The Funniest People in Comedy All Head to ‘Group Therapy’

Tribeca Film Festival
Tribeca Film Festival

One of life’s biggest ironies is that comedians, for as much joy as they bring us, are deeply sad people. This is a massive generalization—but it’s also a phenomenon supported by scientific studies, to the point where it has its own name. Humor may be meant to bring us joy and connection, but the source of it often stems from a darker place.

Probing that relationship is at the forefront of Group Therapy, a new documentary that premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. In a discussion moderated by actor Neil Patrick Harris, a diverse group of stand-ups unpack how their insecurities, illnesses, or mental health issues influence their work. Shot last year during the Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild strikes, the film brings folks like Mike Birbiglia and Nicole Byers together to laugh and cry with each other. While a bunch of people being asked to bare their darkest secrets and depths of their souls may sound like a gauntlet of sadness, Group Therapy aims to make this safe space a productive one for the comics and viewers alone.

Mike Birbiglia and Neil Patrick Harris in Group Therapy

Mike Birbiglia and Neil Patrick Harris in Group Therapy

Photo by Tribeca Film Festival

For comics like Tig Notaro and Gary Gulman, revealing themselves to others—in this case, peers, but oftentimes, strangers—was nothing new. Both have famously made their physical and mental health struggles part of their routines. Notaro famously revealed her breast cancer diagnosis during a live set in 2012, a recording of which became a critically acclaimed album. In his 2019 special The Great Depresh, Gulman humorously recounted his hospitalization due to severe depression.

“I was always grateful to the people who were open about these things,” Gulman tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, of his inclination to reveal himself in this fashion. “When I first started watching comedy, I remember really finding Garry Shandling and Richard Lewis very compelling, because they were open and talked about treating their illnesses. … I found that very settling and comforting to know that I wasn't alone in my insanity.”

In more recent years, other performers, athletes, and public figures began to talk about their struggles too, and it gave Gulman the push he needed to speak out too. “I was happy to add my voice to that,” he says. “I just didn’t think it would be meaningful to people in the way that it has been. So that's been a very positive side effect—that it was helpful to other people more than I had expected.”

Making others feel understood is equally important to London Hughes, a British comedian whose first Netflix special saw her speaking honestly about her sexual experiences. But Hughes found opening up in the context of the documentary far less comfortable than her peers did.

During filming, she says, “My vulnerability was that my mental health story wasn't as bad [as the other comedians featured],” Hughes says. “And that’s kind of silly, right, to think of it that way. But I just kind of was like … ‘You got bullied, so what?’ Like, these people are really going for, well, going for real problems.”

Hughes also pointed to her different background from the other panelists, as a Black woman coming from the cutthroat British comedy scene, who only moved to the States at the start of the pandemic. That sense of isolation also inspired her decision to take part in the documentary, even if it did pique her anxiety about her struggles being put in sharp relief with those around her; filming took place last summer, during the dual Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild strikes.

Fellow star Atsuko Okatsuka, validated and assuaged Hughes’ concerns. “Maybe as performers, we have imposter syndrome anyway, sometimes. And [I was] like, ‘Oh my gosh, me and London, we’re the only ones there without a therapist—everyone’s deep into therapy.’”

For Okatsuka, the subject of therapy is fraught, she says; she refers to strong feelings of “guilt” around it. She discusses in the film her family’s history with mental illness, particularly that of her mother, and Okatsuka’s own relationship to her own well-being.

“My mom has a lot of mental illnesses and depression—schizophrenia and paranoia and all these things,” she says. “I always want to help her, and so I have guilt [around] mental health help for me. If I do well, I feel like I would have left her in the dark.”

Okatsuka has talked about her mother in interviews and occasionally in her act; she’s previously said that her own “childlike” comedic persona is a reaction to the household and illness she grew up in. Yet neither she nor Hughes have been as actively defined by their personal suffering in the same way that Gulman and Notaro may have—considering they have centered some of their best-known work around it. It’s this part of their work that Okatsuka and Hughes found themselves less able to relate to.

Tig Notaro in Group Therapy

Tig Notaro in Group Therapy

Tribeca Film Festival

But making vulnerabilities a key part of your public performance runs the risk of being pigeonholed, or becoming known solely as the “depressed comedian” or the “former addict comic.” Notaro, who has juggled numerous labels since her monumental special about breast cancer, says she’s no longer afraid of being stereotyped. While it initially bothered her to be reduced to the “lesbian comedian” or “female comic,” she says, her feelings changed around the time she got sick.

“I think I was just at a point in my life where I was like, ‘Call me whatever you want. I don’t care if you call me the female comedian, the lesbian comedian, or the lesbian comedian riddled with cancer who’s also vegan,’” she says, of achieving this breakthrough. “I realized that that has nothing to do with me, because I’m just telling stories and jokes.

“You can call me a choo-choo train,” she adds. “It has nothing to do with me. Like, I don't care what you call me. I’m going to be doing this.”

Gulman, however, finds that the moniker has its benefits. “It probably introduced me to a larger audience,” he says. “But, even within the special about being depressed and hospitalized and all that, there were still jokes that had nothing to do with that. So it’s like, if you came for the depression and you stayed for the jokes, I’m fine with that.”

Ultimately, the group agrees that the process of talking through all of this—both their health and how it relates to and impacts their work—was a positive one. For Hughes, it was a chance to further build a community among her peers.

“I couldn’t do [Group Therapy] with, like, finance people. It wouldn’t be the same. But with comedians, we all share the same [lifestyle], in terms of the structure of being a comedian,” she explains. “The need to go on stage, to want to go on stage to make people laugh—that apparently isn’t normal.

“So as a comic, the fact that we all seek that means we have something in common,” she continues. “That was the main thing that connected us. Even though I felt vulnerable, I knew that we had kinship in that area. … I’m with my people.”

That said, after Group Therapy premieres, should viewers start to look at any of these comedians differently, Okatsuka has a reminder for them.

“I’m still the same person [as I am onstage],” she says. “But that’s the silly me. It’s the same person that is a Disney adult. It’s also the same person that didn't know I got kidnapped by my grandma, who was my best friend.”

Notaro chimes in that, despite all the pain, “I wouldn’t put it past me to put out an entire special of just fart noises.”

“And that,” Okatsuka adds, “is coming from Cancer Girl.”

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