia: I think we have a real shot at helping explain the art form to people and what’s special about it. I feel like when you say, “improv,” I think most people just think Whose Line Is It Anyway?, improv games, freeze tag, that kind of thing. But actually, in a lot of ways, I like to think of it as these are improvised plays happening in the moment. As Sam says in the movie, “improv in an art form unto itself.”
Chris Gethard: I remember when I started in 2000, I signed up for classes at UCB and I’d never seen long-form – Now I feel like most colleges have one, if not more, long-form improv troupes. It still feels like a relatively underground thing. So I do think it will be an entry point where a lot of people can find it. A lot of people will know what it looks and feels like for the first time.
How much of the dialog in the film was scripted and how much of the dialog was improvised?
Mike Birbiglia: I think we shot everything word for word – Then ultimately, I wanted these guys to feel comfortable saying whatever came out. There’s this great improvised moment Chris has where we’re improvising that eulogy scene where we’re like, “Jack was a great man.” Then I go, “His body’s not in there.” And then Chris improvised, “It’s his headshot.” When he improvised that, I broke down laughing.
In the film, one comedian drops the ball when given a golden opportunity. Have you seen a situation like that in real life?
Chris Gethard: I know about – a half dozen people that self-sabotage. I think there’s a very interesting thing about being an artist and being a comedian – You aim for these jobs, you aim for these things will feed your ego, that feel like accomplishments – Then you actually have to deliver, you actually have to understand that you’re reaching a new level where there’s way more eyes on you, way more expectations, way more pressure. There are a few people, both in the standup world and in improv world in New York, that are legendary for being…
Mike Birbiglia: Local legends.
Chris Gethard: Yeah, very, very, very respected people with massive amounts of abilities who, for one reason or another, it hasn’t happened for. I think people kind of come up and go, “Why hasn’t that person busted out?” Almost always at the end of it, what you find out is that either consciously or subconsciously it hasn’t happened because that person hasn’t chosen for it to happen. Either through walking away because it wasn’t the life they wanted or through self-sabotaging because they weren’t ready.
Mike Birbiglia: Some part of their subconscious doesn’t want it to happen. We’ve all heard that phrase, “Yeah, Eddie Murphy’s brilliant, but the real guy in New York at that time was…” There’s a million stories like that and there always will be.
Chris Gethard: At UCB, some of the people who were kind of the most explosive performers and the ones that everybody would watch and go, “Oh that person’s got it,” are people who don’t do comedy at all anymore. One of the things that this movie really made me remember over and over again is at the end of the day there’s so many things beyond skill and beyond talent that need to happen. You need an immense amount of luck and an immense amount of perseverance to even be on the playing field for success on a grand scale. You work as hard as you can for ten years so you finally have a chance to be lucky – It’s really rare that somebody gets lucky. It’s usually a combination of a lot of talent, a lot of hard work. People that get lucky also tend to be really great looking.
Mike Birbiglia: There are a lot of shinier performers who break young and then you see like a slow decline. I’ve witnessed that a lot.
Chris Gethard: Even the prettiest performers and even the most handsome performers, when they get that opportunity, they still need to step up to the plate and deliver.
Mike Birbiglia: You ultimately have to put in the hours and get lucky – The amount of people who are able to break through is so small a fraction of the amount of people trying.
Chris Gethard: That being said, there’s many hundreds of millions of people who have jobs harder than comedians. And I also remind myself of that everyday. No matter how frustrating this can be, I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to cobble together a little life where this is what I do.
Mike Birbiglia: I can always go back to waiting tables, but I won’t be very good at it. I’ll never be good at it.
Don’t Think Twice opens in select US cities on July 22.