“We” and “I” in “Don’t Think Twice”

“We” and “I” in Don’t Think Twice by Herbert H. Stein

“Okay, a little bit of history. In 1955, a group of actors in Chicago invented the idea that improvisational theater could be an art form unto itself, not just a warm-up for other theater.”

Those are the opening words of the film, Don’t Think Twice, spoken in a woman’s voice, probably Samantha, one of the central characters in this fictional work about an improvisational group. The opening, a brief history of improvisational theater, is accompanied by scenes and spoken words from early improvisational artists, starting with The Second City, and of quick peeks at the members of the film’s fictional improv group, the Commune.

They go on to give us the fundamental rules of improvisation, which will prove crucial to the film’s central conflict.

“Everyone has their own take on what’s most important in improv. But even 60 years later they still boil down to three basic rules.

“Number one: Say yes. Which really means just agreeing with the reality your partner creates and then building on that.

“Number two: It’s all about the group. It’s not about you looking good. It’s also not about looking funny. No. Or showboating. It’s about a group working together in the moment to create something that never hap- pened before, you know, or will never happen again.

“Finally, and this is the most important one: Don’t think. It’s all about getting out of your head. It’s about impulse. It’s about living in the moment. It’s about now.”

We can easily see the inspiration for the film’s title in this last rule.

We see little snippets of the troupe behind the scenes, exemplifying these rules, particularly rule one, saying yes and building on what your partner starts as they warm up for a show.

“Got your back.”
“Got your back.”
“Got your back.”
“Guys, I’m sorry I’m late.” “Oh, no.”

“Sorry.”
“Guys, I’m sorry I’m late.”
“Sorry.”
“There was this sun in the sky and… oh!” “Guess what.”
“What?”
“Don’t care that you’re late.”
“I don’t care that you’re late.”
We are introduced to the central characters as they step on to a small stage in front of an audience.
“Please welcome the Commune!” “Hi. I’m Sam.”
“I’m Miles.”
“I’m Bill.”

“Allison.”
“Lindsay.”
“Jack.”
“And we are the Commune.”

That last line captures the spirit of rule number two, “It’s all about the group.” It’s expressed not only in the name, “Commune,” but in the way it is expressed, “We are The Commune.” The group is defined by its mem- bers and they, together, are one entity.

It is in the area of rule number two that the film’s tensions become apparent, starting with the issue of “showboating.” Shortly before one of the group’s shows, they get word that peo- ple from “Weekend Live,” an undisguised fic- tional version of “Saturday Night Live,” are going to be attending the performance. Immediately, Jack is warned by Miles,

“Hey, Jack, don’t pull some showboat shit out there.”

“What? When do I do that?”

“You know you always do that. Anyone from the industry shows up, you turn into a one- man audition tape.”

Allison joins in, “You did it when the guy from Conan came, when Law and Order came.”

Indeed, he does it again, breaking into a developing improvisation to comment on the theme of the improvisation with his best Barack Obama imitation.

It is funny, commenting about a young woman meeting her long lost father when she hails his cab by advertising “Obamacab,” but it breaks the rules.
Again, from rule number 2, “It’s not about you looking good. It’s also not about looking funny. No. Or showboating. It’s about a group working together in the moment to create something that never happened before … .”

Jack’s showboating appears to have been successful. He and Sam, who is his girlfriend, are both offered auditions for “Weekend Live.” As it “happens” (nothing just happens in a film, it’s scripted), they get a phone call, then join the group to announce their news just as Bill has told the group that he missed the show because his father had suffered a bad motorcycle accident and was hospitalized. It dampens their announcement and for us, pro- vides a sharp line between personal ambition and family loyalties.

We see Jack and Sam rehearsing different roles and imitations, he doing a good Liam Neeson in the shower and she working on her Katherine Hepburn. But, when the time for the audition comes, Sam is anxious and tells Jack to go on ahead. She does go to the place for the audition, but standing outside, hearing a performer pump himself up about his audi- tion, she appears to panic and leaves the building.

