Stand-up comedy and depression are no strangers to each other. Numerous comedians have discussed their struggle on and off stage, to the point that director Kevin Pollak made a documentary about the subject, “Misery Loves Comedy,” which stars Jimmy Fallon, Jim Gaffigan, Larry David and others.
In his new HBO special “The Great Depresh,” Jewish comedian Gary Gulman discusses mental illness more candidly than perhaps any comic ever has, and the result is more than an hour of comedy that is simultaneously dark and full of life, serious and extremely funny.
The special, which is interspersed with conversations with Gulman’s mother, therapist and wife, opens with a clip of Gulman performing in Boston in 2017. In the clip, Gulman appears defeated, and informs the audience that he has a severe mental illness, and that the performance “feels like a cosmic bottom.”
Throughout the hour, Gulman explains how he got to that point, how he was able to recognize that he needed serious help and how he has been able to recover.
What separates “The Great Depresh” from other comic observations about depression is the comprehensiveness and honesty with which Gulman details his lifelong struggle. In one segment, Gulman discusses playing for his synagogue’s basketball team, and the sadness he felt when he underperformed in a game against his junior high team. “I felt I’ve let down every Jewish person,” Gulman said. “I have let down Sandy Koufax, and Dolph Schayes, and Garry Shandling, and Bugs Bunny.”
This is a funny bit, and some comedians would stop there. But Gulman subsequently describes how he contemplated taking sleeping pills from his mother’s medicine cabinet after the game, and the devastation he felt when he felt like he wasn’t living up to his own expectations. It is this back and forth between humor and honest discussion of despair that makes “The Great Depresh” so interesting.
Gulman has discussed depression in previous specials, but never explicitly. In his 2016 special “It’s About Time,” Gulman lists antidepressants and refers to them as “whatever you use to drive over the bridge without getting out of the car.”
This joke is dark, and you can tell based on Gulman’s reading of these drugs that he has taken them before, but the joke uses the word “you.” Gulman chooses not to focus on himself. In “The Great Depresh,” he again lists antidepressants, but this time he tells the audience that these are all the drugs he has taken in order to attempt to recover from his sickness.
A refreshing part of “The Great Depresh” is how Gulman describes his recovery process. Gulman admitted himself into a psychiatric ward as part of his recovery, and rather than stigmatize this hospitalization (which Gulman accuses pop culture of doing), Gulman praises his experience. This is part of Gulman’s philosophy to encourage other people struggling with depression to seek help.
“I hope (people) realize the seriousness of depression and that it’s a life-threatening illness, but also that there’s hope, and there’s so much treatment,” Gulman said in an interview with The Wrap. Gulman describes a period of months where he could hardly get out of bed. By the end of the special, Gulman is shown shooting free throws in a park on a sunny day as the credits roll.
This is a nice metaphor to end the special. Gulman’s special could not have been made without the assistants and the grips and the producers, and Gulman says he would not be where he is today without his mother and his psychiatrist and his friends and his wife.
After all, Gulman says in the special, “if you are suffering from a mental illness, I promise you, you are not alone.”
This article was originally published in the Washington Jewish Week, a Mid-Atlantic Media publication.
Miller Friedman is an editorial intern at the Washington Jewish Week.