In the comedy special, executive produced by Judd Apatow, Gulman speaks to his lifelong struggles with depression and anxiety, the rock bottom he hit, when he felt like he had lost his battle with mental illness, and the journey of recovery in which he engaged, to reclaim his life, get back up on stage, and tell others struggling that they are not alone.
For the comedian, writing and performing The Great Depresh initially felt like a big swing. Addressing his experiences with electroconvulsive therapy and psychiatric hospitals, Gulman feared early on that these subjects were perhaps too niche. “I was cautious about talking about that on stage, because I was not only concerned that audiences wouldn’t like it. I thought that it may make me look like I was too sick to work with,” he admits, “that perhaps people would say, ‘Oh this guy is not reliable and stable.’”
Fortunately, he found that these fears were misplaced. Released last October, the special connected immediately with viewers, taking on even more resonance over the last five turbulent months.
Below, Gulman and Apatow reflect on the “high-wire act” of vulnerable comedy, the importance of addressing mental illness in storytelling, “poisonous” myths surrounding artistry, and finding hope in dark times.
DEADLINE: Gary, tell us about the moment when you were coming out of the worst of your depression, and you decided not only to go back to comedy, but to talk about your experiences in a new special. How did you come to that decision?
GARY GULMAN: I think it was out of necessity that I started to address my condition, because when I first started to feel well enough to get on a stage, I knew instinctively that I’d feel better if I was able to get out, and be around comedians, and get on stage.
But it was so clear that something was wrong with me. I had terrible tremors, and I had this habit of biting my lip to the point where it would bleed. Also, I wasn’t taking care of myself. I wasn’t shaving; I looked in rough shape. So, I felt I needed to address what was wrong with me right of the bat, and then I could get into making jokes about sweet potato fries.
I would tell a story about being recognized in the psych ward, and initially, it was, “Oh dear Lord, when I tell people this, they’re going to be horrified, and I’m going to lose them.” And then it became something I looked forward to telling every day, because the laughter was riotous.
People would laugh at this idea because it’s so absurd, but that was a true story. And I remember I said to myself [early on], “If I ever get out of this, if I’m ever able to return to stand-up comedy, this will be one of the first jokes I tell.” Because even in my condition of hating myself, I said, “This is funny. This, people will laugh at.”
So, that’s really how it started. I just got more and more confident in talking about it, and as I felt better, I got more and more encouragement from people saying, “It really moved me,” or “It really resonated with me, when you talked about being depressed and anxious, and even hospitalized.” There were people who would come up to me and say, “Wow, that was really helpful to me in feeling less alone.”
DEADLINE: You were particularly anxious, early on, about speaking to your experience with electroconvulsive therapy. Why was that?
GULMAN: Electroconvulsive therapy has been stigmatized and made people very scared over the years, just from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and other examples in pop culture. I remember I would say, “Can I get people to laugh at [that]? Can I get people to not be uncomfortable or disturbed by that?”
So, I brought it up with the director of the special, Mike Bonfiglio, and my manager, and they assured me that if I was comfortable talking about this, it would be a very brave act, and it would help a lot of people. Once I heard that, it was months of writing, and trial and error on stage, before I got jokes that actually worked about electroconvulsive therapy. But I must say that it was worth it.
DEADLINE: Regarding your ECT treatment, it’s that old adage, right? The more specific your story is, the greater its potential to connect with people on a universal level.
GULMAN: Yeah. That’s so interesting because I first learned about that, or it was first expressed perfectly by Emerson in “Self-Reliance,” that the specific is more universal. It sounds like a contradiction, but it’s so true. I’ve found that the things that resonate with people the most, especially in this special, were the things that were so specific, and I thought were only in my world, and it was really edifying.
DEADLINE: Judd, how did you get involved with the special? Why was it one you had to get behind?
JUDD APATOW: I had been doing stand-up at The Comedy Cellar in New York, and would see Gary perform all the time. He is a brilliant comedian, and someone that’s very highly respected by all the other comedians. I heard that he wanted to do a set on this topic, and I was very excited about him pursuing that.
I’m always a big supporter of people who want to go as personal as you can go. I think that when people open up, they can make a very deep connection with the audience, and it also does make it way funnier when somebody doesn’t hold back. I knew that he was so hilarious that he would find a way to make this material relatable and funny, but also touch people deeply, and that is what he pulled off.
DEADLINE: Did you know each other well prior to working together here?
