“I always feared that if I had success too late in life, I wouldn’t enjoy it. But I can say from this side that I’m really enjoying it. It doesn’t matter when it comes. As long as you’re not miserable along the way, I think that it’s worth the wait.”
When comedian Gary Gulman released his HBO special, The Great Depresh, in 2019, it was acclaimed by both audiences and critics alike. In it, he managed to use his platform to have an open and oftentimes vulnerable discussion about his struggles with depression and how it impacted his life. We’ve seen a lot of comedians as of late tackle their issues in something that is a hybrid of a comedy special and a documentary. But Gulman offered just the right balance of both ingredients to arguably make it work the best. Neither one ever overpowered the other. And in turn, the result is a very funny and poignant special that deals with a very serious topic: mental health.
And now, Gulman is going back on the road again for his first post-COVID tour, Born on 3rd Base. And he’s got more exposure than he’s ever had before. He’s built up an all new legion of fans, but also, not a day goes by where he doesn’t have multiple people thanking him for The Great Depresh and letting him know how much it resonated with them. And all the exposure is taking Gulman to the first venue he’s ever played that members of his family have heard of: Carnegie Hall.
We recently had a wide-ranging discussion with Gary Gulman to talk about the new tour, playing Carnegie Hall as part of the New York Comedy Festival, how things have changed since his HBO special, the sage advice he got from Judd Apatow, all the responses he got as a result of The Great Depresh, and writing his first memoir, K Through 12.
What was the moment like when you found out you’d be playing Carnegie Hall? I imagine that would’ve been a big moment to find that out.
Yeah. The truth is, I got an offer to do it before the pandemic. So this has happened twice. The second one wasn’t quite as charged as the first one. It wasn’t even something that I had asked for, except that I had cut out pictures of Carnegie Hall and put it on this inspiration board that I made years ago in 2010. So I have a picture of Carnegie Hall with a picture of me, probably from a poster from a comedy club, that I put over it to give me inspiration. So when my agent called and said we had an offer to do the New York Comedy Festival in 2020 and do Carnegie Hall, I was amazed. It was too obnoxious to tell anybody that I wanted to do, so I just put it on that inspiration board. And that was the only place that I’d let anybody know.
I was just so excited. First of all, it is the first venue that I’ve ever played where my family has heard of it before. They’re just not that hip to comedy clubs, and there aren’t that many famous comedy clubs. So even though I play Caroline’s and The Comedy Cellar and Gotham Comedy Club and The Comedy Store in L.A. and The Laugh Factory and the Improv, it never really excited them the way Carnegie Hall has. So that is really one of the best parts. That I can tell people that and they know that I’m for real. 28 years now into my comedy career.
Totally. And it’s crazy that, in addition to everything else, it took a pandemic to stop you from playing Carnegie Hall the first time around.
I must admit that I kind of thought that I caused the pandemic by getting an offer to do Carnegie Hall. That somehow the universe was into correcting itself for making this offer to me. So I’m very grateful and I apologize for the delay.
I think you can totally be forgiven for this one. (Laughs). And how are you feeling now about getting back on the road?
I will say that, fortunately at this point in my career, the road is very gentle. When I first started doing comedy, doing the road often involved a financially negative statement at the end. So I was pretty much paying my way to do comedy. So I would drive 8 hours to do a show that would pay me, if anything, $25 or less. So now, they actually offer me a hotel and I can fly to them. And the best part of this point in my career is the audiences are all familiar with my work. So for the first 20 years, most of the audiences were just there to see a comedy show, which is like going to the movie theater just hoping to see film. It will not often leave you satisfied.
I use this word a lot, but it’s a word that best describes my state these days, and it’s grateful. Because there’s a lot of comedians who are just as good as me who aren’t able to find their audience or their audience has trouble finding them. So I’m truly grateful that the audiences that I perform in front of are familiar with my work and often know every joke that I’ve told on TV or on the albums. They also hold me accountable that I have to bring new jokes every time I visit a venue or a region for repeat times. So that’s a great system that’s been worked out over the years. There was a time when comedians would go back with their same material year after year, but that’s been flushed out by art and commerce and the intersections. So I’m happy about that, but it does present a challenge from time to time.
Had you been writing a lot during the last year?
Yeah. I figured out my voice and my process some time over the past four or five years, so that I can generate material much easier than I used to. I find that I’m able to write onstage, and then it’s just a matter of recording the performances and transcribing them, although I don’t spend a lot of time on memorization, because I don’t need to for whatever reason. It is very helpful to have that system in place.
So I’ve been performing since June, live. So Ive been able to generate enough material that I could tour for the next six-to-nine months with an hour and a half to two hours of material. But I also have some things that I have been working on on the road towards the end of the last tour, which was called Peace of Mind. So I’m making up some dates where people couldn’t get to see the tour then, but Ive added some things to that. Again, I’m thankful that my brain is working, because there was a lot of time that I wasn’t generating a lot of material because I was sick with depression and anxiety, which I talked about in my last special.
And I want to talk about that. I rewatched it again this morning, and as someone else who struggles with depression and anxiety, it is definitely something I felt I was able to relate to.
Oh man, I’m sorry. I don’t know if it’s more common in writers. But writers are more likely to tell you that they have it. So that’s why it might appear more prevalent.
