Gary Gulman: Putting The Funny Back in Painfully Funny

2000 years ago a lean Jew with a gift for analogies died for the sins of mankind and reshaped the world in the process. While not nearly as historic or dramatic, two thousand years later at a low point (in this writer’s opinion) for the art of stand up comedy, a lean Jew just turned his suffering into a comedy special that may save comedy-kind from its own downward artistic trajectory.  I am speaking, if you missed the title of the blog, of stand up comedian Gary Gulman (full disclosure I am friends with Gulman and have been a huge fan and deep admirer of his comedy for the last 15 years. But the friendship is not of the nature that I would lie if his new special was less than great. I would be silent if I felt like what I saw was mediocre or even merely very good). What I saw Saturday night in Brooklyn (this will contain no spoilers as far as material) was as important a special as there has been in the last decade. But its importance does not merely stem from its deep dive into Gulman’s mental health struggles, which give the framework to The Great Depresh. Rather, it stems from the fact that it is hilarious. In this age of cop out one man shows, mediocre stand ups elevated for their social media followings or podcast metrics and teary confessionals being praised as great comedy, despite the paucity of laughs, Gulman has offered definitive and hilarious proof that stand up comedy can still be used to turn pain into laughter, and not just applause and whispers of “how brave.”

When I arrived at Roulette on Saturday there was a long line (I was attending the second show). As my girlfriend and I (she bought the tickets – I was offered comped tickets, but in this age of “gimme free content” I believe in paying for great musical, comedic and pornographic artists) approached the entrance Judd Apatow exited the building (he is producing Gulman’s special for HBO).  I briefly contemplated kidnapping Apatow (he was only surrounded by three women, all of whom I think I could take) and demanding he produce a special for me, but I thought better of it.  When we got to our seats (the balcony – we were too late for the lower level) and it was the only time I was disappointed the whole night.  The leg room was a tight fit, which felt ironic because Gulman, at 6’6″, is the patron saint of tall comedians (apologies Brad Garrett).

Only drawback to the show was doggystyling the guy in front of me #TallProblems

Without discussing any of the specific jokes I can tell you that Gulman’s set, running about 70 minutes, started with an upfront admission of his recent mental health struggles.  I actually briefly feared that he was going to do a one man show confessional (I was the Doubting Thomas to Comedy Jesus), but within a minute he was into classic Gulman. It almost played like a comedic biopic, where the movies starts a little before present day to showcase the low point, but then we go back to childhood and work our way forward chronologically.  It was all the language and in-depth story telling that are signatures of Gulman’s brilliant comedic style, but applied almost exclusively to autobiographical material (if Apatow is reading this I would like to nominate myself to play Gulman in the biopic or limited series).

So the show was an A. That’s the easy part. When a great comedian takes his game to a more personal level it should not be surprising when it is great.  But what made me happiest, as someone who cares about stand up, is that this special will re-set the current standard for personal pain as great stand up. No longer should we have to choose between good comedy and teary confessional spoken word as two branches of stand up – stand up comedy requires laughs and Gulman’s latest proves that a truly great comedian need not sacrifice laughter for truth and depth.

And on another note I think this is exactly the special that HBO needs.  They have been in a particularly long drought (with exceptions for Michelle Wolf’s strong special a few years ago), which is painful for a network that gave us Chris Rock, George Carlin, Dave Chappelle and others. Netflix now has a gluttonous chokehold on specials (but seriously Netflix – call me, I’m really good and need the money), but with Amazon inking a deal with Jim Gaffigan and now Gulman delivering a masterclass for HBO perhaps the prestige can return to HBO, or at least loosen the Netflix monopoly.

So hopefully my “Comedy Jesus has come to save comedy and HBO” has not set the expectations too high for Gulman, but on an equally serious note for Judd Apatow, if you don’t want to cast me as Gulman in a limited series (though please consider my tour de force sketch as Gulman in Comedy Academy Episode 3) my other thought is developing a movie with Gulman and Jon Bernthal playing brothers (Gulman is the big sensitive brother, Bernthal is the ex-military jerk who gets kidnapped and requires his large, but gentle and cerebral brother to save the day. Hilarity and life lessons ensue). I think it’s comedy and cinematic gold!  But if not, at least Gulman and Apatow are going to give the world a great and needed comedy special.

  • Dartagnan

    Gulman rocks. Curious why you think this is a low point in comedy right now?

    1. J-L Cauvin

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I know that there is a lot of money and content flowing in comedy, but stand up comedy is really where I meant it being a low point. I think there are a lot of spots at clubs being taken up by YouTubers, podcasters and celebrities instead of stand up comedians. The economics for lesser known comedians have never been worse in many ways (it’s no longer a sustainable career if you are not at elite level or grandfathered in with corporate/club work). But from an art stand point – I think there is this increasing praise and emphasis for work that is less funny and more “brave.” Whether it’s one man show or spoken word type specials being passed off as stand up, I feel like specials like Gulman’s new one are so critical to show that all topics can be made into stand up, but they should still have to abide by the same rules (not in format, but in laughter as the main and constant reaction). Stand up should be more than calling yourself a comedian and getting people to applaud honest talking.

  • Ray Wisbrock

    This was incredibly well written and informative without giving spoilers. As a bonus, it offered poignant insight on what passes for comedy in terms of “confessionals’ where nobody is laughing. Some of these so-called comedians may have something to say but if they’re not making people laugh, they aren’t comedians.

    Also, I think it’s cool (if not painful) that you passed on the comp seats. It certainly gives your review an air of legitimacy. Definite;y looking forward to this special coming out and seeing Gulman next time he swings through Chicago.

    1. J-L Cauvin

      Thanks very much! (now go kill time before Gulman’s next tour by streaming my albums 🙂 )

      1. Ray Wisbrock

        Where do I find them? Also, I’ll be sharing your column on my FB page and with the Chicago comics FB pages. I think your message regarding comedy needs to be comedy needs to be heard loud and clear.

        1. J-L Cauvin

          Thanks for sharing. All of my albums are on all the streaming platforms (Pandora, Apple, Tidal and the terribly paying Spotify) – Thots & Prayers and Keep My Enemies Closer are my best but can’t really go wrong with any of them.

  • Dartagnan

    Gotcha. Yeah, I can totally see that. It’s true a lot of social media celebrities are getting put up and clearly shouldn’t be on stage. Not because people don’t like them – obviously – but because on a comedy stage you have to be funny and good and that is craft. Since people came to see COMEDY.

    Seems club owners though are trying to keep the doors open to some degree by doing this.

    So in their minds, the bottom-line is more important.

    I’ve even heard this happens at the Comedy Store.

    I don’t know much about the economics of a comedy club but they have to be pretty thin I’d imagine – you probably know better.

    1. Brian Kemmett

      You mailed the review. I saw Gary honing the material near Boston a week before the special was recorded. He was honest , funny and made depression easier to look at and address. Talked to him after and he was nice as he is funny. He proves nice guys don’t finish last. Thanks!

      1. J-L Cauvin

        Thanks for reading!

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