APATOW: We didn’t know each other well. We had chatted extensively at the table at The Comedy Cellar and had a fun time getting to know each other, but we got to know each other much better through the process of making this special. One of the things I’m lucky that I get to do is to use whatever belief people have in me, and my opinion, to try to put attention on people who I think deserve it, and on performances and ideas that might get neglected. This, to me, felt like a very important special, and we were able to get HBO behind it in a big way, and I think that’s what was so rewarding about it for me. I wanted a lot of people to see what Gary was doing, and that happened.
DEADLINE: What would you say you enjoy about working with each other, now that you’ve had that experience?
APATOW: I like working with Gary because he’s fearless in his willingness to look deep inside himself, to explore his feelings and experiences, and turn that into comedy and storytelling. He’s also a really kind person who cares about the work, and also his relationship with the audience. He knew that this would be important to people. It’s a real lifeline to people, to know that someone that they admire, who makes them laugh, had a similar experience and survived it, and is thriving, and that makes this work so meaningful.
GULMAN: Working with Judd, there are a few things. One thing that was so helpful in his work on this special—and you can see it in every film and television project he’s worked on—Judd is a hilarious man. He’s very funny, but every project he works on, there is a poignancy and a heart to it. He was able to find where we could inject that in the special, and without being maudlin or sappy, or too sentimental, he just has such a gift for that.
The other thing that I admire about him so much—he’s such a great mentor in this way, and my rabbi put this so well—[is that], “It’s so clear that Judd is not in love with show business. He’s in love with comedy.” And that is so important to me, because this wasn’t about becoming famous. This was about telling a true story with heart, and making it funny, and I don’t know of anybody who does that better than Judd right now.
DEADLINE: After filming The Great Depresh, and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, you quickly went on to put another whole act together. Do you feel like you came out of the worst of your depression with a kind of creative charge?
GULMAN: Yeah, I think there are a couple of things going on here. One is that overcoming this challenge gave me a great deal of confidence, and the idea that if I can overcome this, then I can overcome a lot of difficult things. But the other thing—and I tell this to people who are even experiencing a low-level depression or anxiety—is, you’re walking around the world carrying a huge anchor, and once you feel better, and address your mental health, and are tenacious about treating it, then you will lose that anchor, and you will walk faster. You will jump higher, you will think clearer, and you will be more creative.
There’s this myth that artists need to be depressed to create—and we have plenty of depressing experiences to draw on, once we’re healthy enough to write about it, and perform or release what we’ve written. The idea of needing to be depressed is a myth, and it’s a dangerous one. It’s poisonous.
DEADLINE: What do you feel is the importance of addressing mental illness in comedy and in storytelling, particularly in the times we’re faced with right now? More depictions of it have come to the surface in recent years, but historically, it’s a subject that has often been swept under the rug.
APATOW: I’ve always been endlessly fascinated with my mental health, or lack thereof. [Laughs] I’ve been a therapy and pop psychology junkie since my early 20s; it’s really helped me a lot. Some of it started when I met Garry Shandling, and he gave me this book called Transforming Problems Into Happiness. The premise of this Buddhist book was, when you have a problem, you should think, “Oh, great. I get to work on something,” and I feel like that was a life-changer for me.
There hasn’t been an enormous amount of film and television on this subject. Before working with Gary, I worked with Chris Gethard on an HBO special called Career Suicide, and then after Gary, I worked with Pete Davidson on The King of Staten Island—and I felt like all those projects were related, because it was people being very open about their trauma, and their struggles, and their journeys, and I feel like it makes people feel like they’ll be okay.
When we have great art and comedy and storytelling on this subject, it does become a lifeline for people, and it’s funny that I’ve felt so drawn to artists who want to discuss this. It may be as a result of being a parent, and seeing how stressed out young people are these days. It’s a very difficult time to grow up. There’s a real lack of stability with COVID, with the President, and the civil rights struggle, which is so important. So, I think we only need more of this. It really is very helpful to people during a very challenging time.
DEADLINE: As you noted, we’re passing through a very strange and difficult moment right now, with the pandemic, and everything that’s followed. It feels like a moment of collective trauma, which is making many people’s mental health worse than it might already be. What is it that gives you hope for the world, even in the darkest of times? What advice would you impart to those who are struggling?
GULMAN: I think as far as hope, I’m so impressed with this young generation. I feel ashamed because I think when I was in college, I was trying to get rich, rather than trying to enrich the community, and trying to make a difference. We were content, and we were convinced that the answer was to just take care of ourselves.
So, I really admire this young generation for the risks they’re taking. I mean, they’re literally risking their lives to make changes, as far as racism and civil rights, at a time when everybody would understand if they said, “Well, we’re just going to stay home. It’s too dangerous.” There’s this intersection of all the things that need drastic improvement in our country, and they’re coming together at this time, and I really believe in my heart that there’s hope.