Absolutely. And have you had a lot of people reach out and tell you how much it resonates with them or anything like that? Because it feels like the sort of special you need to have a discussion about.
Yeah. It’s no exaggeration to say every single day I get at least a handful of people reaching out to tell me they just saw it or they just rewatched it or they just felt the need to thank me or ask me a question. It’s really the best part of it. I will say that I don’t always have the answer, because some people reach out with issues that I’m not qualified to really speak on. But I really appreciate the comfort that people feel with me to share with me their issues.
Where I have been able to recommend things is sort of with people who are reluctant to either try meds or ECT or go into the hospital. But specific ideas sometimes, I’m not qualified. So I pass them along to any number of websites or things like that. But it’s really been energizing and not something that I see as a reluctance to respond. Like sometimes you get known for something and you’re like “Well, I don’t want to get known for this.” But I have, for whatever reason, known for this because I’m just so happy to be alive that I want to try to help people get to the other side.
Absolutely. I love that. Although I imagine you had some reluctance before you went public with it.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I will say, Andrew, that the almost immediate reactions from the audiences, even when I was just trying it out and figuring it out at the beginning, is people were so supportive and encouraging that it almost would’ve been willful denial to not follow that path. That was really fortunate. I guess the hard part was really starting. And then once I started, I received so much help along the way that it became an obvious choice to make.
And seeing that this was such a personal hour that was so well received, do you ever have a moment of thinking “Well how can I ever follow this up? Where can I go from here?”. What is that process like?
That’s a great question that I have a pretty good answer to, if you forgive some name dropping. The day after the special aired, Judd Apatow, who was the executive producer, called me and said “You’re feeling let down and dejected today, aren’t you? After the thing premiered.” And I was like “Yeah. How did you know that?”. And he was like “Well, that’s what happens to everyone after these big exciting things and premieres. And the wrong thing to do is to say it was so exciting and I want to replicate it and try to get it again. That’s a hamster wheel you’ll never get off of. That’s a formula for misery. You don’t have to improve on it, you don’t have to replicate it, you don’t have to better it, you don’t have to top it. You can do whatever you want now.”
That was something that was so helpful to hear. It let all the pressure off. And I will say that the one thing that I wanted to repeat from the last special was that I wanted to do something with a theme, just because I really admire the work of Mike Birbiglia and Colin Quinn and others. I know a lot of British comedians have done that, and I know a lot of people that I really admire have done themed specials. And I love the specials that are just funny and just jokes. And I don’t mean to put them down by saying ‘just,’ because being funny and telling jokes is a hard thing. But I’m now drawn to having a theme or an over-arching thread or story to get it together. So that’s what I’m doing with the new tour, which is also autobiographical but it is not nearly as heavy. It doesn’t take as much out of me as maybe it did [the last time].
I remember there were some nights when I was touring The Great Depresh where I’d say “I don’t really have the energy at a Friday night late show at a comedy club in the Midwest or south or wherever to do jokes that a lot of the people maybe aren’t as comfortable with as they are in bigger cities.” That’s how it broke down regionally. There were comedy clubs that were more difficult to do this thing in. And I think it’s just a matter of taste of regional culture that they were more resistant. This is an easier sell.
That makes sense. I imagine it would be easier to tour with. And the last thing I want to ask is about the memoir you’re working on, titled K Through 12. Did you find it easier to tap back into your past after the experience of doing so onstage? Did that open things up?
Yes, absolutely. It’s such a great point that you make with that. With so many things I’ve found in life, even for instance going back to the gym after the gyms opened up after the pandemic, the first one was like “Oh I’ve put it for days and weeks.” And then I said “Alright, you’re going to join!” And it’s just like that with writing a book. You put it off for a while. The thing The Great Depresh taught me is if I open up and tell things, like stories that I thought were embarrassing or too personal, every time I did that I found that I was rewarded either by laughter or people telling me that it resonated or connected with them. So learning that lesson that I could be myself and open up about my things that were uncomfortable or things that I felt would make people uncomfortable. And now that I’ve got that permission, it just got easier and easier.
And a book is not easy. Writing is hard, as you know. But the fact that I’m not wrestling with myself over whether I should tell these stories or what people are going to think about me… The lesson I learned so many times that has been ingrained in me is you’re not alone. So many things that you thought you were the only person to feel, think, do, or say is just the human condition. It’s the human experience. I’m lucky to have some readers like my wife and a few of my friends I’ve let read some of the writing I’ve done for K Through 12. And nothing I’ve written have they said “Nobody thinks this or nobody’s ever done that. You’re weird or odd or keep that to yourself.” They’ve been so supportive and made me realize that the idea that you’re the only person to feel something is just a myth. It’s a myth and it keeps us from opening up about these things.
I’ve often thought about writing a book. And this opportunity came about because of The Great Depresh. I’m really grateful for that. And the thing that writers and creative people worry about is “Well, if I do too many things or I try too many things, I’ll lose the juice, I’ll lose the fuel, I’ll run out of ideas.” And the fact is the more different things I do, the more different muscles I’m training. And the exercise is really helpful for the brain creatively. I’ve never gone through such a fertile time in my writing life. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s happening because I’m writing more than ever and I’m pushing myself further and taking more time to do this. I’m really an advocate for expanding your venues and your outlets for your creativity.
Tour dates for Gary Gulman’s latest tour, Born on 3rd Base, can be found here.