The best comedy is inclusive. For the past 25 years, Gary Gulman has been inviting audiences into his world with his singular style of standup, delivering his views on touchstones like The Karate Kid, Trader Joe’s, iTunes, and the overall, frustrating minutiae of every day life. His bit, “Abbreviating the States” is a masterful piece of absurdist humor, a longform piece that demands the audience follows his maze-like premise, filled with characters and a narration that results in ongoing, shifting punchlines. Gulman is one of few comics who have appeared on every late night talk show from Letterman onward. Two popular Netflix specials and appearances on podcasts including WTF with Marc Maron and Never Not Funny have garnered the 48-year-old Gulman a loyal audience. Now Gulman has expanded his comedic repertoire with what for seem could be a decidedly unfunny topic: mental illness.
Gulman has struggled with depression and anxiety since his teens. In the last year, his mental anguish briefly took him out of the spotlight. He admitted himself into a mental health center to seek greater help. As a guest last October on the podcast, The Hilarious World of Depression, Gulman revealed with gut-level frankness and emotion, his lifetime of depression and how he’s continued to find light in the darkness.
The link between mental illness and creativity has been long-since established and the idea of the “tortured” comic is an almost-cultural trope. The body count from addiction and overall erratic behavior of many comedic greats rivals that of any creative type of the past century. Over the years, comedians including Jonathan Winters, Richard Lewis, and more recently, Maria Bamford, have also spoken openly about finding laughs within mental illness. Podcasts like The Hilarious World… and The Mental Illness Happy Hour are offering a safe and empathetic platform for comics to open up about their struggles and triumphs.
But it’s surely a club no one wants to join. Gulman has had longstanding membership in that fellowship, but is only now introducing these experiences onto the standup stage. Unsurprisingly, he’s being lauded for his unflinching honesty and humor in chronicling of his experience.
When observational humor is at it’s best, it’s insightful and empowering. It creates a feedback loop between comic and audience; both feeling less alone through the ultimate shared, if not desirable, human experience: laughter.
Folio Weekly: Writing observational humor seems like a tricky art as you need to riff on universal themes and scenarios while trying to create original and unpredictable views of things. Is that still an obstacle for you?
Gary Gulman: Sometimes limitation can breed creativity. I think I heard or read that somewhere. Yeah, everything’s been covered so, then you have these limitations that keep you from working too hard on writing jokes that come to you while you’re flying on an airplane. So I avoid jokes about airports or flying. And that’s how I wind up writing jokes about how they abbreviated the states down to two letters or jokes about very, very small things I find that, for the most part, people haven’t covered or things that are very specific to my life. I find that I can get a take on something and then it’s interesting that, maybe because the volume of the number of people that have existed and exist in the world, these things that you think have only happened to you are actually happening in great numbers. So people can identify and relate. So it’s difficult to come up with something that hasn’t been said before; but the reward is really great so it’s worth it to dig a little deeper and find something original.
You mentioned, “Abbreviating the States.” That’s become this contemporary comedy “hit”; especially on YouTube. It’s become your “Freebird.” Why do you think that bit became so popular?
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s become my “Born to Run.” I’m not sure. I just know that’s it related to the idea, which is talked about. I think that observational humor is very popular and very appealing to people because so many things have been covered and it takes going that extra step to stand out. So I’ve always found the quirkier I get the more I am awarded for that. And that joke is as unusual and quirky as I’ve gotten, at least on television; and the reward was remarkable. I also think that people appreciate, and I hope it’s not too obvious, the amount of time and thought I’d put into it lasting such a long time as it’s being performed. That’s one of my favorite things in watching a comedian: “How far is he going to take this? How long will he be able to ride this wave?” I was always interested in going along on that trip with a comedian. It took a long time. I’d had the idea and the premise in my notebooks since the first few years I was doing comedy. It actually took the rise of documentary filmmaking to the point where documentaries didn’t have to be about the Civil War or World War II, where people could believe that something so small could be interesting, for that joke to really work.
Since so many things in pop culture move so fast or are so ephemeral do you ever have roadblocks in your writing when you’ll think, “Gee; this new app or TV show might be extinct by the time I tell this joke”?
Yeah. You know that’s interesting. I do try to write things that will last or at least will have some sort of shelf life or about something in history that’s interesting so that people will at least have some sort of nostalgic view of it. I did a joke about the Discman years ago and hope that people will still be able to remember that nostalgically. The other thing is that one of the great things about living and working in clubs in New York City is that I’m going on shows and usually watching at least the person who goes on before me and who goes on after me; but I usually watch all of the comedians. And I’m so impressed by the talent level of the comics and I’ll get a feel of whatever everyone’s talking about. For instance, everyone’s telling jokes about Tinder and dating apps or Twitter or Uber.
In the same way that it was “singles bars” or “bottled water” jokes on HBO comedy specials 30 years ago.
Yes, yes. Exactly [laughs]. There is a moment when you write about something really new and realize, “Oh no, I just lost five minutes of material because someone else is doing something similar.” But it’s also healthy to keep your inventory unusual to stand out from the pack. So I do try to stay away from these pop cultural things because either it’s ephemeral or you’ll undoubtedly sound like 10 other comedians talking about the latest technology.
I think that, maybe barring psychopaths, when most performers start out, the loudest critic is their mind. But when success hits, you discover there’s an entire industry based on total strangers gleefully criticizing what you do. You’re a human being first before you’re a comedian. Does that type of negative criticism affect you in a heavy way?
