Have You Heard the One about My Crippling Depression?

Mental illness almost killed North Shore comedian Gary Gulman. Then it made him famous.

Photo by Chris Buck

On the evening of October 11, 1993, 23-year-old would-be standup comedian Gary Gulman, a towering, well-put-together man from Peabody who had failed as a tight end at Boston College and was in the process of failing as an accountant, stepped onstage at Nick’s Comedy Stop on the edge of what used to be known as the Combat Zone. His first joke went like this: “I guess you saw that Michael Jordan retired from basketball,” a nervous Gulman told the Monday-night audience, inflated by the club mandate that each comedian bring along at least three friends. “He had accomplished everything there was to accomplish in basketball…plus, he knew he wouldn’t be able to concentrate with Joey Buttafuoco behind bars.”

A beat. Silence. He could almost feel how much the room hated the joke. Then, a sickening idea flashed through his mind: Oh my gosh, I was really wrong about my talent.

He told a second joke—a routine about Seinfeld’s Kramer calling a foul on Jerry during a pickup basketball game. It got laughs, and so did the third. The rest of the set went well, and Gulman knew that his accounting career would soon be in his rearview. He would quit his job at Coopers & Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers) and pursue comedy full time. From the vantage of the tiny stage at Nick’s, the future looked bright.

Now, 26 long and sometimes painful years later, Gulman is finally finding the success he had dreamed of, but he can still remember that disastrous first joke. “It’s a classic Letterman setup where you say a funny name and add a weird twist,” he tells me, spreading his arms in a sweeping shrug. “But it bombed. People hated it.” Vividly reliving his lows is something Gulman has always done because, as he spent a quarter-century building his rep with long-form, tightly constructed, mostly apolitical PG-13 narratives, he also harbored a secret of which only his family and a few close friends were aware: He suffered from debilitating bouts of anxiety and depression that at times made him suicidal. These feelings go back a long way. In second grade, he wrote a story called “The Lonely Tree,” and in middle school, after failing miserably for his synagogue team during a basketball scrimmage— “I shot 0-for-chai,” he says, spitting out the guttural Hebrew word for 18—he remembers wanting to kill himself.

Gulman delivers that line, and dozens of others, in a similarly self-deprecating fashion that hides the existential misery of depression, in The Great Depresh, his comedy special now available on HBO. About a year ago, Gulman decided, through some combination of self-examination, managerial coaxing, and maybe even professional necessity (after all, standups need material), to open up onstage about his mental illness. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer—no standup he—would have counseled Gulman against it. “If I maintain my silence about my secret it is my prisoner,” Schopenhauer wrote. “If I let it slip from my tongue, I am its prisoner.” A few members of Gulman’s audience who caught a tryout version of the HBO show would concur with the dour German. “I didn’t come to hear a comedian talk about his damn depression the whole night,” said one man as he stormed out of a show in Wilmington, Delaware, several months ago. Gulman recovered quickly. “Man, I’m sorry I comped that guy,” he quipped from the stage.

It’s undeniable that what Gulman does in The Great Depresh, and is now doing onstage during a tour of comedy clubs, is doubly dangerous for a performer—laying bare his inner darkness while also brush-stroking a coat of dark gray over what is normally an hour of escape. But this fine irony is also undeniable: As Gulman runs through the field of mental land mines that preceded his 2015 descent into almost two years of soul-crushing despair, his worst bout yet with the confounding disease, it becomes clear that what he once held inside has finally set him free.

If this is Gulman’s moment, it may be one for the rest of us, too. “Everyone feels some sort of depression in their lives,” says comedy giant Judd Apatow, who coproduced the Gulman special. “Depression is a discussion people want to have. And now Gary is the one you want to have it with.”

