Comedian Mike Birbiglia and actor Neil Patrick Harris sit in a dark room, with other people in the background.

‘Group Therapy’ formalizes comedic catharsis

Six stand-up comics sit down to discuss their insecurities

Neil Patrick Harris (center) moderates a discussion with six comedians in "Group Therapy."

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Part documentary, part therapy session, and entirely illuminating, Neil Berkeley's Group Therapy is an immensely engaging watch despite seeming slight at the outset. Comedy roundtables are a dime a dozen, but they usually become darlings online or on television, during which groups of comics gather to discuss their styles and methodologies, and on occasion, their fears. By bringing that concept to a wide audience in a theatrical setting, Berkeley and his subjects transform the experience of watching the film into a therapeutic session of its own, as people gather to laugh and reflect on what lies behind the jokes.

The film's introduction borrows from clips of numerous comedy greats, several of whom would go on to die by either suicide or substance abuse, like Robin Williams and Mitch Hedberg. The job may involve making people laugh, but comes steeped in a sordid history. To further explore what lies beneath, six stand-up comics from different backgrounds gather for a conversation moderated by Neil Patrick Harris, though he may as well be the seventh subject. His questions are only lightly probing, but the comics' answers are always thoughtful, witty, and reflective, and they provide plenty of laughs and the occasional sobering reflection.

Group Therapy - Trailer from Tribeca on Vimeo.

Each participant-seated in a circle, and surrounded by a cozy audience of a few dozen-brings a unique energy to the table. Tall, well-built fifty-something Gary Gulman has a disarming charm, which paves the way for surprisingly thoughtful, complex layers. Sad clown Mike Birbiglia espouses an interesting, seemingly contradictory philosophy about how stand-up routines shouldn't be treated as therapy sessions, but work best when they're therapeutic. Gen X lesbian Tig Notaro brings a dry, acerbic wit pierced by dark anecdotes about her life and illnesses. Atsuko Okatsuka, a Taiwanese-Japanese American with unique flair, comes to the session with immense family baggage and a hesitancy towards therapy. Nicole Byer, a voluptuous Black woman, tells stories of feeling accepted and rejected because of her body and race. And finally, Black British comedian London Hughes-the only non-American in the group-provides a meaningful bridge to the history of African American stand-up comedy (à la Richard Pryor) as a window to self-acceptance from afar.

Each comic's unique personality ensures the film doesn't need to waste time with lengthy introductions. Instead, it dives headfirst into its non-linear chronology, which ends up telling a meaningfully coherent story. The subjects arrive, hang out in groups of two or three, sit down for solo "talking head" interviews, and eventually gather for the group session, during which they unburden themselves and engage in fun and enriching discussions about things that have held them back. However, Berkeley and editor Billy McMillin chop up the chronology so that some of the comics' repeated stories shift in context depending on who's around them, and they each provide differing layers of vulnerability according to the size of their audience.

Actor Neil Patrick Harris and comedians Atsuko Okatsuka, Nicole Byer, Tig Notaro and Mike Birbiglia sit in a circle, surrounded by a small audience.

From left, Neil Patrick Harris, Atsuko Okatsuka, Nicole Byer and Tig Notaro in "Group Therapy."

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Just when it seems like one or two of the subjects might stand out more than the others, Group Therapy skillfully cuts between their stories, but keeps them tethered through reaction shots to one another, as connective tissue between their personal anecdotes, as though they were bouncing off each other, and helping their colleagues find the right words. Berkeley, along with cinematographer Graham Willoughby, maintains a keen focus on not just people speaking their minds, but people listening intently, and learning from one another as they approach a place of more nuanced (if not necessarily deeper) self-understanding.

The resulting film feels like a meaningful extension of where the culture of stand-up comedy has ventured these last few years. For instance, Australian comic Hannah Gadsby's 2018 Netflix special Nanette was praised and derided in equal measure for its narrative tone, which skewed far more towards a spoken-word unburdening of trauma than traditional set-ups and punchlines. Some argued that comedy's primary purpose was to provide laughter, while others argued for a more inclusive umbrella, under which the function of comedy could be more experimental and multifaceted.

The term, of course, has morphed over the centuries (A Shakespearean "comedy" was a play with an ostensibly happy ending, like The Merchant of Venice, as opposed to a tragedy like Macbeth) but the ultimate purpose in either cause, of laughter or confrontation in comedy, is catharsis. Group Therapy is aimed squarely at that cathartic sensation, whether through jokes, or dark confessions, or some combination of the two, and it creates aesthetic parameters in which both laughter and introspection become equally permissible in a comedic setting.

Comedian Tig Notaro, in a green top, holds a hand up, pointing to the left, while comedian Nicole Byer smiles in the background.

Comedian Tig Notaro.

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

It is, for instance, equally hilarious and revealing when Okatsuka realizes that she's the only member of the group who doesn't regularly see a therapist. This at first opens the door to amusing cultural commentary on the reticence towards therapy among many Asian and Asian American communities, but eventually, her fears are revealed to be much more personal than just stigma, and are rooted in her family's history of mental illness. Similarly, Gulman paints a vivid picture of his past as a "guy's guy" and a high school football player, but he simultaneously paints a portrait of his teenage depression, which he finally has words to describe.

Like the film's own structure, past and present exist in close proximity for the subjects of Group Therapy, who seek to unlock ideas about who they are today by tracing where they've been. They make it clear, on numerous occasions, that the film's premise is an exercise in collective exposure rather than an actual, medically endorsed session, but the session is no less revealing in its deeply personal portraits of each participant. In the process, the very presence of the camera becomes therapeutic, not only for the comedians, but for the audience too, who, in the process, gain access to the intimate details of people's lives, both on and off stage, in ways that give them the opportunity to reflect on themselves. The film may be focused on its half-dozen comics, but the audience is firmly a part of the group as well.

Published on June 10, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter