From childhood to Chestnut Hill, and all the way to the psych ward, the towering comedy vet gets candid in his latest special on his lifelong struggle with depression
For two and a half years, Gary Gulman battled with a crippling bout of depression that took him off the stand-up stage and into the darkest days of his life. It was to the point where he moved back home to the North Shore and slept in his childhood bedroom, as he contemplated retiring from comedy altogether. But now, after finding the light at the end of the tunnel with the help of his wife, Sade, his mother, Barbara, and his doctors, the Peabody native’s depresh is in remish, and he’s back to tell the story of his journey in his new stand-up special, The Great Depresh, which premieres Saturday (October 5) on HBO.
Vanyaland had a chance to chat with Gulman ahead of the special to talk about the inspiration behind the material that makes up the new hour and the importance of speaking out about mental illness, as well as what it took for him to get back on his comedy feet following his experience. With the help of documentary filmmaker Michael Bonfiglio and Producer Judd Apatow, Gulman looks to paint a picture with the stand-up/documentary hybrid that he hopes will not only make you laugh, but also help you in your own struggle with the non-discriminating illness.
Jason Greenough: Let’s start with the reason why we’re here. You’ve got The Great Depresh premiering on HBO this Saturday. What’s the feeling going into this premiere?
Gary Gulman: I’m excited in a way for this special more than the other ones, because the feedback I got during meet and greets when I was on tour was very unusual, where instead of telling me how funny I was, people were telling me how they felt less alone and more understood. They felt comfortable sharing their stories of struggling with mental illness, and they told me how my comedy in the past has helped them to cope with their sadness or isolation, and that was just very special to me. When I first started working on this, I didn’t know it was going to be on HBO. That was a dream of mine, but my prime directive was to help people feel better about living with this, and give them hope about recovery, so that’s what makes this one different for me. I’m looking forward to the help it will provide, and hopefully it opens up the conversation, while also helping people to feel more hopeful.
The thing that stood out to me the most was your sort-of PSA approach in it, where you look to destigmatize medication and therapy, while balancing that with a comedic element.
Right. First and foremost, I wanted it to be funny, since that’s my trade, but I also felt like I have enough experience with joke-writing and comedy that I felt qualified to expand on my usual work and open it up to more personal ideas, and things that were a little more difficult to discuss on stage. I mean, I’ve struggled with depression for a very long time, but I just didn’t know if I had the confidence in my craft to talk about it, and I also didn’t have an audience that would trust me to be funny.
A lot of time when you’re doing a show, when you’re just first coming up, the audience is there just to see comedy, so it’s hard to talk about something that’s not so inherently comedic without having an audience that will be patient, and have confidence in you that you’ll be funny no matter what you talk about, and that was very helpful for me.
Right on! Now, this might be a dumb question, but once you were able to get back on stage, how tough was it to find the comedic angle to discuss the details of your battle with depression?
It was interesting because, when I first started to get back on stage, I was so clearly off. My hands were shaking, I had certain other physical indications that showed that something wasn’t right. My voice was very strained, and I didn’t look great. I mean, I wasn’t unclean or unshowered, but I wasn’t paying much attention to my personal grooming, as far as my hair, which was pretty wild, and I hadn’t shaved for a long time, so I didn’t look as put together as I normally do. So, I felt compelled to address it and talk about why I was off, and those were the first steps in talking about depression.
The good thing was that I had a joke that was this thinly veiled admission and confession of dealing with depression, which is the joke that I close with about eating ice cream with a fork. I talk about it as being a personality trait initially, and when I felt like I needed jokes about being depressed, I admitted to the reason why I was eating ice cream with a fork, and the reason why my chores weren’t done because I didn’t have the energy to do those things. So it wasn’t a lay-up to start talking about depression, but it also wasn’t a desperate half-court heave either. I knew what I was doing, and also, I had given myself permission to fail at it, which was a big step for me, and I was given permission to fail at it by the owner of the Comedy Studio, Rick Jenkins, who was so nurturing when I was working on the set that summer in Harvard Square.
Now, with the special’s production, at what point was it decided that this would second as a mini-documentary? Was it something you had to bring to Michael [Bonfiglio] and Judd [Apatow] to discuss? Or was it a vision already in place when you started working on this special?