Gulman is the youngest of the three sons of Phil and Barbara Gulman. He is 13 years younger than his brother Rick, a semiretired CPA who lives in Florida, and 10 years younger than his brother Max, who owns an interior-decorating company and lives in Newton. Phil left the family when Gary was one-and-a-half (though they remained fairly close until Phil’s death in 2015), so part of Gulman’s evolution as a comic is predictable—the young cutup bartering for love and attention at the dinner table. Gulman is also part of a strong Jewish-comedian tradition. “I grew up watching David Brenner and then all those other Jewish comedians came along, like Garry Shandling, Richard Lewis, Paul Reiser, and, of course, Seinfeld,” says Gulman, 49. “I connected with their neuroses and all the observational stuff.”

He also feels attached to a long line of Boston-area comics, but pays particular homage to two who are not widely known out of the area: Don Gavin (“a Robert Klein type who could really write”) and Paul D’Angelo (“extremely helpful to me when I was starting out”). Gulman saw Lenny Clarke (from Cambridge) several times when he was at Boston College; vividly remembers his mother taking him to see Jay Leno (Andover) at a Beverly theater (Gulman can still recite verbatim one of Leno’s jokes from that night, about Nancy Reagan); and traipsed around with Dane Cook (Arlington) on Cook’s 2006 HBO docu-series Tourgasm, though Gulman, who was in the middle of a depressive state at the time, clearly looks like he’d rather be somewhere else. He attended BC at the same time as Burlington’s Amy Poehler (“She did mostly improv and we didn’t know each other well”) and remains closest with Lexington-born Pete Holmes, who says that he “sat shiva” with Gulman during his most recent and challenging depression.

There may not be one single Boston style of comedy, Gulman says. “But what I do think is that Boston, this area in general, is just such good inspiration for us. The way we work is kind of—it sounds crazy—but kind of a Larry Bird thing, you know, being so intense on the court, so serious, so centered on getting it done. That Boston work ethic is what propels so many of us.”

The sports metaphor is apt. Gulman has long drawn material—not to mention a volcanic level of anxiety—from sports, into which he was, well, directed because of his 6-foot-6 height. At first, Gulman gravitated toward basketball because, as he says in The Great Depresh, “It’s the only sport where if somebody so much as slaps you on the wrist, they stop the game, separate everyone, let you make two easy shots, while everyone else is forced to watch quietly…as if to say, Think about what you did.” But his sporting life, as well as his inner life, was altered dramatically when John and Joe Taché, twin brothers who coached at Peabody Veterans Memorial High School and called themselves “The Jetsyns” (“They thought they were out of this world,” Gulman says), happened to catch him dunking in gym class. They relayed the intel to the football coach, and Gulman was all but forced onto the team for his senior year.

Gulman’s size and natural ability helped him shine—an article in the Salem News by the late Bill Kipouras labeled him “Mr. Raw Potential”—and he came to the attention of Boston College coach Jack Bicknell, who sent assistant coach Pete Carmichael to Peabody for a recruiting visit. Next thing you know, Gulman, after one reluctant year as a high school football player, was an Eagle, though he viewed himself more as a pigeon. “Two years prior, [Bicknell] had coached Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie,” Gulman says in The Great Depresh, “and then two years later he’s recruiting future participation-trophy advocate Gary Gulman.”

The central contradiction was that Gulman looked like a football player (he added 10 pounds of muscle before college and in 1989 reported for his first preseason training camp at 265 pounds) and sometimes performed like a football player (in most physical tests, he was surpassed only by future NFL star Mark Chmura, BC’s first-string tight end). But it was illusory, for inside he felt intimidated, anxious, and desperately alone to the point that he contemplated suicide.

It was a stroke of luck that, during the not-always-enlightened ’80s, Gulman opened up to Thomas McGuinness, a BC counselor who provided him with some simple advice: You could quit, you know. Appearing many years later as a guest on the The Hilarious World of Depression podcast, Gulman broke down when he discussed how with that simple message—Stop trying to force yourself into being something you’re not—McGuinness had sprung him from the prison of someone else’s expectations. (Citing confidentiality, McGuinness, to whom Gulman remains close, would not comment.)

