Even comedians need to cry.

While sitting in a stand-up club or turning on a television comedy can be fun for the audience, what it takes a comedian to create spontaneous magic can exhaust, overwhelm and emotionally challenge performers, even those with seemingly limitless talent.

The film Don’t Think Twice takes us backstage with an improvisational comedy troupe like the famed Second City of Chicago and Toronto. Each night, for minimal pay, dedicated comedians find humor in everyday challenges that members of the audience bring to the theater. With no time to develop these ideas, and few resources to execute their creativity, the troupe members use every fiber of their imaginations to bring wacky situations to life. No topic is safe, and no response inappropriate, as the performers find laughter in any moment, person or challenge.

But the magic these people create on stage hides the pain they address after the show ends. Miles, who helped start this fictional troupe, finds himself trapped by unfulfilled ambition and unsuccessful relationships. Meanwhile, Lindsay lets her trust fund financial security thwart her creative drive, Bill lets his emotional insecurities obscure his potential, and Samantha permits her fascination with the highly driven Jack to overwhelm her own dreams of comedy and acting success. Only when Jack gets an offer to join the cast of a hit television comedy show, a la Saturday Night Live, do the troupe members confront their progress and potential. And, when they begin to examine these issues, they experience the emotions that unscripted drama can deliver.

Writer/director Mike Birbiglia – who also appears in the cast as Miles – brings his actual experiences with comedy to a story that, in less familiar hands, could risk being difficult to believe. But Birbiglia knows these people, stages, dressing rooms, hopes and disappointments. Because he works in such familiar space, he makes the fictional narrative feel like a documentary in the precision of its detail and the layers of its content. Never do we consider we are watching a pseudo version of truth. Instead, Birbiglia invites us to witness how real people react to reel situations. He makes us care for more than the laughs they generate on stage.

Because Birbiglia frames the story in such rich and realistic ways, he inspires his cast of unknowns to breathe life into their portrayals. No matter how much improvisational technique Birbiglia may have used as he shot, the film feels spontaneous as if cast and audience discover the story at the same time. The moviemaker is especially generous with the subplot involving his character, Miles, who rediscovers romantic feelings for a high school classmate. While such a plot device could strain credibility, Birbiglia lets the layers of the relationship naturally reveal the anxieties that fuel the comedy. This connection sharpens his view of the sadness that can fuel comedy and the therapeutic value that laughter can bring, even to those who create the laughs.

There are no simple punchlines, or tidy resolutions, as the comedy in Don’t Think Twice concludes. But that doesn’t matter. We know the show will go on. And that, any time someone makes us laugh, there are tears somewhere off stage.

Don’t Think Twice

  • Content: High. This thoughtful look at the off stage sadness that fuels onstage humor entertains as it makes us think.
  • Entertainment: High. Because this comedy troop’s work is so convincing, we become naturally protective of the fragility the comedy masks.
  • Message: Medium. As familiar as the backstage drama can be, moviemaker Mike Birbiglia makes it feel fresh and spontaneous, with a message that can resonate.
  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to laugh as well as think is worth the effort to find the film in theaters or on line.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie offers a meaningful opportunity to discuss issues of life and love with older children. And share some laughs.

(Don’t Think Twice, running 92 minutes, is Rated R for language and some drug use. Read about other films featuring stories about comedians in The Reel Dad in Arts and Leisure Online.)

Reel Dad Rating: Four popcorn buckets

How Movies Love Comedy

The laughter and tears of Don’t Think Twice bring to mind how movies love comedy and comedians. Both documentary and narrative films illuminate what these performers accomplish on stage as well as what they have to face when the shows end. Here’s a look at some of the best.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010)

One of my favorite memories is the evening – at the restaurant Joe Allen in New York City – when this legendary performer granted a young boy’s wish to pose for photographs with his Flat Stanley. The generous Rivers, so giving on and off stage, radiated an authentic warmth despite the caustic nature of some of her comedy. This monumental documentary, recording what would happen backstage to get Joan onstage, celebrates her humor, caring and, most of all, her work ethic. This lady simply would not stop traveling the country, stretching her talents and reaching out to her fans and friends. Little would we know, when the film was released, how soon Joan’s life would end. Thank goodness this film preserves our memories of this ground-breaking performer.

Lenny (1974)

While Dustin Hoffman may not physically resemble famed comic Lenny Bruce, and purposely avoids duplicating Bruce’s unique manner of speech, the actor perfectly captures the sensibility of the comedian’s humor in this striking drama from director Bob Fosse. Fresh from his Oscar-winning Cabaret, the director brings a similar musical sensibility to this sordid tale of how a brilliant man uses comedy to shield his weaknesses and personal tragedies. While Bruce may be remembered for being one of the first to use profanity to entertain, what happens offstage gives this drama his power. Hoffman, in an Oscar-nominated performance, is perfect.

Punch Line (1988)

Tom Hanks and Sally Field – years before playing son and mother in Forrest Gump – explore the layers of comedic ambition in this look at what makes people want to perform at stand-up clubs. Field fascinates as a housewife who dreams of becoming a comedian, in the spirit of Joan Rivers, while Hanks shines as a comic who offers helpful coaching and support. Together they illustrate the extremities of talent, potential, ambition and caring, as people who know what they want on stage but can’t always find what it takes to deliver. While Field is touching and convincing as a woman with more drive than ability, Hanks walks away with the film as a complex man who deliberately chooses what to let an audience see.

Annie Hall (1977)

While more of a film about a romance between mismatched souls, Woody Allen’s character of Alvy Singer is a standup comedian who brings his neurotic sensibility to each relationship he pursues. As the movie tracks the ups and downs of his relationship with Diane Keaton – with each turn laced with a classic Allen one liner – the moviemaker’s comic sense shines through every observation. Yes, this is the movie where Allen describes the “cultural advantages of right turn on red” when discussing the merits of living in Los Angeles as well as observing that “those who can't do, teach, and those who can't teach, teach gym.” Central to the fun is Allen the comic, an endearing if complicated soul who sees the world his own way. The movies are richer for his view.

As we enjoy Don’t Think Twice, these classic moments remind us how much fun we have at the movies when we savor the people who make us laugh.

See you at the movies.