Jack accepts a place on the show and begins performing on Weekend Live almost immediately. He practically begs Sam to call to get another audition. At first, she tells him that she was late for the audition, but finally tells him the truth, that she didn’t want to leave the Commune.

Other cracks in the group structure come out as well as all the other members try to use their contact with Jack to get roles on the show as writers or performers. We see Jack, himself, caught between the two worlds. He tells his former partners that he’ll do what he can for them, but as he makes overtures to put their work forward with the “Weekend Live” people, he is told in no uncertain terms to look out for his own precarious position.

As this is going on, the group finds out it is losing it’s venue. The building is being sold to be replaced by a Trump building. We hear a few “You’re fired” jokes. The group is looking for a place and all the members are looking for their own individual places on the TV show. Ironically, perhaps, but not surprisingly from a psychoanalytic point of view in which conflict is the order of the day, the arguing over what we might take as sibling rivalry and ambition is marked by an undercurrent of accusations of disloyalty to the group and dis- dain for their purpose, putting Jack on the defensive. They resent Jack for leaving them and achieving his ambitions at the same time that they pressure him to help them get a place on the show. At times, they see Jack’s embracing his new success as an indictment of them, accusing him of looking down on them as he leaves behind the lifestyle they share.

Miles is the most veteran member of the group, having not only done improvisation the longest, but also taught it and seen some of his students achieve a success in the enter- tainment world that he cannot achieve him- self. He is clearly jealous. He cannot hide his own ambitions; yet, it is he who first accused Jack of showboating and he who attacks Jack for betraying the group, first by not helping them get positions, then by leading an angry group after Jack uses one of their improv skits on the TV show. He storms into Weekend Live’s post show party and punches Jack, to be dragged out by bouncers. Bill and Allison work on scripts for Jack to pass along to the TV peo- ple. Lindsay actually gets a job as a writer for the show on her own, but can do that while remaining with the Commune.

I think I’ve given enough of a description to this point to paint a picture for those readers (probably a large majority) who have not seen Don’t Think Twice. In essence, the film’s dynamics could be examined, at least in part, as a conflict between group cohesion and loy- alty versus personal ambition. If we expand our view a bit, we might see an analogy with a struggle within a family as siblings are envied or looked down upon as they individuate and move, more or less, out of the family group.

We get hints from the references to the fami- ly dynamics of some of the “supporting” characters. We can start with the living arrange- ments. We hear early from Miles (played by the film’s director, Mike Birbiglia) that most of the members of the troupe live together in a large Manhattan apartment, but “Jack and Sam moved out last year. They have their own place. Lindsay lives with her parents.”

Lindsay does not only live with her parents. We learn quickly that her parents are wealthy. As the seams begin to crack in the group over Jack’s success and the prospect of their not having a theater in which to perform, others turn on her as someone who doesn’t have to have a day job to support herself and doesn’t really need a career. For her, success means independence from what may be a controlling family.

The film also focuses on Bill’s relationship with his father, an apparently successful businessman who seems to see his son as a failure. After half heartedly telling Bill after a perform- ance, “I thought it was a good show,” he shows him pictures on his IPhone of a porn house he just bought that he wants to turn over into a Sephora. Bill tells him, “Dad I told you I’m not interested in real estate. His father gets onto his motorcycle, asking him, “You still givin’ out hummus samples?”

The relationship changes dramatically when Bill’s father is in a bad motorcycle accident. In somewhat moving scenes, we see the entire troupe, Jack included, visiting Bill’s father in his hospital room in Pennsylvania. At the end of the visit, the father, unable to speak up to that point, looks at his son and says with difficulty, “Thank you.” That thank you becomes a riff for the group on the drive home as they all try to imitate it in a sequence that at first sounds uncomfortably cold with Bill sitting in the front passenger seat, but actually carries a sense of group cohesion and loyalty, especially when Bill joins the fun.

