Don’t Think Twice

There are rules to improv comedy. Depending on which list you Google, the rules vary in number and particular legislations. Mike Birbiglia, the writer/director/supporting actor of Don’t Think Twice, begins his film with three rules:

1) Say yes.
2) It’s all about the group.
3) Don’t think.

And, if you’re like me, those three rules continue to roll around in your head the entire time you’re watching his film as a kind of ideal state of being the movie’s improv comedy team, The Commune, ought to be exemplifying in any moment.

Following those rules turns out to be quite difficult as carrying pressures mount up on each group member and (Rule 2) on the group as a whole. Kee-ly, one of the group’s members lands a spot on the cast of Weekend Live, Don’t Think Twice’s version of Saturday Night Live, and (Rule 3) the rest of the group members begin doubting the purpose of their improv comedy-ing.

Don’t Think Twice is a light film with enough genuine character moments to make it feel like more than a mere diversion. Any one of the members of this ensemble could have been the main character of a movie solely about her or him, but any of those more focused narratives would have felt contrived. By stacking these characters on top of each other and picking up each one just enough, Birbiglia has made a film that never rings false in the moment, even if, in retrospect, a few of the narrative threads tie up a little too nicely to still feel real.

I enjoyed Don’t Think Twice, and I’m surprised to say that, because I don’t typically like movies in which personal ambition and innate competency are key themes. Imposter Syndrome is real, and I don’t like seeing it fictional characters any more than I like seeing it in the mirror staring back at me. Don’t Think Twice manages to explore ambition, success, failure, and even, yes, contentment with marked wisdom. I enjoyed this movie, but I’m grateful for it as well.

At one point in Don’t Think Twice, The Commune sits around television to watch that week’s episode of Weekend Live. One member of the group likens watching the show to watching the only thing comedy has to watching a live sporting event. It’s The Event. There’s no place higher to climb.

But that’s not true. The most successful comedians on SNL become movie stars and get their own sitcoms and film franchises. And the greatest movie stars win Academy Awards. And the greatest Academy Award winners win multiple awards. How many? How many is enough? There’s no such thing as enough.

But ambition is just another word for drive, and drive is good. It pushes us to keep growing in our personal and professional lives. Perhaps the question we need to ask concerns what we’re ambitious for. Are we chasing fame and esteem? Or are we driven for better things? Do we (Rule 1) only say yes to things that raise our status? Or do we continue to (Rule 2) prioritize the group, and become ambitious for things that help others? “Don’t Think” may be rule number 3 of improv comedy, but thinking twice may be the difference between being ambitious for things that will destroy our life and being ambitious for things that will enrich it.