In his 2015 stand-up special Crying and Driving, Paul F. Tompkins gingerly brought up a topic he seemed hesitant to discuss: He’d started therapy. But first, he offered the crowd a disclaimer. “Now, I don’t want to talk about therapy any more than you want to hear me talk about therapy,” he mock-defensively declared to the audience, which laughed knowingly. Next, Tompkins mentions that he’d always been scared about therapy, partly because of his upbringing. “I wasn’t raised in a culture that encouraged the acknowledgment of problems, much less the addressing of them,” he says. “[The] culture in which I was raised was more like, ‘You think there’s something wrong with you?!?! Oh no, I think there’s something wrong with you!’”
Gary Gulman can relate. Like Tompkins, who’s about two years older than the 49-year-old comic, he grew up in a household that didn’t have much interest in talking about feelings. “I just went on suffering silently, which was the only thing you could do back then,” Gulman says in his very good new special, The Great Depresh, which premieres on HBO Saturday. “The only antidepressants we had access to in the 1970s and 1980s, pretty much, was ‘Snap out of it’ and ‘What have you got to be depressed about?’” But the depth of Gulman’s sickness, as he calls it, was severe, leaving him hospitalized a few years ago after a lifetime of therapy, medication and occasional suicidal thoughts.
The challenge Gulman faces in his HBO special is the problem that Tompkins alludes to: How do you make the inherently touchy-feely aspects of therapy work in a comedic setting in which you’re trying to kill? How can you be hilarious when you’re talking openly about being so sad you can barely get out of bed? How can you be sharp and feel-good at the same time? It’s a testament to Gulman’s skill that he largely gets to have it both ways: The Great Depresh is really funny, but it’s also moving without being too saccharine.
Lately, there’s been no shortage of white, straight, male Gen X comics baring their soft underbelly to audiences, opening up about the saddest parts of their lives. Patton Oswalt’s Annihilation focused on the death of his wife. Back in 2010, Tompkins devoted a large part of his special You Should Have Told Me to soberly reminiscing about the death of his mother. Mike Birbiglia has earned raves transitioning from conventional stand-up to one-man shows such as My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, which are really narrative-driven monologues about marriage and relationships that also contain jokes. Pete Holmes, who just barely sneaks in under the Gen X wire, often discusses seeing a therapist, and turned his short-lived, autobiographical HBO series Crashing into a platform to reveal his fears of failure and inadequacy. (“I think in other times and other climates of comedy, it could have been more okay to just get a schtick or a persona,” he told Fast Company in 2017, “but these days, we want to know [comics’] demons, their struggles, their fears, and we want it to be based on some sort of reality.”)
Of course, another Gen X figure, Louis C.K., was the king of this sort of brutally honest self-analysis — well, at least it seemed honest at the time — but his comedy was always more biting, allowing little room for sentiment. By comparison, these other comics haven’t been afraid to sit in their feelings, ignoring an easy punch line in order to be sincere and talk about their traumas. (If you’ve listened to the generally excellent Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend podcast, his conversations with famous, funny pals often become mini-therapy sessions.)
The Great Depresh takes that tendency toward emotional sincerity into new terrain. A few decades ago, Richard Pryor went onstage to tell his fans about his near-fatal accident while freebasing cocaine in Live on the Sunset Strip — the crowd entered into the experience knowing they’d hear about something tragic. Likewise, anyone watching Gulman’s special will expect to hear about his formidable battles with depression and anxiety — that’s suggested by the title, not to mention all the advertising HBO has done for the show. This could make for uncomfortable viewing. We expect stand-ups to be confident, even cocky, and so it can be strange to see them vulnerable. For about an hour, Gulman stands in front of a crowd and allows himself to be exposed. In a sense, The Great Depresh is about him stripping away the very idea of being macho — a concept, as we’ll learn, that he’s struggled with all his life.
The special starts with amateur video footage of a clearly depleted Gulman from about two years ago as he sits dejectedly on a stool onstage at a small comedy club. He’s working through unformed material and seems depressed and distracted, telling the audience, “I have a mental illness. I have a severe mental illness. … It’s excruciating.” The crowd is deathly silent, just listening to him. “This is like a cosmic bottom,” he says. Soon, we flash-forward to the present — well, June 22nd of this year — as he appears at Brooklyn’s Roulette Intermedium. He’s polished, smiling, poised, and he’s here to explain how he got from there to here. The Great Depresh isn’t all about aborted suicide attempts, electroshock therapy and crippling depression, but Gulman structures it as a sort of memoir, recounting the moments that, as he puts it, a sensitive boy who was ill-equipped for a childhood in the rub-some-dirt-on-it 1970s and 1980s eventually got the help he needed in order to cope.