When I started doing the jokes about depression, I only had 20 minutes of jokes about depression. My manager asked me if I wanted to do an hour, and I said I did, but that I wanted to do it all about depression, but I just didn’t have enough material. That was probably in the winter of 2017 or 2018, so I talked to him about it and he brought up the idea of me doing a hybrid, where I do some documentary about my recovery, treatment, and my hospitalization, and then I do stand-up surrounding that. I thought it was a great idea, and about six months later, I met with Mike, and he was the first and only director I went to about this project. He had only done one other stand-up special, which was Jerry Seinfeld’s Jerry Before Seinfeld, and that had some documentary footage, even though it wasn’t about mental illness. I sat down with him and I told him some ideas, one of which being that I wanted to sit down with my Psychiatrist and have him talk with me about my recovery and the treatments I underwent, and my history with him.
So, that was one idea that I had, and an idea that Michael had was trying out some material about electro-convulsive therapy, and filming it, and showing the final product in the special. So, Michael helped me develop the narrative for the stand-up portion, and he also told me to keep writing stand-up about this, and that we would figure out the percentages of documentary footage versus stand-up. The ideal was to make it more stand-up, because that’s my area of expertise, so I was very fortunate that I was inspired to write a lot of material about my treatment, and my history with depression, and I wound up with an hour of that, in addition to the documentary footage that sort of explained, amplified, and told a bit of a different story about the reality.
With stand-up, you’re telling an abridged version of the full story, and the documentary is a great medium to explain the story behind the story. I think from the moment I met Michael, the project was blessed, because I’ve never had an experience where I met with somebody, and we both decided that we wanted to work on a project together in the first meeting. He had worked on projects with Judd in the past, and he mentioned how he thought Judd would be interested in this, so Judd came on board where he gave his notes and thoughts and his expertise, then HBO bought it within a few days of seeing me perform the material. We cut it down from an hour and a half to sixty-two minutes, but HBO bought the idea a couple of days after they saw it live, so this really has been blessed since the beginning.
And for good reason! Especially right now, where a lot of stuff is coming out about mental illness and mental health awareness, it’s very much so needed. Now, obviously, this isn’t a “normal” special, with both the documentary element as well as the subject matter. You did touch on it a little bit earlier, but what are you hoping that viewers take away from this special when they finally see it?
One thing that I’ve heard is that it makes it easier for people with depression to talk about it with their families and friends. I remember one time when I was doing a show in Oklahoma, and a child was with his parents, and I apologized to the mother for it being so heavy, but she said that her husband had suffered from mental illness, and that this was an excellent way for them to discuss the subject in a way their son could understand it. It’s the Mary Poppins principle, which is “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” where if you bring this information with some laughs, it’s much easier to talk about. That’s one thing that I hope will come from it.
The other thing I hope will come from it is that it will help destigmatize, and take away some of the fear involved with hospitalization and other treatment, and medication. I hope this information will help to counteract the ignorance, biases, and prejudices that treatment and mental illness undergo. Also, I hope it helps counteract the idea that somebody who seemingly has everything going for them can’t be afflicted with this illness, because it has nothing to do with achievement, wealth, fame or success, or having great hair or a great smile. It’s an illness like any other, and it’s so cliché, but it doesn’t discriminate in any way.
Absolutely, man. But we’re glad you’re here to tell your story! Was the process of putting this material together and recording it, and rehashing everything cathartic for you in any way?
That’s a great question that I’m surprised nobody else has asked yet. It’s cathartic, for sure, but it’s also… and I hate to use the word ‘vengeance’ or ‘revenge,’ but there’s sort of a redemption in this thing, which was something that was really painful. I’ve been able to use it to help a lot of people laugh, and help a lot of people feel better. I know it’s another cliché, but I’ve been able to make lemonade with it, so it’s a great feeling to have this thing you thought would be your demise, but now I’m thriving, in part, because of it.
I was able to have this experience and come out the other side, so I have this reservoir of information and experience to write about, and to joke about, so while I can’t say it was worth it, because I feel like I could’ve gotten the information with a three or four month depressive episode, but it lasted two and a half years, and now that I’m on the other side, thank God I feel great. I mean, thank God, thank my wife Sade, thank you doctors, thank my mom, and thank a number of different people and treatments that helped me. I can’t say I’m glad I went through it, but I’m glad that this was a bi-product of it. It makes it feel like a little bit less of wasted time.
‘The Great Depresh’ premieres on HBO this Saturday, October 5 at 10 p.m. EST. Catch Gulman out on his upcoming ‘Peace of Mind’ tour this winter, which makes its way to Foxwoods on January 17, and The Wilbur on January 18, 2020.