But [in terms of] things that people can do during this time, to maintain or recover their mental health, I really look at my mental health the same way that people do in 12 step programs. I’m in recovery from being very depressed, and so every day, I make sure to exercise. I always tell people, “Go on a walk for five minutes, and inevitably, you’ll want to walk longer. The hardest thing is overcoming the inertia.” Then, I say, “If you’re in therapy, continue with that, and be very committed, and be open with your therapist about how you’re feeling. And if you haven’t tried therapy, now is a great time to do it.”
I think there’s a health crisis in two ways right now. One is the COVID, of course, but I also think people are struggling with their mental health. I think that’s something that our government has failed to address for too long, and I think it’s going to hopefully be something that people are starting to take more seriously.
DEADLINE: Have you been able to find ways to stay creatively engaged while sheltering in place?
APATOW: Sometimes, it’s difficult to access your imagination when there’s so much happening in the world, and it feels important to stay up to date on the events of the day—which are always changing, and usually not for the positive. So, I have found that if I wake up in the morning, and I don’t read the paper, and I don’t look at Twitter, I can buy myself the morning, before I get too stressed out.
You know, I have to choose times to check in on the news. If I shut it off around dinner time the night before, and don’t check it in the morning, I might be able to disappear into my imagination. And now that my press tour for The King of Staten Island is coming to an end, I’m putting some time aside every day to live in a fantasy land, which is important.
DEADLINE: Gary, earlier this year, you struck a deal to write your first book, titled K Through Twelve. How is the writing process going? Are you working on new stand-up material now, as well?
GULMAN: Yeah. My process with stand-up over the past several years has been to talk a lot of stuff out on stage, record it, and then transcribe it, and then make adjustments and add things. So, I’ve been able to catch up on so many tour dates that I hadn’t had time to listen to. That’s been really helpful, but mostly, I’ve been working on my memoir of my experiences from grade school and high school. That’s been great, but it’s another case where I have this challenge, and I have to tell myself, “You’ve felt inept and incompetent with things before, and you’ve overcome it. So, just ride this out.” I’m starting to turn a corner now, so I feel really good about what I’ve written so far.
DEADLINE: Judd, you mentioned The King of Staten Island. You were forced onto an unusual path with that film, given that it was set to premiere at South by Southwest in March, and then the world shut down, leading you to release it on VOD. How do you feel about this outcome, in hindsight? It must be nice to see that your film is providing solace to people during this time.
APATOW: I was happy that we were able to get it out. You know, we certainly could have waited till it was safe to put it in movie theaters, and we love that experience. But as this pandemic developed, I thought, “Oh, this is why I made the movie, to bring people some joy and comfort in their lives. So, it would be strange to hold it back.” I also thought the movie was about trauma and sudden loss. It was about first responders, and how families deal with losing a loved one, and in a weird way, maybe this movie was destined to come out in this way, at this moment.
I feel like the reception has been great, and it does feel like an enormous amount of people have seen the movie. I keep joking that I think the people who didn’t want to see it now have so run out of things to watch that they’re going to watch it. [Laughs] The people who don’t like any of my work are going to give in because they have burned through every Real Housewives episode from every city in America.
But Pete was very brave to even attempt a project like this, so I’m very happy for him that it paid off. I look forward to making movies for the theater again, but what I have learned through this process is, you never know how you’re going to be distributed in the world anymore. So, you do have to be flexible, based on what’s happening out there.
DEADLINE: The Great Depresh has generated substantial Emmys buzz. What does that mean to you?
APATOW: I’m happy for Gary. When these projects are done, they never seem like they’re as big a risk as they were. It all seems so effortless when it’s done well, but it is a high-wire act, to take your personal story and trauma, and try to turn it into something that’s both entertaining and funny, but intimate. You have to be very willing to be vulnerable, in a way that is almost unimaginable to most people, so to get acknowledged for pulling that off is really wonderful.
GULMAN: Early on, when I first started to write The Great Depresh, and it became clear that this was the show—that this would be an hour of talking about depression—I said, “I want it to get on HBO. I want a lot of people to see it.” But knowing how I get when I perceive failure, or feel that I’ve been discouraged or frustrated, I said, “You have to come up with a different success metric.” And the success metric was, do I help the people in my audience tonight? Are they going to feel less alone? Are they going to feel more hopeful? Are they going to feel better?
With that success metric, I’ve been successful since I started writing it in 2017, because people were feeling better after seeing this. So, this is just the sweetest frosting, that it had gone onto HBO. Winning an award for it would be a dream come true, but not necessary to my continuing mental health. Having said that, this is surreal, that I’m even in consideration.