“Comedy shouldn’t be a competition,” says someone from the New York improv group known as The Commune while watching “Weekend Live” (an obvious stand-in for “Saturday Night Live”) in “Don’t Think Twice.” Listen to a long-form interview with a real-life comedian – or better yet, read Kliph Nesteroff’s superlative history of the craft, “The Comedians” – and you’ll know that Lorne Michaels’ comedy institution is truly the end-all, be-all for anyone in the field. There is no getting around the fact that the show represents a kind of Holy Grail for comedians.
The reality stemming from the position of one show as a kind of de facto finish line for comedians does, in fact, make comedy a competition. It’s an objective result created by subjective criteria. There become winners and losers based on seemingly arbitrary, unknowable preferences. Acknowledging this provides cold comfort for aspiring performers and writers who can make tremendous sacrifices to pursue their dreams for years only to get upstreamed by someone fresher, newer … or maybe just more talented.
This existential dilemma forms the bedrock of Mike Birbiglia’s film as Commune member Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) gets the big call up from “Weekend Live.” The timing could not be worse, either, as the group faces an imminent crisis of continuation with the loss of their performing venue. If Jack is the chosen one from their troupe, then what becomes of everyone else who he cannot pull up?
Everyone deals with the reckoning in their own way – continue in comedy? Find a new group? Trudge ahead on the same path? Give up? Everything is on the table, and with their inflection point imminent, it brings out an urgency and honesty in every person. Birbiglia gives each character a story, a purpose and a chance to speak their mind without judgement – a remarkable feat given the Commune’s six comedians. The anxieties are highly specific to their field of choice, yet because of that, their internal tussles feel entirely relevant to anyone in an industry without a clear-cut trajectory of professional advancement.
There may well be someone in the film (mine was Gillian Jacobs’ Samantha, a spot-on representation of what it’s like to fear the next step in your career) who speaks to you directly. But you wouldn’t pluck him or her out of “Don’t Think Twice” and silence the other five members, right? There’s something special about hearing all the voices in an improvisational chorus, not a forced isolation. B+ /