When Gary Gulman says he’s never been better, he means it. The comedian is hitting a stride with his first stand-up special for HBO called “The Great Depresh,” not to mention a cameo role in the film “Joker” opening this weekend.
But his real achievement was overcoming severe depression, trips to the psychiatric ward and suicidal tendencies that followed him for years. With “The Great Depresh,” the comedian is still making jokes about grade school water fountains, vocabulary and why he loves millennials, but he’s doing it from a place of vulnerability and openness about his depression he’s never shown on stage before.
“I’m terrific. Honestly, a lot of people say never better, and they’re lying, and they’ve never been worse. But I can say that I’ve never been better because maybe I was so bad for so long, that it’s easy to be never better, but I am never better,” Gulman told TheWrap. “I’ve been working with this new thing called confidence, which I never had. That’s very helpful. It keeps me from spending too much beating myself up and criticizing my work and not taking chances.”
In the special, which airs Oct. 5 at 10 p.m. on HBO, Gulman reveals that he’d struggled with depression since childhood but could never confront that he was mentally ill. He then admits that even as he was still touring and working, performances of which you can see in videos online, even close friends told him “you’ve got four years,” fearing for his life and sanity and how long he could last in his line of work. The special also mixes in some documentary footage of Gulman with his mother and wife, as well as deeper admissions that he had gone through electroconvulsive therapy as treatment for his depression.
“In 2017 I fell into a spiral that I didn’t emerge from for two and a half years. That’s sort of what ‘The Great Depresh’ is about, my falling apart, and then my recovery, and now I’m thriving and I’m very grateful for that,” Gulman said. “I covered it up pretty well, but there were nights we were doing live shows less than 12 hours after I had to talk my way out of the psych ward, sort of the observational wing of the psych ward, because my doctor insisted I needed to go to the emergency room, and I insisted that I needed to go to Denver, Colorado to do the show in order to make money to make rent.”
Aside from his impressive height and stature and charming smile, you may recognize Gulman from his finalist appearance on “Last Comic Standing,” or from some of his more viral routines about Girl Scout cookies or a documentary about how they came up with the postal abbreviations for all 50 states. The beauty of “The Great Depresh” is that, though Gulman goes to darker, more serious places, it’s still very much in his jovial vein of observational comedy.
“I knew just from trial and error that you have to give a fair amount of sugar with the medicine, the Mary Poppins theory,” Gulman said. “I knew I had to make it funny first and foremost, and then get my information across. It’s like your favorite teachers and professors. They were able to be witty, sharp-minded and funny as they were dealing the information. Those are the ones you remember and those are the ones the information stuck. So I want to adhere to that philosophy of teaching.”
Many comics who have taken the step into talking about more serious subjects have found themselves becoming dramatic actors or developing their own auteur-driven TV shows or indie movies. Gulman wants to keep going deeper, but he still wants to be able to joke about some of the smaller stuff too.
“I think I can, but I don’t want to as much. I want to continue to be vulnerable, because the connection I’ve been able to make with the audience is so strong,” Gulman said. “But you don’t want to go too far. I notice that any comedian who believes all the great things people are saying about them, they never reach that level again. It’s a balancing act. Bruce Springsteen says you need to think you’re a badass and that you suck both at the same time so that you stay honest.”
Gulman pointed to examples of other comedians like Robin Williams or Brody Stevens who similarly battled depression and ultimately died from suicide, and he hopes that those who watch “The Great Depresh” can learn something from his experience.
“I hope they realize the seriousness of depression and that it’s a life threatening illness, but also that there’s hope, and there’s so much treatment,” Gulman said. “I say this about two things that I am. I am vegan and mentally ill, and there’s never been a better time in history to be both. There are so many great options for treatment for the mentally ill. I’m very grateful I live now instead of a time where they thought mental illness were spirits, ghosts and fairies. Also, the Beyond Burger is a game changer.”
Watch the full interview with Gulman above.