Sunday, November 6, 2016

On Don't Think Twice

I saw Don't Think Twice (2016), Mike Birbiglia's sad study of mid-30-something improv comics coming to terms with the fact that they probably won't achieve their dreams. The movie has an authentic vibe. The steadicam captures the intimacy of this little group. Birbiglia's troupe is connected by a shared angst, a fear of disappointing themselves and their parents, of the possibility that they may not be very good at something they love to do, of fading youth, of money troubles. When the most talented member of the troupe, Jack, played by Keegan-Michael Key who is also the most famous actor in the movie besides Birbiglia, makes it big, the troupe can only respond with kind wishes that mask simmering resentment.

The improv scenes in Don't Think Twice aren't that great on their own terms. Even Key's Jack doesn't shine through for the audience in the movie theater as well as he does for the audience in the world of his own movie. The improvs aren't terrible either. Birbiglia captures the depressing mediocrity of these hard-working craftspeople, and the misery of never being able to judge yourself or others all that well.

When Key's Jack makes his debut on a Saturday Night Live (1975-)-like show, his old friends watch mystified. His performance sounds funny, but it isn't, kind of like the actual Saturday Night Live. Is this what it really means to make it? Do you have to give up the most precious part of your talent in order to please the market?

I know a few people who attempted to make it in theater. Many of them have entered professions adjacent to their initial dreams, content with the fact that they might not have "it," or, even if they do, they don't have the hunger or the neediness for the world to realize that they have "it." Some of them became yoga teachers or theater instructors. One went back to get his B.A. in musicology, and hopefully later his M.A., so he can teach choir. Another became a successful restaranteur. A few years ago, I went drinking with one of the funniest people I've ever met. He's been doing pretty well of late. He has a role in a Hulu series that's successful enough to keep getting renewed. He has a significant following online and he plays sold-out shows. There was an online petition to get him on SNL, and the fact that he's not on it says more about the show than it does about him. Still, he was never quite as funny in his Hulu show as he is on YouTube, and never as funny on YouTube as when he performed live. His Facebook posts, however, are the funniest I've ever seen.

Don't Think Twice captures the existential terror of every artist. The point of being an artist is not to "be good," but to express something of your own, something unique to yourself as well as you can for others. Hopefully your work of art will make other people feel a little less alone. In Don't Think Twice, artists, in order to be what they want to be, to be respected and appreciated, and to be able to live a semi-comfortable lifestyle, have to give up the entire point of their profession, and instead push themselves to "be good."

SNL, The Daily Show and the many shows that followed The Daily Show, and the later seasons of South Park, and Jerry Seinfeld have the same problem. They're all good. They're never terrible. No one in the writers' room seems to be taking risks.  They go for jokes for people who afraid they won't get the joke. No one is willing to fall flat on their face. Everyone needs a job.

They always say that the best years of SNL for everyone are the years when you happen to be 10-years-old. And so for me, Chris Farley will always be the greatest SNL player. I think his clips still hold up. My favorite Farley moment is from the sketch about a sing-off between The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. Susan Dey, who played the oldest daughter in the original Partridge Family, here plays the mother. Farley stands in the back throughout the sketch, playing Ruben Kincaid, nodding his head and smiling for the length of the sketch. A few minutes in, the Brady Bunch taunts the Partridge Family for not having a dad. Farley speaks. "Daddy? I'll show you daddy." He steps forward, lumping like an animal, and grabs Dey, and opens his mouth wide to kiss her. Every player on the stage watches, stifling their laughter and their horror.

In real life, Farley was committing slow-motion suicide. He was an alcoholic, a drug addict, and a spendthrift who ran around with prostitutes. Jim Breuer has told stories about late-night phone calls from Farley, in which he confessed his fears that he wasn't funny, that he was a fraud. Who knows. In his best moments, you had the sense that he was too drunk, too messed-up to even try to be good, to even think about having a job, to even think about living another day. And maybe in Lorne Michaels's head, he doesn't want to be responsible for another Jim Belushi or Farley. And dear god, Charlie Sheen be damned, there may actually be something to the romance of the artist fuelled by the death drive, and fuck, that's terrifying.

After so many movies about artists with the "death drive," Don't Think Twice captures the existential dread of having the problems most people have, but also being more or less emotionally stable. In Don't Think Twice, the heroes are in desperate need of an emotional breakdown they know they can't afford.

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