How Gary Gulman Scored a Stand-up Touchdown With The Great Depresh

Gary Gulman in The Great Depresh. Photo: HBO

Gary Gulman is tall and handsome, comes from a loving family, and now has an extremely supportive life partner. And he’s gotten so good and famous as a comedian that not only can he afford his own Manhattan apartment but HBO just awarded him a Judd Apatow-produced stand-up special, airing Saturday, October 5. But it’s the focus of this special, The Great Depresh, that proves outward appearances aren’t always reflective of a person’s true life experience.

Gulman, 49, has been living with depression since childhood, before he had any comprehension of the illness. Four years ago, he battled through a particularly difficult bout, barely getting out of bed some days and even believing his comedy career — which he’d built over nearly three decades — was coming to a close. But after therapy, newly curated cocktails of medication, and treatment in a mental hospital, Gulman recovered, eventually bringing a joke-streamed version of his story to stages across the country.

Vulture recently spoke with Gulman, on a Greenwich Village park bench during a gorgeous late-summer afternoon, about working his way through the darkest of emotional clouds — and coming out the other side stronger than ever.

Especially after these past few years, how do you feel about the final product that is now an HBO special?
I normally can’t watch anything I do, but I was so happy the first time we watched it all the way through, with the documentary footage and the music, I wept. It was like a death — it was like a living death that was haunting my life for two and a half years. And then, suddenly and dramatically, my mood changed and I became alive again and I was able to write all this stuff and get it out there. It feels like a miracle, and I pinch myself a lot.

Besides performing for the sake of performing and earning a living, what else were you perhaps hoping to accomplish by divulging all this personal history?
I’ve done meet-and-greets for years after shows, but after talking about this stuff onstage, I had a lot of people coming up to me, being vulnerable and thanking me, and opening up about their struggles. Because I had given up hope so many times, and then had been rewarded for not cashing in and killing myself, I felt like an evangelist in a way, trying to tell people, “Please don’t give up.” Maybe I wouldn’t have killed myself, but there were a lot of times where I said, “I can’t be healthy and do stand-up.” I was going to abandon it, so I was very grateful that I stuck with it and persevered.

When I first came up with the idea of doing this [material], I didn’t know that Judd Apatow or HBO or anyone would be interested in [filming] it, but I remember stating my prime directive as “helping some people with the live shows.” I said to myself that as long as I’m doing that, it’s a success. I don’t need HBO — although they’re amazing. I don’t need that to feel good about myself and feel good about what I’m doing.

I think we’re all very fragile, and one thing I tell people who are recovering is, “You have to be vigilant.” Whatever got you out of it, you have to keep doing it, whether it’s exercise, therapy, medicine — don’t stop taking your medicine. Also, huge successes and financial rewards do not inoculate you against depression. I read Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography. I always thought, You work hard, you become great, and you feel good about yourself the rest of your life. And if there’s any better evidence that that formula is a myth, it’s Bruce Springsteen being depressed, going on medication, and feeling better. That’s the thing I wish I could have told myself when I was a teenager.

You’d had tête-à-têtes with depression before, but what triggered the particular, overwhelming spell that you discuss in the special?
It’s never one thing, but I remember that the most significant thing was that, in March of 2015, I made my previous special, called It’s About Time, and I really thought it was the best work I had ever done. I also believed that it would take me to the next level of comedians and I would secure a spot in that group and not have to worry about paying rent every month. I was 20 years in, and I put everything into that special.

Then, the night of the show, it just didn’t go that well. The audience was very lukewarm. Maybe they had seen the material before; whatever it was, it just didn’t go that well. Then it took a year to sell it to Netflix, and I think the producers lost money on it, and everything was telling me, regarding my career, You’re not there. I started second-guessing my act, and that led to writer’s block that made me worry whether or not I was going to be able to make a living, and it just spiraled pretty quickly. By the summer of 2015, I was in one of the deepest depressive episodes of my life. There were two hospitalizations — I compress it in the special because it would take away from the narrative, I think — but I went in in February 2016 and then again in May 2017. Nobody ever gave me any positive images of the psychiatric ward, so I was terrified, but once I did it, it was not a big deal. It was very ordinary.

