‘Don’t Think Twice’s’ Mike Birbiglia fails forward

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Mike Birbiglia was going to be a TV star. He had actually cleared his schedule to allow for his TV stardom to take over his life. But life had other plans.

The comic and actor was 30 years old and had filmed a pilot for CBS titled “My Secret Public Journal,” about a childish standup comedian struggling to grow up. Bob Odenkirk and Frances Conroy played his parents. After kicking around in improv circles and the standup scene for more than a decade, he was finally catching his big break. And then he got broken: the network passed on the pilot, leaving him shell-shocked — and with a wide-open calendar to boot.

“I was in this moment of failure where I had nothing on my plate. For the first time in 10 years, I had nothing booked,” says Birbiglia, sitting in a suite at Birmingham’s Townsend Hotel earlier this month. “And then I realized: I didn’t even know if I wanted to be a TV star. I wanted to make shows off-Broadway, and I wanted to make movies. I had this moment where I realized, ‘Why don’t I try to do what I love, not just what I like.’ ”

The end of Birbiglia’s TV dream was the spark that ignited the rest of his career. For seven years he had been performing a one-man show at the United Citizens Brigade Theatre titled “Sleepwalk With Me,” which he decided to put his might behind and mount with real, Broadway-style production values. The show caused a stir in New York and led to “Sleepwalk With Me” turning into a 2012 film, and now he’s back with his follow-up, “Don’t Think Twice,” a comedic drama about an improv comedy troupe that he wrote, directed and stars in.

“Don’t Think Twice” is a comedy born of failure, and it deals with the interpersonal relations of a group of friends staring down the cold reality of the comedy business in unflinching, cringe-worthy detail.

“It’s about that moment in your life when you’re in your 30s when you realize not everybody’s going to get the same thing,” says Birbiglia, 38. “I had that realization that things weren’t going to go the way I envisioned them to go, and that’s OK. My career started going the way I wanted it to go when I stopped auditioning for the gatekeepers and networks and studios, and started doing my own thing.”

“Don’t Think Twice” pulls from Birbiglia’s own improv roots and is fluent in the language of the underground comedy world.

“It gets pretty much everything right, because it’s written by an improvisor,” says Keegan-Michael Key, the Southfield-bred comic who stars in the film as Jack, who breaks out of his group when he lands a gig on a “Saturday Night Live”-like weekly sketch comedy series titled “Weekend Live.”

Key, who started Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Theatre in the early 1990s, recognized “something clearly autobiographical” in the story, he says. (Key was performing at the Second City in Chicago when he landed a role on Fox’s “MADtv.”)

While the script is specific to the improv world, “the heart of the story has been really crystallized and condensed down to its most human components, so it could apply to the corporate world, or a group of veterinarians or pharmaceutical agents,” says Key, who was in Detroit doing press for the movie earlier this month. “It’s a human story more than it’s an improv story.”

Birbiglia, who was born about an hour east of Boston, imagined the story as a sort of “Big Chill” for the improv set. (It’s one of the few films ever set in the improv world; if there are other examples, neither Birbiglia or Key are aware of them.) Birbiglia spent about 18 months writing the film, holing up a coffee shops in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood in Brooklyn, writing from 7-10 a.m. every day, extending his hours until 1 p.m. if things were going particularly well.

Filming took place in the summer of 2015, and the movie follows the troupe members — who, in addition to Birbiglia and Key, also include Gillian Jacobs and Chris Gethard — on and off the improv stage through moments of jealousy, pain and resentment.

“It was never about, ‘What’s the funniest improv scene we can imagine?’ ” Birbiglia says.

Birbiglia, who joined the cast of “Orange is the New Black” in Season 3 (he plays an employee of the company that oversees the prison) sees “Don’t Think Twice” as the second in what will be a 10-film career; he’s currently wrestling with two competing ideas for what will become his third movie.

“Ultimately I’ll make the movie I have to make,” he says. “With this movie I said, ‘there needs to be a movie about how life isn’t fair, so I’m going to make that movie, and I’m going to make it funny.’ That’s the movie I want to make, because that’s the movie I want to see.”


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‘Don’t Think Twice’

Rated R: for language and some drug use

Running time: 92 minutes

Opens Friday