Walking back to the car after leaving the hospital, Bill tells Samantha,

“I know it’s not about me, but I don’t want my dad to die thinking I’m a failure.”

She answers him, “You’re not a failure, Bill. You’re in the Commune.”

Towards the end of the film, we see the entire group, again including Jack, together after having attended Bill’s father’s funeral. We learn that Bill’s father owned a small the- ater in a town in Pennsylvania, a place where the group will be able to work without interference.

As viewers, we can sense the pleasure of group cohesion alongside the excitement of ambition and making it in the world of television and fandom. Within a couple of weeks of his appearances on Weekend Live, Jack has already become a recognized celebrity. In any other setting, we would be cheering for him, but here we have conflict between “it’s all about the group” and personal ambition, per- haps a model for the conflicts of separation and individuation.

At heart, this conflict is experienced through Samantha and Jack. Jack has displayed personal ambition, matched by talent, from the start. Samantha makes the other choice.

I’m going to do a little improvisation myself, suggesting an analogy here to the process we see in psychoanalysis. A patient (in this case a film) starts speaking of a problem in her life. The comfort of family ties appears to be in conflict with personal ambition and a need to move out. As we listen, we hear associations mixing in, in this case through a series of four improvisational performances we see the group perform onstage in the course of the film.

Each performance that we see begins essentially in the same way. We have seen that at the beginning of the film the six performers come on stage, announce their names and then move on to the show, which always begins with Sam saying,

“Everything you see tonight is gonna be improvised. This show is really all about you guys. So we want to know, has anybody out here had a particularly hard day? And something actually hard, not like your roommate ate your yogurt.”

For the first performance, someone volunteers,

“I’m looking for an apartment, and it sucks.” Miles asks, “Like, why specifically does it suck?”
“The only one I can afford has the bathroom in the kitchen.”
Jack steps in as a real estate agent showing the apartment to Sam, all of this performed of course on an empty stage.

Jack: “As you can see, there’s two bed- rooms.”
Sam: “Lovely.”
Jack: “Here is the kitchen.”
Sam: “Nice.”
Jack: “There’s a beautiful bathroom.” Sam: “Is that a toilet?”
Jack: “Yes, that is. … The toilet is in the kitchen.”
Sam: “Hmmm.”
Jack: “Mm-hmm, yes. Mm-hmm.”
Sam: “And, um, who are they?”
Jack: “They… they are…Uh, they are orphans.They are orphans.”
Bill and Allison are suddenly half sitting, half lying on the stage. They wave and say, “Hi.” “Uh, did you say ‘orphans’?”
“Yes. The apartment comes with orphans.” “Oh.”

“Yes, yes, yes.”
“Does the landlord mind if I paint?”
“You can’t paint the orphans, no, but you can paint the walls.”

At this point, Miles and Lindsay join the story as another couple looking to buy the same apartment. A bidding war breaks out, with Samantha settling it by bidding 2 million dollars for the apartment. When Jack asks why she wants it so badly, she tells him,

“It’s the orphans. I want to raise them.”

I think even those viewers who have not seen the film can sense the ease with which Jack and Sam work together, the others fitting in just as smoothly.

But the other issue that may catch our eye is that of the orphans, so attractive to Sam’s character who wants to raise them. Interestingly, this theme returns later in the film when Miles, a perennial bachelor chasing younger women, agrees to marry his thirty something girlfriend when he learns she is pregnant from a chance affair while traveling before they’d gotten together. At the end of the film, they and the baby are with the group as they set up new roots in the countryside. So, by the end of the film, Miles in particular and the group in general have adopted an “orphan.”

The second performance we see is the one which has the “Weekend Live” people in the audience. As you will recall, it starts with a woman whose bad day consisted of meeting her father, a cab driver whom she had not seen in ten years, when she hailed his cab. In the improvised skit, Sam gets into Miles’ cab (two chairs, one behind the other) and tells him she’s on her way to a blind date, more of a hook-up, a one night stand, not recognizing who he is.

