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Merriam-Webster’s simple definition of comedy (as it pertains to entertainment) reads, “Things that are done and said to make an audience laugh.” Complexity enters the consideration when you factor in the dueling approaches — stand-up versus improv. The intention to garner laughs remains the same, but how you go about it changes.

The introduction of writer-director Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice, a comedy-drama hybrid that is his follow-up to the popular  Sleepwalk With Me, schools us on the three rules of improvisational comedy, and what emerges amounts to a philosophical model for living. Improv demands participants to 1) say yes, 2) maintain focus on the group, and 3) do not think.

To illustrate the real-life application of these guidelines, Don’t Think Twice breaks into the inner circle of The Commune, a six-member troupe living and working as an organic whole until, of course, the threat of individual success takes root.

Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) plays well with the group, especially with his girlfriend Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), but you see his eyes light up whenever someone mentions the possibility of scouts from the Saturday Night Live-like Weekend Live. Troupe members share an elitist stance toward the show, based on how it infects the free and loose spirit of comedy. But Jack sees it as a means to making a real living, and possibly to lifting the group up. 

Birbiglia captures the elusive magic of The Commune’s live performances as only a born comedian can (he has a background in professional comedy). He also plays Miles, the de facto leader who ekes out a meager living as an improv workshop facilitator. Miles is not one of those guys who teaches because he lacks the talent to succeed on his own, but his problem is that his success (and realistically everyone else’s) is dependent upon the group. 

Each performance, they walk out onstage and say “yes” by positively building upon the reality of the moment. If your partner says the sky is purple, you say, “Yes it is” and then follow that up with your own spin. You never deny your partner’s reality, because the second rule maintains that it’s all about the group. Saying “no” breaks the second rule by forcing a solo perspective into the mix. You live and die up there together. And, finally, you don’t think. Life boils down to what happens in the moment, and you have to live impulsively. Free your mind and the group will follow your butt right off the cliff.

I loved the idea of Don’t Think Twice presenting these guides to improv upfront, because they are the commandments not only for comedy but also for life. The 2008 Jim Carrey vehicleYes Man toyed broadly with the idea that you should walk through life saying yes to any and all offers that come your way (as long as they don’t lead to danger for yourself or others), but saying yes here is a more universal notion, an acceptance of another’s worldview without passing judgment.

The film gets tricky, though, when the focus shifts from individuals to the group. As individuals, there is always a more selfish urge driving us and propelling actions for personal gain, and it rubs up uncomfortably against the goals of the group. Jack’s predicament highlights the personal conflict — we see and appreciate how one person, in one key moment, can imagine seizing an opportunity for something more. That urge, which I just labeled “selfish,” is a fundamentally American trait. We celebrate rugged individualism, right?

Key dazzles in scenes he shares with just one other performer, showing us how he breaks all of the rules with the best of intentions. We are used to seeing him buzz and smash up against the television frame during his Key and Peele comedy show in a variety of sketch roles, so this is a nice change.

In some ways, that also explains my reaction to Birbiglia’s movie as a whole. Don’t Think Twice has comedy as its subject, but it is a far more dramatic and perplexing affair than a comic one. Without a doubt there are moments built for laughs, but not the kind of belly laughs that sketch comics pursue in mainstream movies or on television shows. What Birbiglia presents here serves as gospel document (with a small “g”) detailing how serious a life in comedy can really be. (Opens Friday at Esquire Theatre) (R) Grade: B+