In June, 2017, I ran into the standup comedian Gary Gulman at a birthday roast for Rich Vos at the Village Underground, a comedy club in Manhattan. It was an old-fashioned roast—the honoree and everyone on the dais were comedians, along with plenty of the guests, so the brutal jokes came from firsthand experience, if not love. Gulman sat in the audience with his girlfriend, Sadé, who is also a comic, and told me that he was leaving New York to move back in with his mom. The clinical depression he had suffered from for more than a year wasn’t lifting, he said. He seemed puzzled that he was leaving a community he’d worked for twenty-three years to gain legitimate entry to, as if the decision had been made by someone else. I’d last seen him that February, in a psychiatric ward. (He told me that he was on his way there in a text that read, “I’m going to the hospital tomorrow for Depresh.”) On Valentine’s Day, my partner and I joined him and Sadé in the ward’s visiting room.
I met Gulman in 2006, at a more promising time. I was reporting a book on standup comedy and masculinity. He’d just finished touring on the name recognition from “Tourgasm,” a frat-boy docuseries on HBO, and had moved to New York to face what he called “the comic’s white whale”—earning his legs at Manhattan clubs. At the time, I was interested in the way the best male standups were mapping out a psychological landscape that was honest and textured, especially when compared to popular portrayals of men as emotionally stunted mutes. Gulman was open about his doubts and terrors and extremely generous in his admiration of other comedians. He was kind and tender. These qualities were notable in the competitive, rough comedy scene. Also striking, next to the hunched-over slovenliness of many comics, was Gulman’s physique—he is six feet six and trim. We bonded over our love of books and language, pleasures that we both experienced as secrets, having grown up within similar pockets of sports-obsessed Massachusetts anti-intellectualism. He was a gifted writer who didn’t hide how hard he worked at it.
In the years that followed, I reported on Gulman as he went through a series of upheavals: a devastating breakup, near-bankruptcy (particularly troubling to him, since he’d worked at a C.P.A. firm as an accountant), several moves (including one from a farm house he’d bought in upstate New York back to an apartment rental he shared with three other men), two comedy tapings, the death of his father, and the dangerous depression that took more than two years to allay. During that time, standup exploded as an art form, and the culture that it helped create began to undergo its own reckoning. Gulman slowly recovered his health, in part by crafting material from the ruptures he had experienced, and is now in the prime of his comedic powers. His new HBO special, “The Great Depresh,” directed by Mike Bonfiglio and produced by Judd Apatow, centers on his depression and recovery, and is punctuated with documentary segments that feature Sadé, his mother, the comic Robert Kelly, and his psychiatrist.
Apatow first came across Gulman when Apatow was working out material at the Comedy Cellar, in New York. “He would be incredibly sweet and charming and go onstage and be hilarious and warm,” Apatow recently recalled. “Every once in a while, people would say that Gary went through a really hard time—but it just didn’t seem to add up.” The special explores Gulman’s upbringing in the suburb of Peabody, Massachusetts, and his life as an athlete who earned a football scholarship to Boston College. He discloses the treatments for his mental illness that he kept hidden, even from friends; his joy in collaging; and his appreciation of the gentler social mores that have been ushered in by millennials. “It’s the best version of comedy to me—it’s really funny and moves people and helps people,” Apatow said. “It’s not a dark piece of comedy. He still goes all the way there. It’s deceptively hysterical.”
Gulman and I spoke last week by telephone. He was driving back to New York City after attending the memorial of his home-town pharmacist, one of the few people who knew about the antidepressants he was already taking at seventeen. Gulman recalled, “He once asked me how I was doing, and it wasn’t pointed—he was a sincere and earnest man. I started crying. He took me into his office and we had a great, long talk.”
The kindness of people who recognized your suffering and the dangers of isolation are themes of the special. You’ve said in interviews, about your recovery, “This is not a solo act.”
The M.V.P. of this story is Sadé. We’d only been together six months when I started to fall apart, and she stuck around. Nobody gave her credit outside of my close friends. I don’t know why people are reluctant to give caregivers such credit. It’s the American myth, the rugged individualist. [Also] being loved is a hard thing to talk about onstage. She carried me for so long, and I find it hard to get that across comedically.