“I have abandonment issues, my father left me, so I only relate to men through sex.”

“That’s challenging for me to hear.”

As that plot develops, she leaves the cab, and walks to the restaurant, where Allison is the maître d’ with an Italian accent, sitting her down at a table where she again meets Miles as her father. It is at this point, that Jack moves in with his “showboating,” doing an impres- sion of Barack Obama advertising his new ini- tiative to bring separated families together, which his critics call “Obamacab.” It apparently gets him a spot on the TV show.

The third show we see is not a skit at all, not a successful one. Jack has come back to the Commune, bringing Ben Stiller in an attempt to get the TV people to see Sam and the group again. It backfires, marred by Jack’s newfound fame. As if to emphasize the rules of improvi- sation that dictate that it’s about the group, not the individual, the audience won’t bite when Sam asks if anyone has had a particularly hard day. Instead they call out for Jack to do one of the characters they’d seen on TV.

“Do the ticket man.”
“Yes, that’s a character Jack did on TV.”

“Weekend Live.”
“That’s the name of a TV show.”
Ben Stiller is in the audience and someone calls out his name, further disrupting the show.
Finally, Jack steps up as the “ticket man,” a caricature, seemingly to appease the audience.

“Here, here! I got a bushel of tickets! I mean, there’s no show, but I got tickets! I got tickets!”
He turns to Sam,

“Holy mackerel, look at you! Is that… is that… is that Gena Rowlands, the actress? Hey- hey-hey!”
But she won’t say yes.

“It’s not. I, uh… I’m just a regular ticket-loving lady.

“You’re telling me you’re not Gena Rowlands, huh?”

“I’m telling you I’m not Gena Rowlands.”

In this fragment of an attempted skit, we can sense the dynamic between them as Jack tries to draw her in, Sam holds back.

The next improv performance we see is the one at which they announce that they are going to a new venue at a higher price. It’s a tense mood.

When Sam asks if anybody has had a particularly hard day, a man from the audience says, “Yeah, we’re sad Jack’s not here.”

The group turns grim. Allison crosses herself and one by one they go by an imagined coffin saying goodbye to Jack. Miles breaks into it saying he has terrible news, that Jack is a big hit in heaven and “his new friends are having a funeral for him there.”

Sam asks, “In heaven?”
“Yeah and they have his body.”
“What’s in this casket?”
Bill looks down and says, “It’s just his head shot.”
Orphans, a girl abandoned by her father,and now the group mourning the loss of Jack.

The final improv skit we see is between Sam and Jack. It is about his leaving her, or, more properly, her leaving him by allowing him to move on without her. It recreates a conversa- tion Jack and Sam have had when she told him that she had chosen not to stay for the audition for the TV show. At that time, she told him,

“Life is so short. I feel you have to do things you believe in or what is the point of all this and I watch that show and it’s not for me. I like my life how it is right now. I like the Commune. The day you guys asked me to join the Commune was the greatest day of my life.”

Jack answers her, “You can’t do improv for ever. It ends and I don’t want it to end either, but it will, it just will. We gotta jump to the next lily pad.”

Her answer, “But I like this lily pad.”

For the final on stage improvisation, Sam is alone on the stage. The group is about to lose its venue and they’ve been arguing with Jack and with each other. She appears to be the orphan; and, when she asks if anyone has had a particularly hard day, someone in the audience says,

“It looks like you did.”
She works with that.
“You’re right. You’re right. I have had a hard … month. And I just feel like I’m … I feel like I’m in a…“

With a change of voice to that of a young girl, she looks up and cries out,

“Guys! I’m down here! I’m in a well!” Changing voices rapidly now, she goes on, “Sam is in a well?”
“Oh, my god, this is a disaster!”
“She’s in a well.”
“What will we do?”
“She’s in a well.”
“Oh, my god. It’s so bad.”
“Guys, stop worrying about me. I’m fine. I …

I actually kinda like it down here. It’s quiet and it’s cool. There’s … there’s water.”