I’m incredibly sensitive so I avoid the criticism but it occasionally creeps in and can ruin my day. There are a couple of things: even a positive review can be harmful because it sort of reinforces this sort of idea of where you should be focusing and you’re prone to self imitation and repeating yourself and leaning into certain areas. So that’s not helpful. Then the criticism can make you avoid certain areas. So I just try to avoid any kind of reviews. Somebody said they had written a review recently of a show they saw and I don’t know whether it was good or bad so yesterday I was tempted to read that but I avoided it. My last comedy special was reviewed and there were only a handful of reviews and I guess I only got forwarded the ones that were good [laughs]. But there are people after shows that give their unsolicited commentary and advice on everything from what I wore to what I talked about. [Laughs]. I try to block it out but some seeps in and it’s painful. I guess I should get thicker skin. But I don’t see that changing any time soon.
In the last year or so you began to talk openly and candidly about your struggles with depression and are starting to talk more about this in your act. What compelled you to start talking about this now?
I think it was two things. I think that one, it became so bad that for the first time I was not able to compartmentalize it and I was feeling lousy and anxious and depressed onstage. Prior to probably last summer, I was always able to, through a combination of willpower and adrenaline, hold it off. But then in the summer of 2017 I had committed to do shows and was still feeling lousy onstage so I decided to acknowledge and talk about it during my act. It was a little bit funny and also people, after the shows, were complimentary and then I told my mother that I had talked about the depression, and I’d never really shared with my mother the content of what I talked about onstage, and she said, “You’re going to help a lot of people.” And I hadn’t really thought about that but it was really positive encouragement and I really took that to heart. The second component was I talked about it on The Hilarious World of Depression and the feedback that I got was so positive and encouraging that it really pushed me to lean into that, as they say, and expand about what I was already talking about onstage and open up even more. There was a reward for it and people emailed me and came up to me after the shows, if only to tell me that it made them feel less alone, or more understood and simpatico. So those were the two major milestones in my life that caused me to talk about it in the last year.
On that podcast episode, you described seeking in-patient mental health and you used the word “embarrassment” in regards to making that decision. That points to how mental illness is such a “self-stigmatizing” illness. I don’t think people with hammertoes go to the podiatrist in shame; do you self-stigmatize living with this?
I think that being able to talk about it openly and make fun of it, and it’s kind of a cliché and I think it comes from AA literature, but “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” That really makes sense. Since I’ve opened up about it, and it’s not easy and requires a little bit of gumption to talk about it onstage and open up about hospitalization and some of the treatments I’ve undergone. But now it feels like, “Well, now they have nothing on me.” I feel safer and relieved. I thought about it yesterday. There was someone from my college years who contacted me and I thought, “I hope they don’t come to the show because I’m going to talk about being in the mental hospital.” [Laughs]. I guess it’s easier to do it with strangers than people you know. But if they do come, it will just be one hurdle I’ll get over because there are people that I went to high school with who now know since they’re been to my shows. So that’s just one person. In the abstract it seems really difficult, but once I’ve done it I’m glad that I did and no one’s ever teased me [laughs] or ridiculed me. It’s all in my mind. I think that the self-stigmatizing is something I did and was for the most part unnecessary and a waste of energy; but understandable. I’ve probably spent too much energy hiding this.
You’re 6’6” and you talk about a lesser-acknowledged pressure and stressor that “tall kids” generally endure: conscription into playing sports. It’s like a cattle run for some kids.
Yeah. I talk about my fateful football career onstage and how that sort of forced me into my first having to face up to my limitations athletically as well as mentally. I ran up against a wall my freshman year of college and that was really something.
During what I think was your most recent appearance on The Colbert Report, you were very subtle and successful in essentially talking about clinical depression. But you conveyed it through universal ideas like, “sleeping late” and just being inert. When you’re writing and performing, do you find it helpful to temper it in such a way so the people that aren’t on Lexapro or staying in bed for two days feel left out?
I think that at that time when I did that, in January of 2017, I was not yet ready to tell everyone on television that I was really sick. So I don’t think I deliberately did it but I think it was clear to anyone who was depressed, “Oh, this guy is depressed.” Outside people would say, “Oh, he’s really lazy.” I tell that story now but now explicitly tell it. The funny thing is, that in that episode, I actually say I was getting up earlier (“1:52 p.m.”) than I actually was. So now I’m much more explicit about the causes of hypersomnia, and I call it depression, and also am more honest about the depths of it.
In my own experience, people with the best intentions will try to “identify” with your mental health symptoms but it seems like it negates the experience. I’ve never personally tried to “empathize” with someone who has malaria. Do you know what I mean?
Yes, yes. And they mean well and I appreciate it but they just don’t get it and they’re not really able to identify with what we struggle with and how difficult a day is. But on the other side, when people who are as sick as we get, hear what we have to say, they’re so appreciative and so relived to hear our point of view and perspective on it, that’s almost worth it to endure that. The greatest example of the misunderstanding is the people who’ll tell you how much you have going for you and I always point to Bruce Springsteen. He was so depressed that he couldn’t get out of bed and he was “Bruce Springsteen.” And I’m sure people were telling him, “You’ve got so much going for you.” It couldn’t be made any clearer by that example. Yet maybe people aren’t aware of his issues are still aren’t convinced by that.
Do you fear now that you might be telling a gut-level story about sleeping for four days and an audience member might yell out, “Do the bit about the States!” or “Crane Kick”?
[Laughs]. You know it’s interesting that I do balance the show with enough laughs and sugar within the medicine to make it funny. It’s not a one-man show; I’m doing standup. But after the show, a lot of people will tell me that their favorite joke was either the “Abbreviations” joke or the “Karate Kid” joke.
Are you okay with me making the header for this story, “Ingmar Bergman Meets Shelley Berman”?
[Laughs] Oh God, please do.