I watched you shoot “The Great Depresh,” and it was as close to a perfect taping as I’ve seen. But, when I visited you one night at a comedy club shortly after, you were worried about having fudged a few details to make a cleaner narrative—such as conflating two rounds of electroconvulsive therapy into one. I thought, That level of accuracy is my job! You’re a comedian! What’s driving that concern?
My dream was to have an hour of material on my depression, and as I got closer it became frustrating because I could never get it perfect. I was concerned that the seriousness of the depression and the worst of it would be glossed over by the funny. It was a tightrope: is it standup, or is it a one-man show?
I see it as less a question of form than one of the challenge of rendering catatonic suffering onstage.
Yes. That’s a frustration when you are suffering from depression. Unlike cancer, there’s no Stage IV.
How do you make an invisible state visible? Was it you who told me how Toni Morrison prepared a lecture for which she annotated every single place where Faulkner, in “Absalom, Absalom,” chose not to address race?
No, you told me that!
I think I got it from a tweet.
I had to go on hospitalization, interest in suicide, medications, anecdotes that Sadé can share, because I don’t even remember them.
Comics earn their way with audiences either honorably or dishonorably, but few proceed without the constant reassuring handhold of a laugh. I was impressed by how long you were able to go without needing a laugh.
That’s, like, a backhanded compliment. I wish it were all laughter. But Mike, my director, made me feel that I was serving the story by saying these things that didn’t necessarily get a laugh. The jokes can be truths, but I thought of it more as the nonfiction part of the routine. He gave me the courage to believe in the truths that weren’t funny, and to say them with the energy that I devoted to the jokes that I was more confident in.
I find it surprising you would like laughter basically non-stop. Isn’t the quiet attention a testament to holding the audience on your own, as yourself?
There are a couple of things going on. One is the position that standup holds in my head, which is this sacredness. Two, even more than the audience, is the respect of the other comedians I admire. To abide by the comedian’s code to make it funny, not just a monologue.
The process by which you have become increasingly candid about your mental illness reminded me of earlier challenges you faced, exploring your Jewishness. Was coming out as depressed harder than coming out as a Jew?
It wasn’t so much talking about being Jewish as the way I’ve insisted talking about it, which is not hackneyed and clichéd. I want an affirmative or positive take on it. Audiences are conditioned to assume that the comedian is going to be cynical and to come at it from a familiar angle. I used to have a joke, “I grew up in an unusual sect of Judaism. Called poor.” I came to feel that people were laughing at it the wrong way.
I acknowledged, admitted, confessed to my mental illness incrementally onstage. I used to admit to being depressed and anxious. It’s easier to say you have clinical depression than to say you were in the hospital; the next step is to say you were in the psych ward; then the next is the treatment, which, for me, started with the ketamine, and then the E.C.T.
You have almost entirely outed yourself. You even have a bit about having a blankie. I knew about your finances, but I didn’t know about your blankie.
Yes. It was this thing that I had been ashamed of and covered up and hid most of my life. And there’s been no penalty for it. I haven’t been teased or beaten up or ridiculed, and it’s given me so much strength to be open about these things.
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You’re exploring new territory, yet the notion of the depressed comedian is so common.
I don’t see this as groundbreaking. I see it as standing on the shoulders of people who have already openly talked about it—like Maria Bamford and Chris Gethard. There was this woman named Barbara Swanson, who was this outstanding comedian in Boston, who passed away very young. She had great jokes. I’ll never forget that she talked about being on Prozac. I remember thinking, This is incredibly brave and courageous. You’re telling people there’s something wrong with you that’s going to make everyone uncomfortable. But there was a third [thought]—I’m not the only person on Prozac.
Laughter also gives me a hit of dopamine or serotonin, and that got me out of the house even during the lowest times. I wonder if comedians learn at a young age that they get this when someone laughs, which leads them to get it from more people, and then from a room full of strangers. I don’t know that comedians are any more likely to be depressed than the average American, just that they are more likely to tell a room full of strangers about it. There’s an exhibitionist quality to a comedian; they get some sort of charge from it.
Judd Apatow has been amassing a body of work that explores the connections between mental health, kindness, and the transcendence of creating comedy—there’s “Funny People,” his two-part documentary about Garry Shandling, the Chris Gethard special about his suicide attempt, and now this. He’s also a comedy historian. He thinks that the trope of the depressed comic had roots in an actor and pianist named Oscar Levant, who talked about his struggles on TV and radio in the late fifties and early sixties. Levant once said, “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.” But you have a strong opinion about the romanticization of suffering as essential to creativity.
