Courtesy of Mike Birbiglia
is a comedian, actor, director, writer and English muffin pizza savant. His latest film, Don't Think Twice,
centers on a close-knit NYC improv comedy troupe that begins to splinter when individual members attract the attention of a network sketch-comedy show called "Weekend Live." It's a not-so-subtle stand-in for "Saturday Night Live," long the holy grail for improv comedians.
In the thoughtful, shambling style that has become his signature, Birbiglia explores themes of jealousy and ambition. Perhaps most potently, he also ponders the inevitable moment when aging artists are forced to confront Peter Pan syndrome and reconcile creative passions with the desire for conventional stability.
Birbiglia stars in the film alongside the likes of Keegan-Michael Key ("Key & Peele") and Gillian Jacobs ("Community"). Among the film's other notable comedic talents is Vermont's Steve Waltien, who plays the supporting (OK, minor) character Hugh Finn. Waltien is a Shelburne native and an alum of the iconic Chicago improv theater Second City. He's presently a writer on Jon Stewart's forthcoming animated HBO series. (Full disclosure: He is also one of this writer's oldest and dearest friends.)
On Sunday, October 23, Birbiglia brings his new show, "Thank God for Jokes
," to the Flynn MainStage in Burlington. Ahead of that performance, we checked in via email to ask him about comedy, his new movie and his mastery of English muffin pizzas.
I also thought it would be fun to have Waltien fire a few questions at Birbiglia. Because how often do you get the chance to interview one of your favorite comedians after they've just directed one of your best friends in their critically acclaimed new movie? (Answer: Probably just once.)
SEVEN DAYS: The central question of “Thank God for Jokes” is, to quote your website, “How far should we go for the laugh?” At the risk of asking a painfully obvious question — and without giving too much away from the show — how far should we go for the laugh? Is that even answerable?
MB: My feeling on jokes is that we have the right to tell jokes and we have the right to be offended by jokes. Both of those things are valid. And there’s always this discussion of “Where’s the line?" in comedy. You want to get close to the line but you don't want to go over the line. But the tricky part of that is that the line is subjective. It's different for everybody. So what might be the line for an audience at my show is different for an audience at Doug Stanhope’s show or Maria Bamford’s show or Jim Gaffigan’s show. So I think it really comes down to who your audience is and what they came to see.
SD: You started in comedy doing both improv and standup. Are there lessons you took from the group dynamic of improv that helped you in your standup? Or lessons you took from the more solitary pursuit that aided you in improv?
MB: I’d suggest this for anyone who’s going into this kind of field. I think that the more artistic disciplines you can study, the more it benefits all of them. When I was in college, I took drawing classes and theater classes and I was doing open mics and standup and I was doing improv, and I think all of those kind of contributed to the other. So, yeah, I think it’s good to improvise as a standup and I think it’s good to be able to do solo work as an improvisor. I think it’s a huge part of it.
SD: Don’t Think Twice deals specifically with an improv troupe. But it’s more broadly a riff on personal and professional jealousy. Realizing you just made a whole movie on the subject, how do you handle jealousy in your own life?
MB: I think that the movie has actually taught me how useless it is to be jealous and how it really only hurts you. Particularly in art, so much of it is about making something that you’re proud of and connecting with people. And all the other stuff, whether it’s reviews or awards or box office, all that stuff is in some ways a little bit irrelevant to you connecting with an audience and making something that’s personal and specific.
SD: You’ve said for years that you don’t want to do a sitcom because it would be "noted" to death by studios. But more and more, it seems certain studios are realizing that giving artists autonomy can be a good thing — FX with "Louie,"" any number of Netflix and HBO series, etc. With the TV landscape changing, is doing a series something you’d reconsider? Is the serial form a style of storytelling that appeals to you?
MB: Not as much. I love film. I love the 90-minute to two-hour format, which is why I’m going to stay in it as long as I can. It's certainly a less-profitable format, but I feel like you have to do what you love and not what you like. And I feel like I like TV and I love film.
SD: You’re widely acknowledged — or at least self-acknowledged — as a master chef of English muffin pizzas. What’s your secret? (Mine is a dash of oregano, BTW. Also, occasionally subbing in Alfredo sauce for tomato.)
MB: I’m not a self-proclaimed master of anything, to be clear. But if I were to claim a mastery of something, it might be English muffin pizzas. And I don’t have as sophisticated ingredients as you have.
From Steve Waltien: Important Questions for Mike Birbiglia in Order of Importance:
STEVE WALTIEN: Your commitment to casting Vermont actors in your films is respectable. Do you feel that other filmmakers are missing out on Green Mountain talent?
Courtesy of Steve Waltien
MB: Obviously there’s a huge lack of Vermont talent in American cinema and I’m working to repair it.
SW: It seems fairly obvious to me that Hugh Finn is the main character of Don’t Think Twice. It reminded me of how focused we the audience are on the shark in Jaws, yet we rarely see him. How influential was Spielberg in your decision to use restraint in showing Hugh?
MB: Yes, Spielberg was definitely an influence and Hugh Finn is definitely the most prime candidate for a sequel/spinoff.
SW: My sister will be in the crowd at the Flynn. Her name is Ali Waltien. Will you say what’s up for me?
[Note from Birbiglia's publicist, Peter: I didn't ask Mike this because we were pressed for time. But I will certainly let him know that your sister will be there.]
[Editor's note: Thanks, Peter. Though that was easily the most straightforward question of the entire interview.]
SW: I once did a show in Burlington where a woman in the front row fell out of her chair repeatedly at the mention of Bernie Sanders. She was pretending to faint. She was also wearing a jean jacket that said "Dances With Wolves" on the back of it. This was last year. How are you preparing for the notoriously tough Burlington crowds?
MB: Lot of sit-ups, lot of push-ups, some drinking.
SW: Serious question: Why do you think there aren’t more standups who improvise and vice-versa?
MB: I don’t know. That’s something that’s surprised me. We traveled around the country doing these improv workshops with Liz Allen, who coached the improvisors in the movie, and we have noticed that there’s often a Sharks and Jets relationship between the improvisors and the standups. And it shouldn’t be that way. Because I really do think that these art forms contribute to each other, and the better improvisor you are, the better standup you are, and the better standup you are, the better improvisor you are.