Let’s say you’re a six-person improv group — we’ll call you “The Commune” — and you’ve been kicking around the New York City comedy scene for a while. You’re drawing a decent crowd, playing the good nights in a UCB-level venue downtown, and because you’ve been doing this together for so long, you’re hitting maximum performer mind-meld onstage. Then one of your members gets recruited for an SNL-like show called Weekend Live. The rest of you are still left living gig to gig. What’s a troupe to do?
That’s the central premise of Don’t Think Twice, the sophomore movie from stand-up comic-turned-filmmaker Mike Birbiglia that populates its we-hate-it-when-our-friends-become-successful story with a murderer’s row of contemporary comedy all-stars. Birbiglia himself plays the fortysomething sad sack who leads the group; Key and Peele’s Keegan-Michael Key, Community alumna Gillian Jacobs, alt-talk show host Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci of musical-comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates, and veteran TV show writer Tami Sager co-star as his fellow Communards. Each of these performers have achieved a varying degree of recognition and success — which doesn’t mean they didn’t have more than a few brushes with failure along the way.
Over a series of interviews with Rolling Stone, these six stars divulged some anecdotes about suffering the slings and arrows of working your way up the showbiz ladder — from the hassles of delivering singing telegrams to the gigs they missed by that much.
Apartment Horror Stories
Micucci: My first place in L.A., I was a student at Loyola Marymount University. They put all the transfer students in an airport hotel, so were in this wing of a working airport. There were random tourists coming through; I remember one week there was a chess tournament at the hotel. We were the crazy kids who would race the luggage carts.
Birbiglia: I lived on an air mattress in Queens; I couldn’t afford a dresser, so I kept all my clothes on the floor. When you’re broke, your whole life is low to the ground. You roll off your mattress, pick a pair of pants off the floor, cook ramen on a hot plate. A noodle falls out of your mouth, you’re like, “It’s not too far” and eat it off the floor. You know.
Gethard: After college, I moved to Astoria, this nice little apartment owned by a Greek couple. I lived there for two years, and then we got bedbugs. It’s almost like a cliché now, getting bedbugs in New York — maybe even a rite of passage. But back in 2004 or 2005, people would look at you like, “Oh, you’re just dirty, you’re a dirt-human. You’re filth, that’s what you are.” We went to a real shady exterminator off Craigslist who sold us a bedbug kit with all these chemicals you probably needed certification to use. I’d wrap my t-shirt around my face and spray clouds of toxic fumes in our apartment. No joke, my roommate came home to find me passed out on the couch one time. I’m pretty sure it took a couple years off my life.
Jacobs: I lived in a building where we found out that the super had removed all the structural support beams from his basement apartment to make his space more expansive. The building was deemed “structurally unsound,” and he was fired. But he was the only one with keys to the courtyard, where he had this weird sculpture garden. I looked out the window after he was fired, and there was a new addition: a mound of rocks piled up to look like a body. Then he put a headstone that said “SUPER” next to it. So, that was disturbing.
Key: I lived in an apartment off of Rosa Parks Boulevard in Detroit with my girlfriend … and it left a little to be desired. I had 15 roommates, one of whom was human. The rest were roaches. There was Claire, Beatrice, Tommy, Charles — we’d catch ’em all and mark them. Then we’d release them, to watch over the house.
Sagher: I lived with two strangers, one of whom was closeted and in her mid-to-late thirties, and she had just fallen in love for the first time. She was never home, and she left two cats that just peed everywhere. The other roommate, I didn’t know. Her parents had just died, and so it was a dark, sad apartment. All death and cat urine.
Jacobs: Before Community, I didn’t own furniture. I moved to L.A. for that show, and all I owned were books and clothes. My friend said I lived like Neil McCauley from Heat. I bought a bed, I bought a chair, I bought plates. I was starting from the ground up. Everything I own, I’ve purchased since Community.
Day Jobs (and Night Jobs)
Gethard: My day job was to work at Weird NJ, a magazine about haunted houses and cursed roads around the state of New Jersey. I really loved comedy and the magazine, so it felt difficult to tell which was the side-job. I got to wander around abandoned mental hospitals. But my favorite was driving out on deliveries. We had a beat-up van, and I’d pack it up and drive all around the state distributing the magazine for hours. You spend the whole day driving around, it gives you a lot of time to think. I’ve always had bad depression issues and they were at their worst in my early twenties. That was the only time when I could shut off all my anxiety and relax.