Gulman didn’t see action during his freshman season, but decided to keep going and entered BC’s 1990 Spring Game full of hope and determination. Well, not really. What Gulman desperately wanted was a sign that he should quit. And he found it early on, after missing a block that enabled linebacker Mike Marinaro to crash into Glenn Foley, the prospective starting quarterback. “Jack Bicknell came running across the field and smoke was coming out of his ears,” Gulman remembers. “He really laid into me. On the one hand it was terrible, but on the other I thought, This is my sign. I’m sure it was self-fulfilling, but it still was dramatic. That Monday, I went into his office and quit.”

Gulman kept his scholarship, earned good grades even as he hit the local comedy clubs—including Giggles, the Comedy Connection at Faneuil Hall, and Dick’s Beantown Comedy Vault—and graduated with a degree in accounting. Then he took a job with Coopers & Lybrand, told a mediocre Joey Buttafuoco joke, and was on his way.

Sort of.

Over the past two decades, Gulman has made a solid living from club appearances across the country, residuals from TV and movie appearances, and the royalties from five comedy albums. He has developed both a steady following and the respect of his peers by turning himself into an oversize, 21st-century Mark Twain, spinning out long disquisitions on “the hierarchy of cookies” (“I never saw a fig outside of a Newton in my life”), the vileness of Blockbuster (“Why is this a new release…because it’s in color?”), and the disappointment of viewing The Karate Kid as an adult (“I don’t remember rooting for the Cobra Kai, but this time around I was like, ‘Ugh, just take him out’”).

Gulman’s stuff was funny, and, sure, sometimes silly, but he delivered it all with the precision of a Swiss watchmaker. His six-minute riff on an imagined documentary about the group charged with assigning distinctive two-letter abbreviations to each of the states—the problems begin with Alabama and Alaska—has become a comedy classic. “This is one of those rare…perfectly written, realized, and executed comedy routines,” Patton Oswalt posted on Facebook after seeing the bit on Conan. Gulman avoided easy targets, breezy one-liners, and dick jokes. He burrowed deep, even if his material came packaged with a goofy smile and an I’m-just-up-here-having-fun attitude.

Religion and Judaism were—and still are—major topics for Gulman, who was influenced, he says, by the Jesuit intellectualism at Boston College. Some of his Jewish material is quick-hitting, such as the absurdity of installing breakaway rims in Jewish community center gyms (“In the history of the NBA, only four people have smashed a backboard, and not a one was a 10-year-old Jew”). In a somewhat more reflective set, he suggests that the Old Testament should be renamed “He’s Just Not That Into You” and says he finds the New Testament to be a refreshing sequel. “I like to call Jesus the ‘Frasier of Nazareth’” is one of his favorite jokes. “I love it when I can combine all my obsessions into one piece,” Gulman says, “and I’m obsessed with both Jesus and Cheers.”

Still, if you charted the success of Gulman’s 20-year career, it would be more or less a straight line. He never broke through in even a Dane Cook way, never mind a Seinfeld way. “It’s always some kind of combination of luck and timing if you hit it big,” says A-list director and producer Apatow, whose credits include Knocked UpTrainwreck, and Girls. “Some comedians get pilots and take off. Okay, that didn’t happen with Gary. But however far Gary’s star rose was due to one thing—the quality of his work.” Gulman heard and appreciated the encomiums, but over time, he wanted more—a wider audience and an upward bump from the B-list.

Gulman was sure that he had the ammunition to make the jump as he prepared for a 2015 special at the Highline Ballroom in New York City. “I remember thinking, This is when I’m going to break through enough that I won’t have to worry about selling tickets, that I won’t have to be concerned about whether the audience is half- or three-quarters full,” he says. “I thought it was my best work, but the reception was lackluster. It just didn’t work. And then it took a year to sell the special to Netflix and it didn’t get a good reception there, either.” He started to doubt himself. “I started to worry I wasn’t going to be able to come up with a new hour, and I’d turn into one of these comedians that I dreaded becoming, the one who sees his audience dwindle because he’s doing the same act every year.”

