By Barry Wetcher, Columbia Pictures
One emotional breakthrough is becoming increasingly clear: Therapy can by crazy funny.
So much so that Hollywood is using various forms of mental treatment as the driving force in a growing number of comedies. On television, FX has picked up Charlie Sheen's Anger Management for an additional 90 episodes, and in theaters, Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones worked on their intimate marital problems with a counselor in Hope Springs.
This week alone, half of the Friends alumni played therapy for laughs. David Schwimmer starred as a patient in the season finale of Lisa Kudrow's Web Therapy on Showtime on Sunday night, while Matthew Perry worked on his wisecracking sportscaster character who attends a grief support group in NBC's Go On.
A forum where participants are encouraged to let it all hang out allows an instant look into the hidden parts of the brain and finds the humor. "Therapy is this great playground for comedy," says Kudrow. "There's no masking things like we do as social beings."
"People don't make themselves that vulnerable in everyday life," adds Bruce Helford, creator of Anger Management, in which Sheen plays off his real-life persona to portray a non-traditional counselor. "But when you have therapy, you have a good place where people can instantly talk about the deeper emotions. That leads to a lot of humor."
Viewers also have the added voyeuristic intrigue of listening in on the intimate conversations of these closed-door sessions.
"We're always fascinated by the secrets people keep, and here, we are privy to all of their secrets," says David Frankel, director of Hope Springs. "Then we realize that they are not so different from us."
Unless the character is one of the true eccentrics in therapy comedies, such as the bearded Mr. K (Brett Gelman) in Go On, who was featured in the show's promos wearing a female gymnast's uniform. Schwimmer's character was so over-the-top dark in Web Therapy that Kudrow concedes that she had to stop the ad-libbed filming "to regroup."
The fact that audiences can relate to the humor is a testament to therapy's growing influence and the likes of Oprah Winfrey. "Thanks to Oprah, (where) people would be in the audience and just start sharing, it's much more identifiable," says Kudrow. "And now, everyone knows someone who has been to therapy, so there's nothing taboo anymore. It's not just Los Angeles and New York."
It's even hitting the animated world. In Wreck-It Ralph (out Nov. 2), the video-game baddie attends a villain support group with Clyde from Pac-Man and Bowser from Nintendo's Mario franchise. The group sharing, says director Rich Moore, is as amusing as the journey to self-discovery.