Sagher: I was a substitute math teacher — the secretly-resentful math teacher, because it was a very expensive public school in Chicago called Francis Parker, and I went to public school. I was annoyed that they didn’t have bells; instead, a measure of music played between classes. And I had to walk through a metal detector in my school. I was the chip-on-my-shoulder math teacher.
Jacobs: I was a nanny for this family with two small kids in Chelsea. They were the best, though one time I got lice from the kids. The mom, grandmother, kids and I all got lice. We had to comb each other’s hair out every night.
“I worked at a cemetery, planting flowers. Every shift was the graveyard shift! I wanted more than anything for waiting to be my side-job. I’m still trying to break into the waiting industry full-time. It’s all about connections.”—Keegan-Michael Key
Micucci: I was a piano teacher, so I could set my own hours, and I was a babysitter, which I always thought was one of the greatest gigs, because I love hanging out with kids. Everything I ever did was with kids. I taught sandcastle-building — that was the coolest. Just on the weekends at this hotel in Santa Monica. I’d teach the guests how to make the perfect sandcastle. It was the greatest, but it was tough to pay your rent.
Key: I worked at a cemetery, planting flowers. Every shift was the graveyard shift! But no, that was actually during the day. I wanted more than anything for waiting to be my side-job. I like talking to people and meeting people. It helps with perseverance, too, because you’ll have clientele who will be grumpy and you have to deal with that. I’m still trying to break into the waiting industry full-time. It’s all about connections.
Birbiglia: I was with a temp agency — I dunno if they still exist, but they were called the Laury Group. It was originally the Laury Girls, but then they let men in. This cheery woman would pick up when you call, like, “Laury Group!” One time I was up at an open mic at three in the morning, and had to be at work at 7 a.m. I slept through my alarm and woke up at 11 a.m., so I hurried into the office and called my temp agency. The woman stayed so cheery and said, “Okay, Mike, why don’t you just pack up your stuff and head home! Make sure to put in a time-card for your travel into the city!” I feel bad for the people who hired me.
Key: I also did singing telegrams for a company called Eastern Onion. I had to dress up as these characters: I did Caveman, Grim Reaper, and someone called Mr. Wonderful, who wore a white tux with tails and sang to women on their fiftieth birthday. I wore birkenstocks, too, I didn’t have fancy shoes. So I’d tell them that Mr. Wonderful had just come from the Antilles. The Grim Reaper head was too big for my car and if you had balloons too, you couldn’t see out the rear-view mirror. So I had to strap it to the roof.
Doing It for the Check
Jacobs: I had a couple of episodes on this NBC show that lasted six episodes, pilots that never ran, pilots that got picked up but re-cast me. A couple of guest star spots. I did one Law and Order: Criminal Intent, like any good New York actor. It was fun, because I was neither villain nor victim. It was about a loft full of hipsters in Williamsburg who keep getting murdered one by one.
Birbiglia: I got into the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal when I was younger. Letterman’s booker Eddie Brill saw me there and had me in the bullpen for about a year. I did a USO show with David Letterman about a month ago at Andrews Air Force Base, and it was the first time I had actually met him. You don’t get face-time with Dave as a comedian; he shakes your hand and he’s gone. But last month, I was like, “Fuck it, I’ll talk to him while we’re here.” I introduce myself to him and he says, “Oh, you did the show?” And I’m like, “Yeah, four times.” And he goes, “Did it get any work for you?” I told him yes, but it was funny — in his mind, he related it to work, but it changed the entire trajectory of my twenties.
Gethard: In 2010, I got cast as the star of a sitcom on Comedy Central out of nowhere. It was short notice; I replaced Jon Heder from Napoleon Dynamite. Will Ferrell and Adam McKay were the executive producers, but then it bombed really hard. It was tough, but it was eye-opening. A lot of the press was about how bad I was in the show, and I don’t really argue that. It made me realize my skin was a lot thicker than I previously assumed. I realized that I don’t watch sitcoms, so why would I fight so hard to get a job on one? That’s not who I’ve ever been.
Sagher: I was in a show at this big dinner for a group of industrial employees. The sketch was from Second City; the lights go down, and we all enter as if we’re archaeologists treating people in the audience like they’re fossil remains. But apparently, some beloved employee had died, and this dinner was also a memorial to him. His wife and son were onstage, they gave a speech and were both crying. And then they were like, “Okay, here’s the Second City!” But those kinds of shows are also the most fun.
