Group Therapy Falls Short of Its Compelling Premise

Comedy Reviews Group Therapy
Group Therapy Falls Short of Its Compelling Premise

The premise of Group Therapy is a good one: gather a group of stand-up comedians to discuss their varied experiences with mental health and its relationship to their work. Find a comically-minded A-lister to facilitate the conversation before a live audience: Neil Patrick Harris. And select as participants a diverse group of comics, including seasoned vets and relative newcomers: Mike Birbiglia, Nicole Byer, Gary Gulman, London Hughes, Tig Notaro and Atsuko Okatsuka.

At times, Group Therapy lives up to the premise. This is in no small part due to the cast that director Neil Berkeley (whose past work includes the 2017 doc on the stand-up legend, Gilbert) and co-producer Kevin Hart have assembled. Yet most of the film leaves viewers wanting more. Group Therapy takes a spoke and wheel approach that leaves little room for depth. Just as the film gives space to one of the comics’ personal narratives, it moves on to the next. 

At the center of the film is the group conversation facilitated by Harris. From there, it dips in and out of the personal lives of the comics. Gulman candidly discusses his severe, life-long depression. Okatsuka details her mother’s schizophrenia and own reluctance to seek therapy. Byer shares her ADHD diagnosis and the racism and fatphobia she has encountered in her career. Hughes talks about the structural racism of the business and how it fed her own insecurities as a performer. Birbiglia opens up about his own years of therapy, and shares stories about losing friends in comedy to addiction. 

The most familiar story may be Notaro’s, who starred in an eponymous 2015 Netflix doc that detailed her diagnosis with breast cancer, struggles to have a child, and the loss of her mother. Through no fault of her own, the time spent on the story brings an unbalanced feel to this film. With a plethora of archival footage thanks to the previous doc and, of course, Notaro’s own work, including Live, her 2014 album, Group Therapy gives its audience the compelling, cliff notes version of that story at the expense of the other, less-known voices. 

Similarly, the film never finds its level between specificity and generality. At times, it plays as a film seeking to combat stigmas associated with mental health. At others, it deals directly with the oxymoronic fact that, well, all of the participants are comedians. They are people who earn a living by bringing others joy and also struggle with their own mental health. It is obviously the most compelling of the film’s throughlines. Yet while watching Group Therapy, I kept wondering just who the film is for: is it a PSA using comedians to alert the public to the kinds of experiences discussed? Or a study of the paradoxical relationship between comedy and mental health? The latter is the more interesting and, sadly, wanting question.

Recruiting Harris as the facilitator of the conversation does this issue no favors. At the outset, he reminds the comics that he is not a professional or licensed in any way. While Harris performs ably in the role, it feels like a decision made to foreground celebrity over substance. In a documentary ecosystem saturated with talking heads, this is a film that could have actually used an expert or two. 

The trope of the “sad clown” is one that has existed for hundreds of years. See, for example, the well-known tale about the clown named Pagliacci. One night, a man visits a doctor to be treated for depression. The doctor suggests the man go see the great clown perform. To which the clown responds, “But doctor, I am Pagliacci!” Aware of this lineage, Group Therapy begins with a clip from a George Carlin special, and includes homages to comics like Richard Lewis and Whoopi Goldberg. But it never reaches beyond the personal anecdotes of its cast to shed new light on the tradition in which it so clearly operates. 

Those who struggle with mental health (Sup?) may find comfort in the stories told by the comedians featured. And all viewers will certainly find plenty of ways to laugh. Yet Group Therapy fails to mirror the paradox of the subject at its core, never finding a balance between watchability and actual depth. Group Therapy is serviceable streaming content, not the probing documentary it might have otherwise been.

Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic and researcher, who first contributed to Paste in 2022. He is an assistant editor at Cineaste, a GALECA member, and since 2019 has hosted The Video Essay Podcast. You can follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter and learn more about him via his website.

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