After battling depression his entire adult life, in 2016 comedian Gary Gulman hit a “cosmic bottom” (that’s his description of the crisis), and a classic-rock icon gave him the courage to finally seek help.
It wasn’t until he read Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, in which the singer discusses his bouts with depression, that Gulman got the answer he was looking for: It wasn’t his fault. “It was such a relief to me,” says Gulman.
In 2017, Gulman, now 49, voluntarily checked into a psych ward and stepped away from a comedy career that had been building a loyal fan base for more than 20 years. During his time away from the stage, he worked as a camp counselor in his native Massachusetts as he got back on his feet. Once ready to return to stand-up, Gulman crafted material about his struggles with mental health that led to 2019’s The Great Depresh, a critically acclaimed, Judd Apatow-produced HBO special.
“Gary has always been a fantastic, original comedian who I have admired,” Apatow said via email. “When I saw him exploring this subject matter, I was impressed by how he was opening up about something so personal and difficult but still finding a way to make it really funny. I think this gives people who are struggling a lot of hope.”
Gulman’s career rose to a new level after The Great Depresh, fueled by not just his jokes but also his honesty about coping with depression. “A lot of people come up to me after shows since the special aired and share really personal stories and moments of insight,” he says. “I never imagined it would happen this way.”
In The Great Depresh, Gulman mines his own sensitivity for material. “I grew up in a time when the definition of manhood was so narrow,” he says in the special. “You were either Clint Eastwood, or you were Richard Simmons. There was nothing in-between. No Paul Rudds. No kind-eyed Mark Ruffalos. You had to be so hard.”
This month Gulman’s sold-out three-night stand at Largo (January 8, 9, and 10) is a homecoming of sorts for the comic, who was based in Los Angeles from 2000 to 2006.
“There are certain aspects of Los Angeles that probably helped me fight depression,” he recalls of his time in Southern California. “It was much easier to get the motivation to run outside in Los Angeles. Exercise has always been helpful in battling my depression.”
In 2016 Gulman reached new fans with a bit he performed on Conan about a fake state-postal-abbreviations documentary. The clip, which has 1.5 million views on YouTube, spotlights Gulman’s acerbic and imaginative humor: His jokes are throwbacks to Bob Newhart and Nichols and May routines. That bit and Gulman’s body of work feel like outliers in an era when comedians often lash out at political correctness.
“It’s ironic that comedians are saying audiences are so sensitive when, if you’ve ever been around comedians, there’s no one more sensitive,” he says. “I spend my day overreacting to petty injustices and then whining about them onstage every night.”
Gulman respectfully disagrees with the notion, voiced by fellow funnymen like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, that college campuses are now a minefield for comedians because of political correctness.
“It’s never been easy playing colleges,” he says. “I got booed off the stage at a college because I made a joke about the beard-with-no-mustache Lincoln look. I couldn’t win the crowd back.”
Gulman’s active 2019 included a small role in Todd Phillips’s Joker. “If you look carefully, the character of the Joker is taking notes during my set,” he says, “like he’s trying to learn something from how I’m doing comedy.
“I always think to myself, ‘I wish there was some way I could help other comedians out.’ But I’ve never had enough juice to give anybody a career,” Gulman says. Now that he’s coping with his mental health crisis, like Springsteen before him, Gulman is determined to provide a road map to people in similar situations.
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