No one is sure if a single event is needed to trigger a depressive incident, but Gulman is positive that his Highline show had a major effect. Soon after that, his father died, and that threw him for a loop, too. “So it was a combination of a number of things,” he says, “that sent me into a depression that lasted pretty much from the summer of 2015 until the fall of 2017.” It was the mother of all depressive spells, his worst yet. He worked only sporadically during this period, and one night, after a gig in Denver, the urge to end the pain almost got the better of him. Alone in his room, Gulman held a butcher knife over his wrists and contemplated using it. “Comedians are known for being slobs,” he says, “so what would the poor cleaning woman think when she came in Monday morning and had that to contend with? So I backed off.”

Lines like that are Gulman’s way of coping—take the pain and marinate it in mirth. But it was no joke. Gulman was scared. Those close to him were scared. Everything in his life was tinder to his mental illness. He was only six months into an exclusive relationship with Sadé Tametria, a budding comedian, when she found herself living with a man who spent most of his days crying, sleeping, or combining the two. “There was a point when I honestly wondered if Gary would come out of it,” Tametria says. “My philosophy became: Make the best of every day because I don’t know how long I’m going to have him.”

Gulman canceled most of his bookings. He endlessly juggled prescriptions, consulted with shrinks, and studied the shade angles and wind currents of Manhattan street corners because he thought he might soon be living on one. On two occasions—once for three weeks and another for one week—he checked in to the psych ward of New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, where he underwent electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), once a reliable cinematic horror vehicle but now considered the gold standard for treatment-resistant depression. “I was contemplating retiring from comedy, and then I thought about it some, and realized that retirement is a bit pretentious for what was going on,” Gulman jokes in The Great Depresh. “Johnny Carson retired. Michael Jordan retired. Gary Gulman, you’re giving up.”

At a loss for how to help him, Tametria eventually made the suggestion that he move back into his mother’s house in Peabody. “Gary was having a hard enough time pulling himself together without all the stress and economic anxiety of living in New York City,” Tametria says. “Money seemed like the one thing we could control.” They moved out of their midtown Manhattan apartment and got rid of their furniture. Tametria went home to spend time with her mother in Georgia, and Gary Gulman, all 6-foot-6 of him, decamped to his boyhood bedroom, stomach-roiling football photos all around.

Gradually, Gulman’s depressive fog began to lift, and at this writing it has stayed lifted. When you meet a person plagued by depression, it seems axiomatic that some of that nuclear-grade angst, some of the darkness, would have to show through, but that isn’t the case with Gulman. Over the course of three meetings in New York City, the only portrait that emerged was that of a joyful man at the top of his professional game, voluble and eager to engage, a Regular Guy with a fanatical interest in basketball.

There was no single dramatic aha moment in his recovery, and he believes that the latent effects of the ECT were a major factor. After 11 months, from June 2017 to May 2018, he left the safety of his hometown and moved back in with Tametria to an apartment in Harlem. With his depresh in remish, he began writing, took a couple of gigs, and began to talk onstage about depression. He sent some of that material to his manager, Brian Stern, who suggested that Gulman build an entire show around it. A well-known director, Michael Bonfiglio, came aboard, and he got his better-known friend Apatow on board, and next thing you know, Gulman had the potential for a hit. “It was like HBO granted us a Make-a-Wish,” Tametria says.

So The Great Depresh was born, and, in a way, so was a second career—and maybe a second life—for Gulman. “A lot of times comedians don’t get big right away,” Apatow says, “but they keep digging deeper and deeper and revealing more about themselves, and that’s what Gary has done. This is his moment.”

The Great Depresh begins with a short, sad scene filmed two years ago at the Comedy Studio (it was still in Harvard Square then) during a period when Gulman could barely get out of bed. He had asked for the spot because he thought it might help him, but he’s clearly lost, describing himself as being at “a cosmic bottom” while a dead-silent audience tries to figure out what the hell’s going on.

