An established class act in the world of stand-up comedy, Mike Birbiglia has become one of the hottest young names in the business on the basis of his relationship anxieties.
His smiling melancholy has won him followings onstage, on public radio as a regular contributor to “This American Life,” through multiple Comedy Central specials, and among mainstream audiences with roles in “Trainwreck,” “The Fault in Our Stars” and the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.”
Whether he’s playing a squirrelly corporate shill or an accident-prone somnambulist (as he did in his semi-autobiographical debut as a director, “Sleepwalk With Me”), Birbiglia delivers funny moments in a tone of self-deprecating confession.
He’s at it again in “Don’t Think Twice,” a sweet and sad salute to the lives of professional entertainers. He plays an improv comedian in his late 30s, facing the rising network success of some of his troupe, and his own declining appeal as a seducer of younger women in his comedy class. Part low-key laughs, part a dramatic look at early midlife, it avoids the herd mentality of easy, obvious jokes.
When he visited the Twin Cities recently to promote the new film, which opens Friday, he told me that the film was inspired by an evening he improvised at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City.
“It was weird to be back onstage after years of not doing stand-up and doing movies,” he said. “There was this great group of who’s who great comedians that night and my wife said, ‘everyone’s so equal onstage.’ The principles of improv are that you’re all equal, and we all were equally talented and skillful onstage. But in life that person’s a movie star and that person’s on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ and that person lives on an air mattress in Queens. And I thought, ‘That’s a movie.’ ”
Birbiglia, who studied screenwriting in college, envisioned a comedy version of the seminal thirty-something movie “The Big Chill,” about a group of old friends in a performing group who come to terms with their differing life directions and ideals. “A kind of ensemble comedy set in the world of improv. The more I got true in it, the more it became both” comedy and drama.
Four of the six actors in those roles, like Keegan-Michael Key, have backgrounds in improv. Two, like TV veteran Gillian Jacobs, had never done it at all. “We did a three-week crash course in improv. The whole group would do these folksy exercises” to prepare them for the shoot. “Some people expected a kind of Christopher Guest take on it,” satirizing that world as a target. “I saw it as a love letter to the form.”
Little of the story was created on the spot, however. “It’s surprisingly written for a movie that’s about improv,” he laughed. “But I hired brilliant people that I trusted. I said, ‘Whatever feels truthful to you.’ That’s the most important thing. When I see a movie I just want to feel something that seems like life. I love being tricked by movies, being immersed in them and feeling like they’re happening. When I go to the movies, I want to laugh and cry. That’s my goal.”
It’s an approach he finds in the work of directors like Nicole Holofcener (“Lovely & Amazing,”), Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”), Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) and Woody Allen, “the greatest filmmaker of this era.”
“There’s a great feeling of authenticity and emotion to those films, and they’re very funny. They aren’t the movies that Hollywood is financing. They don’t see a business model in it that makes them 10 times their money.” Without the support of his independent financing company, he doubted that his own new film would exist.
“It’s returned to the Renaissance period, or something, where we all have benefactors.”