Thursday, June 13, 2024

“GROUP THERAPY”

THE STORY – Six comedians gather for a candid and often humorous conversation in which they reveal the connections between their professional comedy journeys and mental health struggles.

THE CAST – Neil Patrick Harris, Tig Notaro, Nicole Byer, Mike Birbiglia, London Hughes, Gary Gulman & Atsuko Okatsuka

THE TEAM – Neil Berkeley (Director)

THE RUNNING TIME – 90 Minutes


If there’s anything more compatible with stand-up comedy than mental health struggles, comedians have yet to find it. And perhaps they never will, nor will they bother to look for it. After all, anxiety and depression tend to offer up some of the funniest anecdotes for comedians in search of a set-defining story. Eight months ago, Netflix Is A Joke uploaded “Anxiety and Depression Humor” to YouTube; three years ago, they posted “14 Minutes of Comedians Reaffirming Mental Health Struggles.” Most specials these days are synonymous with self-deprecation, from Daniel Sloss’ “Dark” to everything about Bo Burnham’s “Inside.” The annals of stand-up comedy are littered with mental health diatribes because audiences and comedians alike find those struggles so familiar.

So it’s only fitting that Neil Berkeley’s “Group Therapy” — which had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday — begins with a few killer jokes about mental health before diving headfirst into its central conceit. We hear George Carlin say, “Statistics show that every year, a million people commit suicide. That’s 2,800 a day. That’s one every thirty seconds. There goes another guy!” He’s followed by snippets of John Mulaney and Robin Williams recalling how they’d con doctors into prescribing them pills that they don’t need, pills that help with anxiety, depression, and other sorts of mental health disorders. These standard topical references pave the way for the cast of comedians that make up “Group Therapy” to introduce their respective struggles with such conditions in a therapeutic conversation moderated by Neil Patrick Harris.

Of course, according to Mike Birbiglia, one of the comics in question, there are both similarities and differences between comedy and therapy. When performing, the comedian opens themselves up to the audience, while in therapy, “the idea is to give the information to someone with the skill set to help guide someone toward tools to help them through the issue.” The audience can’t fix the performer; they can merely nod and laugh in recognition. But sometimes, that’s enough for the joker. Often, comedians need the laughter more than the audiences they are being paid to humor.

It’s that notion that Berkeley’s documentary sets out to dissect. Most comics tend to get into the field because they find purpose in making other people laugh despite — or at — their misery. That’s how Gary Gulman felt when he fell in love with the late Richard Lewis, a professional funny man who showed Gulman that there was a place for a “quirky, funny, miserable guy like me.” Gulman has more or less made a living on that misery; his comedy is the most mental health-centric of this sextet, to the point where he named his 2019 HBO special “The Great Depresh.” In Berkeley’s film, Gulman recalls how challenging it was to come to terms with his depression, a moving moment where he mentions how his brother diagnosed him when he was a teenager, leading to a revelation that the feelings he’d been battling since he was seven had a name (“Those the Gods wish to destroy they first call promising,” he says halfway through the film, misquoting Reverend William Anderson Scott). Of course, Gulman turns this memory into a joke, noting that while comedy is a challenging career for a depressed person, at least it “allows you to go to work at 9 p.m.” wearing what you wore all day without having to iron a shirt.

It’s worth noting that flashbacks of this nature, the likes of which each participant details in solo interviews, branch off from a moderated conversation that has an audience. So, while these six comics are having a vulnerable conversation, they’re putting on a show, too. It may be taking place on a smaller stage than the performances they’re used to, but the fact remains: This is all about entertainment. Typically, a documentary overflowing with talking head interviews would feel by the numbers, if not entirely unoriginal. Still, given the subject matter, “Group Therapy” almost could have used a few more. The opportunity for Tig Notaro to sit alone and remember 2012, an emotional year in which she dealt with pneumonia, contracted C. Diff., lost her mother, dealt with a breakup, and was diagnosed with cancer, provides an emotional weight that the group’s therapy session lacks. Watching Notaro listen to her legendary performance at Largo in 2012 allows for a greater reflection on how odd a coping mechanism comedy truly is. Brief conversational moments between the circle of comedians fail to carry the same “oomph.”

Perhaps that’s because being on stage provides a suit of armor for the performer, as London Hughes describes to Harris when he asks whether or not she maintains a persona of sorts while delivering a set. That Berkeley and his subjects understand the relationship between one’s true self and the self they allow audiences to glimpse is a necessary element of the film’s exercise, but does it break any ground? Or does it merely scratch an evasive itch, leaving more questions than answers regarding distinctive experiences with mental health? It’s not that “Group Therapy” set out nor intended to solve anxiety and depression by asking famous comedians to discuss its tribulations, but there’s meat left on the bone. “We’re all just walking each other home,” Notaro offers, quoting the spiritual guru Ram Dass. If only the home “Group Therapy” is positing was as universally understood as the emotions that reside there.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - The conversations that drive the documentary are necessary ones, and they shed a more serious light on the mental health struggles comedians manage to work into their humor.

THE BAD - Those same conversations, specifically when had in front of the session's live studio audience, feel tonally imbalanced with the rest of the film; they're empty when juxtaposed with the one-on-one sidebars the comedians have off-stage.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 5/10

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>The conversations that drive the documentary are necessary ones, and they shed a more serious light on the mental health struggles comedians manage to work into their humor. <br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Those same conversations, specifically when had in front of the session's live studio audience, feel tonally imbalanced with the rest of the film; they're empty when juxtaposed with the one-on-one sidebars the comedians have off-stage.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>5/10<br><br>"GROUP THERAPY"