Key: I’d work summers as a theatrical lighting technician at Second City Detroit. One summer, I did the children’s show, and tried to get into the professional show. I thought I was guaranteed to get the part because the director had seen some of my work during the school year, and the best thing that happened was me not getting the part. I realized I just had to give it my all every day. No matter how talented anyone thinks you are, you gotta put in the work. I’m proud to say I had a sense of perspective on that about a month later.
Micucci: I did a lot of commercials. I kind of lucked out, because right around the time I started auditioning, there was a switch in the commercial world from super-beautiful people to, like, quirky people. And for some reason, I got right in there, not even realizing what was happening. My very first commercial was just me eating a chocolate bar for 30 seconds. And as soon as that came out, people started offering me candy. I knew about the whole “Don’t take candy from strangers” thing, but there I was, getting offered candy a lot.
Auditioning: The Absolute Worst
Key: I’d say in auditions, “So, do you want this character to be urban, or…?” And they’d always say, “Oh, just do it your way!” But I knew they’d hire someone who did it urban, so I was like, “Ah, fuck.” And I’d do it my way, knowing I wasn’t gonna get it. They look for a distinct type, but they bring in every person of color. I was at auditions, like, “What happened here? Did Common say no? Because if Common said no, then I’m gonna give you 100%.” But you walk in, and you see the same menagerie of guys every time. Where’s my niche?”
At auditions, ‘well-spoken black guy’ is code for ‘you’re not black enough, culturally.’ Thank god somebody at Comedy Central was forward-thinking enough to see what [me and Jordan Peele’s] brand of comedy is. We’ve said for years that the African-American experience is not a monolith. It was demoralizing, in a way, to know we were never getting casted outside one specific type.
Jacobs: I never booked a single commercial. I had a commercial agent, went on lots of auditions, but couldn’t get any. I really wanted this one, a Dasani campaign directed by Wes Anderson. I auditioned to play a hamster, and I was like, ‘I think I nailed it.’ And then he cast his friend.
Gethard: I remember once, I was feeling like I had a really good shot to get hired as a writer for Saturday Night Live, and that didn’t work out. I was up on the phone all night with a friend of mine, a comedian named Joe Mande. It was a conversation where we were like, “Okay, we’re both gonna use this to vent some quiet rage, and no one else needs to know what’s said. Let’s just get it off our chests, and then move on.”
Sagher: I was applying for a writing job and I made the woman interviewing me cry three times. The first was not my fault: I brought up her dead best friend without knowing that they were friends. But then the next two times, I just kept bringing her up. And I left that meeting thinking, “That went really well! She cried three times, we were really in touch with our feelings!” But that was horrible. I leaned into the skid.
Gethard: I auditioned for the role of Jonah on Veep. They flew me out to L.A. to audition, and I was feeling a little cocky. My sitcom had bombed, but I thought, “Now I’m in the club and I can go get this HBO show.” But I didn’t get it, and that was even more of a sobering moment. It was back to square one for me.
Micucci: One day, I had three pilot auditions and then I had to do my solo show that night. I forgot all the words, and I cried for three days after.
Birbiglia: Even making this movie, when I was showing early cuts to strangers, one lady was like, [puts on an old-Brooklyn accent] “I hated this movie. I don’t like these charactahs. They’re losahs.” It became a mantra we’d repeat in the edit bay. “They’re loooo-sahs.”
The Raspberry-Flavored Taste of Success
Birbiglia: The idea of a “big break’ is an invented concept, and it’s reinforced by shows like American Idol. They say it! ‘This is gonna change. Your. Life.” And it doesn’t, even for them! I can’t name most of the winners! You have a series of 30 or 40 mini-breaks.
Jacobs: The first time [the cast of Community] went to Comic-Con, it was a small hall. But we walked out, and we got a standing ovation and I was shocked. I didn’t know anyone was a fan of the show. Because we weren’t a huge ratings success, you didn’t realize there were diehard fans. I started crying. There was this swell of love, and I had never experienced anything like it.
Key: I was on a sitcom called Gary Unmarried, with Jay Mohr. I knew I wasn’t entirely “there,” ready to get a lead on a sitcom, but my name was out there and I was getting in the mix. You start going to auditions and the casting director knows your name. Maybe they say, “Oh, it’s good to see you again,” or, “I saw that thing you did.” And then when things start getting brought to you, that’s how you know you’re on your way.
Micucci: I love raspberries, and they’re more expensive than, like, apples. I remember one day realizing, “Oh, I can afford raspberries now!” That’s how I knew I was starting to move forward. I still think about that every time I buy them.