In retrospect, the Comedy Studio appearance was in fact a beginning, the first time Gulman not only talked in a serious way about depression, but also viscerally demonstrated its toll. Lord knows that comedy and depression are no strangers. Last year’s “Spark of Madness,” one of the eight episodes of CNN’s documentary series called The History of Comedy, was devoted to the mental-health struggles of comedians. So many celebrated standups—Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Sarah Silverman, Woody Allen, and Ellen DeGeneres among them—have talked about their struggles with depression, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness. “I despised myself pretty much close to getting out of the womb,” Richard Lewis, one of Gulman’s heroes, says in the documentary. The Australian monologist Hannah Gadsby has circled around the subject of depression, as well as autism, in her recent HBO specials.

Yet it is Gulman who seems to have found the ideal space—considering his affection for millennials, he might even call it a safe space—to talk about a mental illness that affects an estimated 11 million Americans. His long standup background allows him to shift gears between light and dark with an abject professionalism. As Kathryn VanArendonk of New York magazine’s Vulture put it in her review of The Great Depresh: “It’s affirming without being trite, and it’s warm without being simplistic.”

Gulman has managed to serve up an essential PSA dressed in comedy clothes. We learn things in The Great Depresh, among them the benefits of the horrifying-sounding ECT treatments and the you’ll-get-through-it mundane horrors of prescriptive side effects. “I will take impotence and diarrhea simultaneously,” Gulman says in the special, “if I can smile at a sunset!”

He offers advice, in his non-pedantic fashion, to those with depression—get out and interact even if you don’t feel like it; there is hope; you’re not alone—and, offstage, feels comfortable enough to have begun a kind of comedic advice column on Twitter. I found that when I stopped using any swears the audience greatly appreciated it. Being Gulman, he also reliably responds to most people who tweet at him.

Another reason The Great Depresh is a hit is Gulman’s essential likeability. He has long come across as The Guy You Root For. “I would hear that Gary was in a difficult period, and I saw how it affected everyone who knew him,” Apatow says. “And when you started to hear, ‘Hey, Gary is coming out of it,’ you saw how happy that made everyone, the love they have for him.”

But the real reason The Great Depresh succeeds is that it speaks to our times, a 74-minute window into the national zeitgeist. We are divided, upset, anxious, sad, and, yes, depressed, and along comes this good-looking, appealingly earnest ex-jock-in-disarray telling us that he feels depressed and anxious and alone, and that he’s been struggling his whole life with those feelings, but maybe, just maybe, you can come out on the other side.

And so, on January 18 it will be a different Gulman who takes the stage for two shows at the Wilbur from the lost soul who lifelessly occupied a stool at the Comedy Studio. He has new material, a role in a hit movie (he plays a comedian in Joker), and a new outlook on life, sprinkled, though it must be, with caution. “You can never say you’re cured with this disease,” Gulman says. “It can sneak up on you. But I know I’ve moved forward, with help from Sadé and a lot of other people. It’s really meant something to me when people come up after a show and say, ‘I really appreciate you talking about depression. It’s going to be very helpful.’”

Gulman says he prepares for his Boston appearances throughout the year. He expects to see friends he hasn’t seen since grade school and kids he taught at Peabody High School during a substitute gig he took to supplement his comedy income during the late ’90s. When he’s in front of a hometown crowd, Gulman says, he feels like “the best version of myself.”

But, really, there is no new version of Gulman, no Gary 4.0 or whatever the number might be. He is the sum and substance of all that tenebrous history, all those moments when he felt that he was lost, and all those times, too, when he climbed his way out. He has shown us the hurt and how it can get better, but we also sense that, for Gulman, as for many of us, life is a tightrope walk, and the time he gives us onstage is less a performance than a communion of common souls, all of us searching for the light.

To reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 1-800-273-8255. You can also text a counselor at 741741.