The first two skits, about the orphans and the girl who hadn’t seen her dad were about children abandoned. Now, Sam is the aban- doned child, but she finds herself in a quiet, cool place with water, a place that is calming, reassuring. As we think of it in terms of the realm of fantasy, we might well think that she has retreated into a womb.

“Is that my boyfriend Jack?”
She steps aside to say his words, “Yeah.

What do you need? I’ll get it for you.”
“No, I’m… I’m fine. That’s what I want you

to know is that I’m fine. You don’t have to worry about me.”

Suddenly Jack steps on stage, clearly unexpected.

“I’m not worried about you, honey. I’m not worried at all. I’m just … I’m just here to sup- port you.”

Looking down, Jack says, “Hey. What’s going on? Did you … Did you, uh, fall in a well?”

She is standing next to him, but she looks up, maintaining the illusion.

“I did. Uh, but you don’t have to worry about me, because I like it down here.”

“No, I will not leave you, okay?”

We see Samantha, using her little girl’s voice looking upward as if she were in a well. Jack is glancing down and making hand motions for letting down a bucket.

She tells him she’s too heavy. He says he’s taken magic beans that will make him strong enough to pull her up. She tells him they’re just Chipotle beans. He says he hired a wizard … . He tells her, “I’m not gonna leave you.”

Finally, she tells him, looking at him directly in the eye, touching his chest,

“Honey. Maybe I belong in the well. I think we both know it’s over. It’s okay.”

She is reassuring Jack, telling him that he can move on, much like a mother encourag- ing a son, giving him permission to leave the home.

But she is also making a statement for her- self. As we imagine Sam looking up from that well, if we expand our imagination just a skosh, we can see her in the womb looking out through the birth canal and saying, “No.” This is the ultimate statement of “We” over “I.”

With the insights provided by these skits, we can see more clearly the function of the Commune as a protective family, joined by the rules of improvisational theater. The film’s tensions are those of children attempting to individuate and to leave the comfort of the family, but we see it in a group of adults. The image of the orphans, the reunited father and daughter, Samantha clinging to the comfort of the well and telling Jack she’s ok, all suggest the threat of early separation that provides an undercurrent to the pleasure we get seeing the group remain intact, comforting Bill for his loss, joined together with a new home that is their own. In the gift of the theater, left to Bill by his father, we also sense a family united at last.

There is a bittersweet quality to the scene in which Jack reluctantly gets into a car to go back to the city, leaving behind Samantha … and Bill, Allison, Lindsay and Miles with his wife and baby.

The film does not really choose for us. It gives us choices, to move out into the world to pursue our personal dreams, or to remain in the comfort of a family of friends.

Which brings us back to the title, Don’t Think Twice. It reminds us of the third rule of improv, that the key to improvisation is spontaneity. It was only when I reached the end of the film that I realized it also resonated with the film’s basic conflict over attachment, separation and individuation.

After Jack says his goodbyes and heads for the city, the scene shifts. We see Samantha, Bill, Miles, Allison and Lindsay looking at their new performing space. When Bill says some- thing about burying his father today, they form a circle and begin to make shoveling motions. Allison lies down where they were digging and then, with laughs and smiles, they lift her up and join together in a group embrace.

The screen goes dark and we see the credits with a background of light piano music. I did- n’t recognize the melody at first, probably because I wasn’t used to hearing it without the words, and certainly not on the piano.

But, then the words began to fall into place in my mind …
When your rooster crows at the break of dawn

Look out your window and I’ll be gone
You’re the reason I’m trav’lin’ on
Don’t think twice, it’s all right.

Published originally in the PANY Bulletin, Spring, 2017.

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