The spotlight’s not for everyone.
One of the more astute and amusing adventures in the Netflix show Bojack Horseman finds Bojack’s sidekick/housemate Todd finding himself by getting into improv comedy. The joke is a double-edged sword. On one side, Todd is inculcated into the cult of improv, which features its own language, customs, and (most importantly) monetized hierarchy. On the other side, the show uses improv comedy as a way to attack Scientology without actually invoking scientology. It’s brilliant, in part, because improv comedy can look pretty cult-like from the outside. Practitioners tend to be comedians who are trying to pay the bills by teaching newbies how to be funny on-stage, but their real ambitions lie in landing a movie role, or job on SNL (which has hired a solid percentage of its performers/writers from improv backgrounds). The world of improv comedy gets a slightly gentler treatment in Don’t Think Twice, but it’s still not a pretty picture. Fans of improv and the actors involved are going to want to pick it up, though.
“The Commune” is New York City’s best improve troupe, and though it’s popular, most of its members have their eyes on getting out of the grind of performing for cheap every week and teaching improv classes to amateurs to survive. When talent scouts for Weekend Live (a thinly-veiled Saturday Night Live stand-in), Jack (Keegan-Michael Key, Key and Peele) does his best to stand out (a huge improv no-no) and gets an audition. His sudden popularity outside the Commune creates tension and causes everyone to rethink their place in the improv comedy world.
Don’t Think Twice is one of those films that makes you go “why hasn’t anyone done this before?” Maybe there are lots of films out there about improv comedy, but Don’t Think Twice feels like its filling a long-neglected niche.
The most obvious reason someone should have made this film before 2016 is that improv comedy is the perfect kind of world to explore for dramatic tension. In theory, the goal of improv is to work together to make the audience laugh. The best improv practitioners are masters of serving the material (often audience suggested) and making their co-stars look great. But improv has also been a significant feeder to television in the last couple of decades, either with a spot on SNL (or other sketch show), a job writing for a sitcom, or an offer for a solo or duo show. So immediately there is tension between serving the improv/improv troupe and the desire to get ahead as a comedian. Then, you add in the fact that improv itself doesn’t pay well (I think the Commune is charging $5 a head for their show), so many performers have to teach classes to survive, and that’s a grind. Don’t Think Twice does a fantastic job of laying out this world, highlighting what’s attractive about a life of improv without sparing us the negative aspects as well.
The other big reason that Don’t Think Twice seems like it should have happened before is that it’s a great excuse to get a bunch of excellent comedic actors together. On that score, Don’t Think Twice delivers. Keegan-Michael Key is probably the best-known of the cast’s performers, and so it makes sense that he’s the break-out star. He’s also part of the troupe’s power-couple with Gillian Jacobs, who has been consistently impressive since Community ended. Mike Birbiglia (who also wrote and directed) casts himself as the leader of the troupe, Miles, who was almost a contender. It’s a wry bit of casting that works perfectly. Slightly less well-known comedians like Kate Micucci and Tami Sagher complete the troupe and get to show off their excellent chops as well.
The real genius of Don’t Think Twice, though, is that in diving deep into the world and personalities of improv comedy, the film finds something more universal. Many of us worry that we’re going to be passed over for recognition. That the distance between the job we do to survive and the job we love is an unbridgeable gap. Many of us have friends at different stages of life, and trying to juggle success or failure with sensitivity towards others is an important struggle. Don’t Think Twice captures all that, and has time to crack a bunch of jokes.
Don’t Think Twice gets a fine Blu-ray release. The 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer does a fine job with the material. Shot digitally, the feature reveals a pleasing amount of detail and good color saturation. Black levels are consistent and deep, while compression problems aren’t apparent. The film doesn’t look spectacular (and it’s not intended to), but the transfer serves the film’s look. The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack is similarly appropriate. All the jokes are easy to hear, with clean dialogue coming from the front. There’s a bit of surround use to establish atmosphere, especially when the troupe is performing. The film’s use of music lets the track shine a bit more, with impressive clarity and solid low-end.
Extras start with some extended bits of improv, along with a featurette explaining improv culture for those who wanted more of that in the film. We also get a pair of featurettes that look at the film’s production and give and overview of its characters.
Improv comedy is a weird little world, and it’s a kind of comedy that isn’t for everyone. Anybody who’s allergic to audience suggestion and miming of various mundane tasks probably won’t get too much out of Don’t Think Twice. As someone who enjoyed the film, I almost wish it were a series instead of a feature, because I’d love to follow these characters a bit longer.
If you love the world of improv or any of the actors involved, then Don’t Think Twice is a film that deserves a wider audience than its slow roll-out in 2016 likely provided. I suspect it’ll be a cult favorite going forward, and this Blu-ray release is a great way to discover the film.