Early on, Gulman explains how teachers indifferent to bullying, football teammates unconcerned about concussions — the comic spends a little time unraveling that old euphemism “Getting your bell rung” — and coaches who preached winning at all costs were just some of the adversaries that a young Gary had to contend with. For Gulman, anxiety triggers were everywhere, from the abducted kids placed on milk cartons to his mother’s insistence on watching 60 Minutes every Sunday night with its litany of upsetting news and its tick-tick-tick stopwatch. (“The most sinister theme song in television history,” Gulman declares. “That noise … to this day gives me a pit in my stomach: ‘Oh dear god, is all my homework done!?!’”) For aging Gen-Xers, it’ll be undeniably nostalgic to hear him recount the shared cultural detritus we grew up with. (I’d forgotten that period of time where drinking Sprite was somehow considered to be feminine.) But Gulman is after more than that, trying to understand how a commonly, almost stereotypically unhappy childhood can hide greater dangers that are too easily dismissed because we assume everybody went through the same dysfunctional upbringing.
This kind of up-close observation has always been Gulman’s specialty. Standing 6-foot-6, he boasts an athlete’s physique, but his somewhat nasally voice and bookish demeanor are comic, apologetic rejoinders to anyone who would think he’s super-masculine. (In The Great Depresh, he recalls his brief stint playing college football: “These guys, they love to hit. And I loved to read.”) In one of his all-time best bits, Gulman once told audiences about this amazing documentary he’d seen about how each American state got its two-letter abbreviation, and then went into hilarious nerdy detail about the abbreviation-committee’s decision-making process. (There’s no such documentary, by the way, but to this day, the comic gets emails from fans wanting to know where they can see it.) Gulman loves the elasticity of language, the stupidity of clichéd expressions and the weirdness of certain expressions — during the special, he plays with “disarray” and the fact that its antonym isn’t “array” — and he’s perfectly serene letting a bit develop without obvious laughs. He’s too busy reaching his ultimate point, which he knows will kill.
The Great Depresh is consistently laugh-out-loud funny, but that same willingness to let hushed moments linger serves him particularly well here. You need to believe in your material if you’re going to go into longish, sometimes heartbreaking stories about visiting a psychiatric hospital or why his discomfort with writing personal essays as a kid turned out to be weirdly beneficial when he’d ponder killing himself. (Ultimately, he could never go through with suicide, he says, because “You gotta leave a note. I’m not spending the last hour of my life doing something I’ve dreaded throughout it.”)
A feeling of gratitude permeates the special — specifically, Gulman’s relief that he’s pulled himself out of a dark place that, not that long ago, left him considering giving up comedy and found him moving back into his childhood home for a spell. It can be tricky for Gulman to avoid a certain kind of sappy, way-to-go response from the crowd when he, for instance, talks earnestly about the importance of therapy or knowing that you’re not alone in feeling depressed. (The audience claps approvingly in a “Kumbaya” kind of way that I’m sure would make “edgier” comics like Bill Burr roll their eyes.) It’s strange to describe a stand-up special by saying that one of its most prominent qualities is how “nice” it is — “nice” feels antithetical to the pop of a punch line — and yet, The Great Depresh has a real sweetness to it.
To be sure, this sort of pleasant, vaguely inspirational brand of sincere comedy isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste. (I often think of Jerry Seinfeld’s comment from an episode of last year’s season of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee where he disparaged the notion of a “broader palette of emotion” in stand-up: “To get people … with kids and problems to come out and pay money to see you, it better be funny — ‘cause I got the ‘pathos’ part covered at my house.”) Gulman’s general lack of hipness comes out in other ways, too: The Great Depresh is less successful when it cuts away from the Roulette Intermedium set to a series of documentary vignettes of the comic hanging out with different people close to him, including his wife, his mom and his therapist. Although heartfelt, they’re a tad too mushy and TMI-y, admirably trying to normalize Gulman’s mental-health struggles but never being particularly revealing.
Still, flaws and all The Great Depresh feels like an honest record of where Gary Gulman is now in his life. Like many who survive a terrible personal ordeal, he’s awash in the language of recovery and self-enlightenment, evangelizing about how therapy saved him. His return from the brink is no small achievement, but that’s no guarantee he could turn it into comedy. Sometimes, he missteps: In the special, he has a running bit in which he talks about how much he envies millennials, who he respects for how much more thoughtful, open-minded and emotionally intelligent they are. Gulman means it to be a compliment — as well as an indictment of Gen-Xers’ rigid views on masculinity, toughness and mental wellness — but his comments come across as a middle-aged dude’s simplistic, glib, somewhat off-base view of a younger generation.
It’s the only time during The Great Depresh where Gulman doesn’t seem to know exactly what he’s talking about. Everywhere else, he’s fully confident and fully himself, happy to accept the big, sensitive, hulking, undeniably goofy person that he is. As a result, the special’s weaknesses are a kind of strength — they’re part of the healthier person he’s become, and that journey continues. To paraphrase Tompkins’ line, what makes The Great Depresh so strong is that Gulman no longer worries that there’s something wrong with him — he knows that there is, and he’s making great comedy out of it.