His name was Del Close.
He was 64 when he died in 1999, virtually unknown to mainstream America – even to those who pride themselves on always knowing Who’s Who in America’s Passing Parade. He is still just as unknown in the precincts of pop cultural literacy in 2016.
So when you hear, in the voiceover of the opening minutes of “Don’t Think Twice,” Close quoted as reverently as if he were Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Mark Twain you have every right to be completely nonplussed. Stay put. There is much to learn – and to like.
You soon realize that you are not watching a movie about mainstream culture but have, in fact, happened upon a great movie investigation of a wonderful and completely fresh American subculture you’ve never seen portrayed before in a terrific movie.
The fresh American subculture you’re getting a first-rate rom-com about is improv comedy. Close – as teacher, coach, practitioner and philosopher going back to St. Louis’ Compass Players (with Mike Nichols and Elaine May) - seems to be the great eternally quotable guru of improv comedy. Those he taught and coached at Chicago’s Second City and “Saturday Night Live” include almost all the great early cast members of “SNL” (both Belushis, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner), later cast members Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and, yes, Stephen Colbert, too.
At “SNL,” the joke was that he was the staff “metaphysician.” Hidden and influential faces in American life don’t come much more hidden or influential than Close. It’s that reverence for Close’s influence on the art of improv comedy that clues you into to how brilliantly authentic and rare a movie is “Don’t Think Twice.”
You’ll notice a robust four-star rating attached to this film here that needs explaining. If you expect, because of it, a film of huge accomplishment, the film can’t help but disappoint you. What I love about “Don’t Think Twice” enough to rave about it a little is the film’s rawness and personal feeling for one of the greatest and most incompetently explored subjects in the world: talent and how it gets by in the world.
Showbiz dramas have been a dime a dozen in the movies since talkies talked. “Don’t Think Twice” is a terrific film about one very specific form of it whose performers are utterly dependent on each other for their very sustenance – emotional sustenance off stage, much of the time, and on stage, quite literally, from line to line and physical bit to physical bit. When they’re inventing comedy in front of people out of their large well of hidden tropes and procedures and traditions, they’re going from second to second in search of enough laughs to get them to the big audience laugh and “a-ha” response that will allow them to close the bit and get applause.
It’s wonderful to watch in life when it’s good. Believe me, it was no mistake when it took over American comedy in 1975 when “SNL” collected some of its best and brightest to work in late-night TV with some of the wildest writers in America (Michael O’Donoghue, for instance).
So we’re watching a clever and savvy and heartfelt movie about what happens when undeniable talent collides with the real world. These improv comics are pretty good. But their troupe, the Commune, is subsisting on $5 admission tickets in a tiny theater space they consider themselves lucky to have.
Writer-director-star Mike Birbiglia, a comedian and fixture of PBS’ “This American Life,” plays the troupe’s founder, the one who trained many of the others. Life has convinced him, unfortunately, that he’s neither the most talented in the group or the most attractive to The Big Comedy World Out There.
That would be the couple played by Gillian Jacobs and Keegan-Michael Key of TV’s now-gone “Key and Peele” and famous as Barack Obama’s “anger translator.”
The reality of show business is that talent isn’t everything. The characters Key and Jacobs play are, by far, the most attractive and charismatic of the troupe. So they’re the ones invited to audition separately for “Weekend Live,” the “SNL”-type show that scouted them shortly before. The trouble is, only one of them – Key’s character – burns with ambition. Jacobs plays a clear-cut star in the making – beautiful and gifted – who just can’t ever conquer her panic when the Big Time comes calling.
Of the others in the troupe, we can see and appreciate the comic talent plain as day (real improvs were performed before real audiences and used) but we can see they just don’t look like major TV comedy stars or act like them either.
Which makes it quietly very powerful when they all pile together into one car to accompany one of their number to visit his dying father. This is a family and a close one at that. But we’re watching their survival as a family under attack when their own flaws and the superficialities of the wide, wide world get through with them.
It’s all clever, funny and very touchingly told. But most of all it has all the authenticity and truth of people who know what they’re playing and care very deeply about getting it right. It’s the fruit of a less tentative talent than Birbiglia showed in his first film “Sleepwalk With Me.”
It’s the truth and commitment of this film that really got to me. It may get to you, too.