Why is it so hard to see close friends achieve success? Sure, you’re happy for them, pleased to see them following their dreams… but when you want what they want, and they have what you don’t, bitterness inevitably rears its ugly head. In his new film, Don’t Think Twice, comedian, actor, writer, director and Shrewsbury native Mike Birbiglia explores these themes, following a fictional New York City improv troupe, The Commune, through the highs and lows of their professional lives and personal relationships. Birbiglia joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on Boston Public Radio to chat about Don’t Think Twice, which comes to the Kendall Square Cinema on Friday, August 5.

Margery: Tell us a little bit about Don’t Think Twice.

MB: Don’t Think Twice is this film that I made, it’s a narrative feature about a group of best friends in an improv group in New York City, and one of them gets a chance to audition for a Saturday Night Live-type of show, and the rest of them don’t. It’s about… friendship, it’s sort of a Big Chill-type film set in the world of improv comedy.

Margery: Is it a spoiler to give away the moral of the story?

MB: I don’t think so.

Margery: I thought that the moral of the story was that you had to be a little bit of a jerk to make it in your field.

MB: I love that you think that’s the moral of the story.

Margery: Jim was much more… you thought it was all about love…

Jim: I don’t think he’s a jerk in the slightest!

Margery: What about when the guy’s father has just had a terrible motorcycle accident, and he comes in to talk to the improv group, and he’s not even there for 20 seconds before he says oh, I’m sorry your dad almost died but....

MB: Bad timing! It’s awkward timing. The movie is filled with… it’s a comedy of errors with a dramatic center.

Margery: So that wasn’t a jerk, that was just bad timing?

MB: I don’t think so, no. He’s so excited, he’s got the break of his life, he’s going to get to audition for a Saturday Night Live type of show, he’s been working on it for years and years and years, and then the one character says, ‘well, something happened with my dad, he’s in the hospital,’ and he goes, ‘well, we have some news, too… I got an audition for this thing…’ and that’s what life… the goal, the hope of the movie is that it feels like life.

Margery: It does feel like life.

MB: It feels sad, it feels funny, you’re laughing, you’re crying, and ultimately, you leave talking about it for a few weeks.

Jim: Margery, you taught me this quote from Gore Vidal, he was once asked, ‘how do you feel when a friend of yours writes a novel?’ he said, ‘it’s an ultimate disaster, and my heart leaps with joy.’ There is sort of this love-hate kind of thing?

MB: That is what this movie is about.

Jim: It’s these people who love each other, in this great troupe, The Commune, basically, they want to support everybody else, but there’s this jealousy, you’re the worst in the movie.

MB: My character, Miles, is the worst. He is so bitter. My character is the most bitter, he’s this kind of improv teacher… he’s an improv teacher who kind of like dates women, students who are out of his league, and he desperately wants to be cast in like a Saturday Night Live-type of show, and he never will be.

Margery: Tell us about the contrast between your twenties and your thirties.

MB: Your twenties are about hope, and your thirties are about realizing how dumb it was to hope.

MB: When I wrote this movie, Trump wasn’t a candidate for president. It’s the weirdest synchronicity… when we were shooting this movie, Gillian Jacobs, (Love, Girls, Community) she goes, ‘Mike, we’re shooting this Trump stuff, and everyone thought the candidacy was like, a joke, but it seems like it’s starting to be real.’ and I was like, ‘silly actors, with their ideas, they don’t know. I am a director. I am a man of intelligence, this is silly-talk.’ And here we are, it gets sadder by the day, but the point is, I actually said, a few days before, ‘the Trump think is seeming real right now, can we think of someone who has done more destruction to New York City than Donald Trump, for this joke?’ and we bashed our heads against the wall, and we could come up with no one. He has done more bad for New York City than almost anyone I could think of.

Margery: You mean you don’t like those big buildings?

MB: I am infuriated every time I see those stupid buildings.

Margery: All one after another with the big Trump signs on them?

MB: Unbelievable.

Jim: You were like twelve years old, you were on Letterman when you were a kid, when you were 24, you did stand up and then you did one-person shows that got total rave reviews in New York City and beyond— there is nothing that gives me hives more than standing up in front of an audience by myself. Is it terrifying? Does it ever stop?

MB: I say this in my movie Sleepwalk With Me, (if people want to watch it, it’s on Netflix, I’ll give you my password) is that to be a comedian, you have to be delusional. You have to convince yourself it’s going well, when it’s really not going well. You guys probably feel this from radio to some extent too.

Jim: No, because no one is here. It’s just us! If we had to do this in front of an audience that is as big as we hope our audience is most days, I couldn’t even talk.

MB: Ira Glass, who is one of the producers on the film, talks sometimes about how to be a creator of anything, an artist of any kind, the first thing you have to do is have good taste. And then you have to start doing the thing that you want to do, and you won’t be able to do it for a long time. You’re going to be bad at it for a long time. And it takes a long time, literally years, for your work quality to catch up to your taste. It takes years.

THE GAP by Ira Glass from Daniel Sax on Vimeo.


Margery: And yet, you were on the David Letterman show at 24 years old. How did that happen for you so quickly? That’s pretty young.

