Film

Q&A: Writer-Director Mike Birbiglia Thinks Twice About Improv and Jealousy

by

Mike Birbiglia’s poignant comic drama Don’t
Think Twice
honestly
depicts the ways that seriously funny people face ego and jealousy — and craft their art. In his second collaboration with Sleepwalk With Me producer Ira Glass, the comedian-turned-filmmaker co-stars as a member of a New York City improv troupe (which also includes Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci, and Tami Sagher) whose relationships and loyalties fray after one of their own (Keegan-Michael Key) is cast on a popular, SNL-like show. Over lunch in his Cobble Hill neighborhood, Birbiglia improvised some answers.

You asked if we could meet earlier, but I was hesitant after seeing your one-man show Thank God for Jokes this past spring, in which you claim that “on-time people” like yourself hate “late people.”

It puts a lot of pressure on me to be on time, now that I’ve staked my ground. I’m not late that often, although having a fourteen-month-old daughter compromises you. There have been times where I’ve had to say to my wife, “Bring Oona, and I’ll meet you there,” because I hate being late.

Do you still find there to be a stigma with improv comedy, that some find it to be a lower or lazier art?

Performance-level improv has gotten better in the last thirty years, particularly the last ten, mostly because of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. They’ve made long-form improv mainstream. But there is definitely a funny resentment. A lot of times, when I explain the logline of the movie, people are like, “Oh yeah, those improvisers have it coming.” They think it’s a Christopher Guest movie, but obviously it’s not.

Too many independent comedies today feel like lower-budget versions of broad studio fare. What are your thoughts on the indie landscape now?

Captain Fantastic was excellent. I don’t know if it’s a comedy. I don’t know what the hell you’d call it. Movies like that and ours used to be financed by the studio system, and now aren’t anymore. I think of it as the Wall Street effect on Hollywood. They don’t want one and a half times their money, they want to make ten times their money. It drives me nuts because movies that I fell in love with, like Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadcast News, or Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, they don’t make those movies. They don’t even make Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous anymore.

You rarely find movies for grown-ups in the multiplexes, full stop.

I did a Q&A in New Jersey at a mall. Ira Glass and I popped in and watched twenty minutes of each movie. What plays at the mall? We were appalled. Most of those movies are so insulting to people’s intelligence, which is why Pixar wins at the summer box office. They spend time on making movies smart enough to cross over to adults and children, not just pandering to children.

Keeping with your film’s themes, have you done anything memorable out of jealousy?

This isn’t a jealousy thing, but an uncomfortability story. The Ben Stiller scene [in which Stiller plays himself] was inspired by a true-life thing. I was at a premiere party and Jon Hamm was there. He said to me, “I really enjoy your comedy.” I was like, “You don’t have to say that.” He goes, “No, I don’t have to say…” It was this horrible realization: How do you fuck up a compliment? I get intimidated by people I admire.

That’s more about fame, though. What about jealousy?

When you meditate on jealousy, you realize it’s a wasted emotion. Take someone you’re jealous of and think, “Would I trade my life for their life?” In my case, it’s always no. I have to say to myself, “Then just shut up.” You can’t cherry-pick your favorite parts of someone else’s life. I’ve wasted too much time in my life Googling my enemies. To what end, and why? It doesn’t get you anything. I don’t do that anymore.