Back in 2006, when you were on Dane Cook’s HBO show, Tourgasm, you took some time away from the tour, but it’s never really explained why. You say something like, “I just needed a mental break, because if I didn’t get it I would have been over in the corner rolled up into a ball.” That’s all from a time — just 13 years ago — when we weren’t having this cultural conversation about depression, and through your career, from Tourgasm to this special, I feel like we’ve witnessed its evolution.
My routine was disrupted [during Tourgasm], in that I had to go from being able to exercise every day, to eat right, to do a show at night that I was preparing for during the day and then sleeping in my own bed to being on a bus with three other guys, sleeping in this coffin every night, being in the orbit of a star, who was getting all kinds of adulation, and feeling not even appreciated by the audience. They sat through us and they were polite and everything like that — probably part of it was projected on my part, but I didn’t feel that great. And so that threw off my chemistry, I’m sure, and my mood.

So that was going on, but also, we were getting paid maybe $1,000 a show, and I had booked a college for like $10,000, which was a ridiculous amount of money for me at that point. I cleared it with [the tour] and I went back for the college gig, and I took an extra day or two as a mental break. I didn’t say, “I’m going crazy,” and I didn’t tell anyone that I was calling my manager to request that they send me home. It makes sense that they dramatize that in the documentary. They actually could have been more explicit about how messed up I was if I had been honest and open about it. Luckily, within a few days of getting back to my routine, I was healthy again. So that was important and helpful, and my friendship with Dane was repaired.

It’s hard to say how everybody in the business would have behaved if I had gone to my agents — my manager was aware of my depression, but I wonder how other people would have reacted. They may have been very accommodating and actually appreciated me being open about it. I’ll never know.

When I went into the hospital [in 2016], it was a decision that I thought about for a while before telling my manager and my agents because there was a part of me that thought they’d say, “This guy’s damaged goods and he’s unreliable, and we’ll put up with him for as long as we have to, but as soon as there’s a good jumping-off point, we’ll part ways because it’s just not worth it.” But I’ll tell you what, they were so incredibly patient and understanding and loyal that I’ll never forget that.

There are fairly long stretches in the special where you’re not going for laughs, you’re just telling your story. In preparing for the special and doing this material, did you have to get used to being comfortable in silence?
Certainly. Luckily, I’d gotten to a point where my writing was strong enough — and maybe it’s not even the writing, it’s just that I had enough confidence to where the audience felt safe that I was going to get to something funny. Also, I’d cultivated my own audience where they knew that, eventually, I was going to be funny. So, if you were to see me at a place where nobody is there to see me, I have to be a little more careful about not losing them, although maybe they can sense that I know what I’m doing, or just the posture that I take or my body language says I know what I’m doing. But it’s something I had to earn over the years, as well as learn.

Then, I had a really good collaborator in Mike Bonfiglio, the director. I would go to him and say, “There needs to be a laugh here; I’m going so long without laughter, and I feel like I don’t even sound the same when I’m talking [through] the non-comedy, just the facts.” And he said, “That’s fine. Don’t worry about it. Worst-case we can edit it to make it seem less uncomfortable, but I don’t see it as a problem.”

I also wrote one note on my whiteboard on my wall back home, which is “Commit to the truths as well as the jokes,” because I’m really great at committing to jokes and selling them, but I’m not a public speaker, I’m a comedian. So it was a different approach to commit to the parts that didn’t have a punchline at the end. I don’t want to call it “acting” because then it sounds inauthentic, but that’s what it is — being real in those moments. I would always give myself an out, on the road, where I would say [to myself], If you don’t want to do The Great Depresh on the Friday night late show, you don’t have to, but you should do the opening parts, and if it’s failing, then you can abandon ship. But almost without exception, I was able to bear down and get through it.

Now with the special, looking back on all that you went through battling depression, was it something of a mixed blessing for your life? Did going through all this make you stronger?
I always think about this touchdown I almost scored my senior year of high school. I reached for the goal line, and they knocked it out of my hand, and I always saw this as a metaphor in my life that I was consistently getting so close to things and then getting really anxious and nervous near the end and blowing it. After the first show the night we recorded the special, I thought to myself, You finally scored, man. And the fear I always had was that by the time that came around I wouldn’t appreciate it, because it would come at such a cost. But I can honestly say it felt so great. It was not just a relief, but I was proud of myself. I was really proud of myself for the first time I can remember.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Gary Gulman Scores a Comedy Touchdown With The Great Depresh