MB: It’s very fast. I think it had a lot to do with… my father is listening, my parents live in Sandwich, Mass. It’s parental pressure? I really do think part of it is. My dad’s a doctor, my mother is a nurse, these are professions where people help other people and are ashamed of their artistic children. It is so hard to convince your parents, when they have respectable jobs, that you’re going to be a stand-up comedian. It makes no sense. I moved to New York, none of the clubs wanted me, so I drove my mom’s station wagon around the country to areas of lesser comedy concentration, Ohio, West Virginia, New Jersey… I bought my mom’s car—I always like to point that out because sometimes when people’s parents have faith in their child’s dreams, they’ll give them their car, I paid the full blue book value. My parents just didn’t buy it that it was going to work out. I was a real overachiever, I drove around the country, and I got pretty good really fast.

Margery: Who does improv? The class clown in 7th grade?

MB: In my opinion, it’s not. In my opinion, the people who do improv are… I think it’s a lot of theatre nerds, which I was, and it’s writers, it’s people who are in their head a bit, and they want to break out. Improv classes, if you want to go to ImprovBoston or whatever, it’s good for breaking out of your head and like doing things instead of thinking.

It is so hard to convince your parents, when they have respectable jobs, that you're going to be a stand-up comedian.

Jim: That’s even more anxiety!

MB: There’s rules of it. If you took a class at ImprovBoston, you’d understand quickly that if you follow the rules of ‘yes, and’ that you can build a scene out of nothing.

Margery: How did you and Ira Glass, from This American Life fame, get together?

MB: I had told stories for The Moth for a few years, even long before it was on the radio, or anything. The Moth is amazing, Catherine Burns is the artistic director, and I asked her if she could please send the audio of my sleepwalking story to This American Life, I said I’m dying to be on that show… and she said no, and I said please, another time, six months later, and she said no, I think like, a third time… I just thought, like, I would listen to that show and think, ‘that’s where I should be! Those are the listeners who I want to come to my shows!’ I do something that’s a little different than the typical stand-up comedian, I tell kind of long-form stories that have a beginning, middle, and end. Ira really liked my story.

Margery: So it got to him! Did she do it?

MB: She did send it.

Jim: Isn’t that one of the points in the movie?

Margery: Yes, I wondered if that was true, that when you get hired on SNL, and you’ve got your five funny friends that also want to get jobs there, that you’re not supposed to pitch their careers to the bosses. Is that true about SNL?

MB: I will say this about Saturday Night Live. A lot of people think, like, you’re in dangerous territory, you have a fake Saturday Night Live, and I think that my career is on such a low level that I am risk of nothing.

Jim: What?! Orange Is The New Black! Girls! Trainwreck!

MB: I’ve done a lot of great stuff, I’ve been lucky and I’ve been cast in a lot of great stuff, but I’m never going to be on Saturday Night Live, I’m probably never going to host Saturday Night Live, it doesn’t really affect me.

Jim: If one can say, ‘I probably will never host Saturday Night Live’, that is pretty great. Speaking of storytelling, I hope this story is true…

MB: About Obama? That is true.

Jim: Can you give us the short version of that story?

MB: My wife and I were lucky enough to be at this event where we were in line to take a photo with Barack Obama, and I couldn’t believe it. My wife and I thought that we needed to come up with something that would hook him to want to talk to us. If you ever meet anybody who you know doesn’t want to meet you, tell them something… tell them a secret. Because you’ve got to hook them with something. My wife was five months pregnant, and we hadn’t told anybody, (my wife is very secretive) and I was like, ‘let’s tell President Obama that you’re pregnant.’ and she goes, ‘okay, perfect.’ I said, ‘Mr. President, this is my wife Jen, she’s newly pregnant, but don’t tell anyone.’ I swear to god— even the president of the United States couldn’t help but be like, ‘well, am I the first to know?’ and I said ‘yeah, do you have any parenting advice?’ and he said, ‘umm… get some sleep.’

If you ever meet anybody who you know doesn't want to meet you, tell them a secret.

Margery: Pretty good!

MB: We were like, ‘ha ha ha,’ because he’s the president— it wasn’t that strong, comedically, but he’s like your boss, times a million… but then he goes, ‘no actually, I got something. When you bring ‘em home, the poo’ —the president said ‘poo.’ When he said poo, I thought, ‘this is the greatest day of my life. I could die right now, and I would be fine with it.’ He goes, ‘when you bring ‘em home, the poo doesn’t smell. It doesn’t smell like adult poo, adult poo smells bad.’ And then he looked at me for affirmation, and I was like, ‘absolutely, Mr. President, adult poo does indeed smell terrible, thank you for inviting me to the Poo Summit of 2015.’ And he goes, ‘when you bring ‘em home, babies crave structure, and they’re eating, and they’re sleeping, and if it doesn’t work out right away, don’t freak out.’ And then he paused, and he goes, ‘...that’s actually some pretty good advice.’ He complimented his own advice, and my wife said what I believe to be the funniest thing one can say to the president of the United States, she said, ‘if you think of anything else, text us.’

Jim: That was spectacular, as is your movie.

Margery: Thrilled to meet you, Shrewsbury Boy.

Mike Birbiglia is a comedian, actor, writer, director and Shrewsbury native. His latest film is Don’t Think Twice, airing at the Kendall Square Cinema on Friday, August 5. To hear his interview with Boston Public Radio, click on the audio link above.