Comedian Gary Gulman on 'The Great Depresh'
The star of an HBO special talks about the toughest time in his life and the electroconvulsive treatment that saved him
When I was first introduced to Gary Gulman's comedy, it was through a YouTube clip with a bit he does about How the States Got Their Abbreviations. He refers to this as his "calling card" as so many folks know him because of it.
I was hooked. His comedy is hilarious, and it's so smart — which I absolutely love. His verbiage is clever, and my husband and I began watching his specials on streaming services.
That's when I came across "The Great Depresh," a part stand-up special/part documentary for HBO where Gulman talks frankly about his depression and anxiety, getting electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and mental illness in general.
Born and raised in Peabody, Massachusetts — pronounced "PEE-buddy" Gulman says, if you hail from there — Gulman, 52, is the youngest of three boys. While he enjoyed comedy throughout his life, he didn't expect to make a career of it.
"I went on stage and told the first joke and there was ... silence."
So he attended Boston University, earned a degree in accounting and began working in the field.
That all changed on October 11, 1993. Gulman remembers the exact date that he first performed stand-up comedy because it was Indigenous Peoples' Day (then called Columbus Day) and he was off work from his job at what is now PricewaterhouseCoopers. In preparation, he spent the entire day going over his routine.
"I went on stage and told the first joke and there was … silence," Gulman recalls. "I was like, 'Oh no!'"
Luckily for him, his set got better. "It went so well that I couldn't wait to do it again — which doesn't mean it went well. It went well enough," Gulman explains.
So Gulman began performing comedy as much as he could. He left accounting and worked other jobs including waiting tables, as a barista at Starbucks, and as a substitute teacher at the high school he had attended. On December 24, 1998, he worked his last time at a day job — as that substitute teacher — and began a full-time career in comedy.
"Anxiety was this new feature that came about in my late 30s and would be off and on until I was 46. Then it was on."
Today, he performs at sold-out shows all over the country. Sounds like everything was just perfect for him, right?
Well, except for the depression and it's cohort anxiety.
"I had depression probably as early as six or seven years old — just undiagnosed," says Gulman. "I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder when I was 19. Anxiety was this new feature that came about in my late 30s and would be off and on until I was 46. Then it was on. It became unbearable when I was 46, and I ended up in the hospital in the psych ward."
Gulman jokes about something that actually happened when he was admitted. "The first day I was there in the psych ward, I got recognized by another patient," he says. The person also was a fan of his work. "It was very bizarre."
At the time of his hospitalization, nothing was working for Gulman in terms of medication. In fact, in "The Great Depresh," he rattles off the names of all the drugs he was put on at one time that would not alleviate his mental illness.
While there, doctors wanted to try electroconvulsive therapy or ECT on Gulman. (It used to be referred to as electroshock therapy and was often presented as terrifying in movies and on TV.) Now, it's quite a safe procedure.
"I'm not exaggerating when I tell you this — three treatments of ECT when I was in that hospital, and the anxiety was gone and stayed gone for months and months. It came back, and I went back for more ECT and then switched medications," recalls Gulman. "The whole recovery is nothing less than miraculous — except there are like a dozen things that I did that may be the real miracle. But it feels miraculous because I was so hopeless."
Gulman wasn't always so forthright about having mental illness. He admits that when he was in college, he hid the fact that he saw a therapist from his girlfriend for two years. That changed, however, when he began doing comedy.
Gulman wasn't always so forthright about having mental illness. When he was in college, he hid the fact that he saw a therapist from his girlfriend for two years.
He was inspired by the late Barbara Swanson, an esteemed comedian in the Boston comedy community. When Gulman had been performing for only three or four months, he saw her act and she talked about being on Prozac, a drug used to help people with depression and other mental health issues.
"I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, is she brave!' Because I wasn't even telling people whom I was close friends with," says Gulman. At the time, he says, "It was such a stigma."
He decided to make "The Great Depresh" for several reasons.
"One was that I had really good jokes about my illness, and second, I knew how helpful this would be for other people. I felt an obligation to share this story," Gulman says. "I'm sure, at some point, I subconsciously made a pact with God that I would share this if he made me feel better. As a Jewish person, it's part of the ethos ingrained in us since we were young. In Hebrew, it's called 'tikkun olam' which means 'heal the world.'"
Also, Gulman says that it's never been safer for people, especially comics, to talk about their personal lives than now. "There's never been a better time to be mentally ill," he notes. "People are more open to understanding."
At the beginning of "The Great Depresh," viewers see Gulman seeming to not be doing well on stage. But it's not hard for him to watch.
He explains, "It's gold when you're making a documentary about how bad you felt — and you have a video of how you felt. I was thrilled when I was rewatching that video. But here's the thing; when I shot that, I felt pretty good. Like I was feeling better than usual. I had enough energy and will to get onstage. The fact that I was onstage means that it was one of my better days. It just tells you how far I've come because I was much worse than that."
"You become more vigilant in what you need to do to protect yourself after you've fallen so far."
Gulman says his wife, Sadé, recalls a time before they got married when she thought he was literally dying. During his worst depression, he says, "I was just catatonic on the couch and sleeping. When I wasn't walking my dogs, I was asleep or trying to sleep."
Today, Gulman is doing well. In September, his first book, "Misfit: Growing Up Awkward in the '80s" will be released.
"I'm thriving. I haven't had a depressed day — other than a handful — in five years," he says.
Looking back, Gulman says, "I don't know that I needed to fall as far as I did. Maybe I did. But you become more vigilant in what you need to do to protect yourself after you've fallen so far."
What he's learned, he says, can be summarized in a quote by Albert Camus, which is on a bracelet he wears: "In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer."
"It's so good," says Gulman. "I've realized how strong I am."