Mike Birbiglia on ‘Don’t Think Twice,’ Envy, And Why Improv is Nicer Than Stand-Up

Mike Birbiglia is pulling back the curtain on the feuds and resentments that consume comedians when one of their own hits it big.

In his second feature, “Don’t Think Twice,” Birbiglia depicts a tight-knit improv troop that starts to unravel when one of its members gets cast on a popular comedy program that seems a lot like “Saturday Night Live.”It’s an opportunity for the stand-up comic to explore the nature of success, the fear of failure, and the way that people in their thirties began to grapple with the realization that they may not make it after all.

Birbiglia not only directs, he wrote the film, produced it, and stars alongside Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs. Best known for his stand-up comedy and one-man shows, he previously directed 2012’s “Sleepwalk With Me,” an autobiographical look at his sleepwalking disorder. “Don’t Think Twice” opened in a single New York theater last weekend and begins to rollout in other cities and locations this week.

Birbiglia spoke with Variety about envy, Twitter, and how fatherhood change his life.

Did you ever audition for “SNL”?
No,  I’ve been operating on such a low level of show business for so long that I was never even considered to be considered. I was so far away from that orbit. It was never my skill set. I was never good at impressions or characters.

You’re best known for your standup comedy and one-man shows. How extensive is your improv background?
Improv was my first comedy love. I did it all through college and for about three years afterwards I had a regular show at the UCB with my college friends.  I was doing stand-up simultaneously because it was more of a job that I could sustain myself with. I circled back to it years later after I directed “Sleepwalk With Me.”

I realized how much improv had taught me about directing. Basically no one knows how to direct their first feature, no matter how many books you’ve read or classes you’ve taken. You really don’t know what to do, other than to go with it.

Are people in the standup world ambitious in a different way from people in the improv world?
My wife made this observation once when she came to my improv show. She said,  “your stand-up friends are so much meaner than your improv friends.” It’s true, but it’s more subtle than that. That’s where the movie springs from.

In some ways both fields are cutthroat and competitive, but in stand-up it’s much more overt and comics go after each other. In improv the rules of it are inherently supportive, so they don’t support competition. You’re really not supposed to be competitive in improv, but life gets in the way. Especially when people all want the same thing. When I got the idea for the movie I wrote this idea on the wall — art is socialism, but life is capitalism.

Did you ever get jealous when friends got big breaks?
I think jealousy is something we all deal with. People are jealous because their next door neighbor has an in-ground pool if they have an above-ground pool. There’s an inherent feeling that someone else has something that you should have. I like the idea of making a movie about how life is unfair. I feel like that’s not a movie anyone is greenlighting in Hollywood. It becomes incumbent on independent filmmakers to make films about things like that.

Do you think comedians deal with jealousy differently than the rest of us?
Comedians often are communicating through jokes or through bits. Comedians don’t always have the most direct way of dealing with things.

Were you interested in depicting how your life changes from your twenties to your thirties? That’s a big shift, and it’s not one that’s often depicted on film. 
Definitely. There’s no way I would have written this in my twenties. I feel like in my twenties, I was chasing this dream of having a sitcom. At a certain point, I realized it wasn’t even my dream. It was everybody else’s dream except for me. I had a sitcom pilot at CBS like eight years ago and when it didn’t get picked up to air, I was left with all this free time. I put my head down and worked on these three one-person shows Off-Broadway and I directed these two feature films, and I feel so lucky that happened. At the time I was crushed. I felt like it was the biggest failure of my life and in retrospect I think it’s the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.

There’s a cultural idea of success in America. Usually people view it as exposure or visibility. You know, being known. In my thirties, I came to realize that success is connecting with people. Helping people. And contributing in some way. It can be for millions of people in TV or in movies, or it could be for twenty people in an improv theater in Minneapolis.

What was the sitcom about?
It was based on my life. It was similar to my stand-up where it’s autobiographical. It had some of the elements of “Sleepwalk With Me.” There was the fear of commitment, where somebody was living with his girlfriend and didn’t want to get married. It was kind of a watered-down version, and I don’t think it was very true to my voice. That’s what happens when there’s too many cooks in the kitchen.

Has social media leveled the playing field in terms of achieving success? You’ve had this very interesting career, but would it have been possible without the internet?
I’m not convinced that it would have. A lot of the more interesting comedians right now have had a lot of success in relation to the internet. I’m thinking of Amy Schumer, Aziz Ansari, Kevin Hart, and Louis C.K. All of these people are people who connected with their fans directly at a certain point, because they wanted to do a specific type of thing. I may be misquoting, but it was George Carlin who said, “I don’t have to be popular with 100% of people. I have to be popular with 1% who really like me.” It’s such a small fraction of people you have to appeal to in order to have a career, but you have to be those people’s favorite comic.

You’re active on Twitter. Do you ever worry about wasting your best jokes on a tweet?
It definitely crosses my mind. When I was writing the film, I would always turn off my internet connection and my email and my Twitter app and make sure that there was nothing cross-pollinating with the script.

The film did well in limited release, but it’s not exactly mainstream. Did you have pressure to release this digitally instead of having it play in theaters?
No one asked me to do it that way, but I was not open to that idea. I actually believe this is a mainstream film. It would have been a studio film in the ’70s or ’80s, but studios don’t make films like this anymore. I think people are craving this type of thing.

What’s your next project?
My next project is hanging out with my wife and my daughter.

Your daughter is 15 months old. How has fatherhood changed you?
All the cliched ways that you think. I remember being in birth class and they’d ask what you’re most excited about being a parent. My wife and I would just be like, “we’re just hoping that she’s alive.” We’d be so annoyed by people who’d talk about wanting to see the world through their son’s eyes. Just be grossed out by that. And here I am, like a year and a half later, just being like “I love seeing the world through my daughter’s eyes.” You end up eating your words about all of the things that you made fun of about people with kids.

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