I was sick for two and a half years, and I came up with maybe five minutes of material. I got healthy and two and a half hours poured out of me, and it’s the strongest stuff I’ve ever written. And I look forward to my days and my shows, and I’m enjoying my life. I would urge comedians: if the comedy is getting in the way of your life, then step away from it and get healthy. Let the writing go away for a while, let the progress of your career go away for a while.
You do up to twenty things a day to maintain your mental health. Would you share a few?
I start every day walking my dog, Igor, and feeding him, so I have this responsibility that I adhere to. I eat a healthy breakfast—no sugar. When I was depressed, I ate bread pudding slathered in maple syrup. I exercise for at least half an hour four or five times a week. I take my medication. Some days, if my anxiety is ratcheting up, I take a Klonopin. I asked my psychiatrist if I should tough it out, and he said white-knuckling doesn’t work. Then I see a therapist once a week. I go to a mood-disorder support group once a week. I also read, which I find is a form of meditation and contributes to my word inventory for my writing. I make sure to get out of the house. If I don’t have a show, I make a plan with Sadé or a friend. If I can’t, I make a call. I try to do something nice for someone else. I try to do a show every day, at least one show. And I write my daily tip.
You mean the writing and career advice for comedians that you tweet every day. I like that you focus on doable tasks, such as setting a timer to write for your favorite number between fifteen and nineteen minutes, or to notice where you do your best thinking, and to make sure to put yourself there, or to break down a joke you’re sick of telling by putting white space between each sentence and adding extra detail. I’ve used some of your suggestions to help me write my book.
The motivational Tony Robbins school of advice doesn’t work with people like me. Not when you can’t get out of bed in the morning. I wanted to be the kind of teacher I want to have—a life coach that was a little more compassionate and understanding of my limitations. I don’t want a drill sergeant.
You also reveal trade secrets, such as encouraging comics to use words with “buh” “puh” and “kuh” sounds at the beginning and ending of jokes.
If you tell everybody how you do it, it makes it a challenge to continue to do it without it seeming contrived.
So it’s also a way to up the ante for yourself?
Yes. But it’s mainly about access. One comic said to me, “Why are you giving this away?” I said, “Of all the people who read it, maybe eleven people will use it, and if they do, they deserve it.” Most of this stuff was passed on to me from other comedians.
You also make explicit the connection between one’s well-being and the well-being of the comedy community—urging young comics to be kind to one another, to help and encourage each other. (No. 219: “Dehack your act with your friends. Be gentle.”)
The relationships are one of the best parts of comedy—friendships with people who are honest in these ways. It’s not advisable to get this open with people in other professions. In other professions, it’s considered unprofessional and inappropriate.
You express love for millennials—an unpopular stance in comedy.
There’s a lot of people calling vegans, environmentalists, and people who rescue dogs smug. But I’d rather be smug than indifferent to suffering. The problem with that is that, if I said it onstage, people would clap.
You’ve been invited to events co-sponsored by the National Alliance of Mental Illness and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and it’s easy to understand why you are an inspiring spokesperson. But it could become a lot to manage, along with your own health.
After the shows, there are always eight or nine people waiting to talk to me, people who are either suffering themselves or wanting to help people they love. They sometimes ask for specific ways to help specific people, and I’ve thought a lot about this—what really made a difference to me. Therapy really helped, and another thing that helped was getting out of the house. My psychiatrist would say, “Drag your loved one out into the world if necessary.”
Listening takes a great deal of time, especially about painful things, and it has an impact on you as well.
I’ll do it as long as I can, the best I can, but it’s an interesting issue. I owe the people who come to the shows something—but not my well-being.
I have to confess, part of me was also glad you went public because I could write, in my book, about the Valentine’s Day visit we had in the psych ward.
If you had asked me, I would have given you permission. While it sounds grim, it’s one of my greatest memories. I’m wistful and nostalgic about that time. It doesn’t make sense that it would be.
I feel some shame about the length of time it takes to do my work, but, in a moment like this, I am so glad to be around for a happy ending, even though it’s not an ending.
I feel so strong right now that it is as if my depression happened to somebody else. I think of this person who suffered from the depression as a separate entity, and I often feel guilty about leaving that poor guy behind. I feel so, so sorry for him. He needs me to tell the story for him. He’s still there.