The Radical Comedy of Gary Gulman

screen shot of comedian Gary Gulman, a tall, thin, middle-aged white man, performing onstage in his Netflix stand-up special 'It's About Time'
Gary Gulman onstage in his Netflix special, "It's About Time."

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of seeing one of my favorite comedians, Gary Gulman, perform in Philadelphia. Back in May, I bought three tickets — one for me, one for Iain, and one for Deeky — and on many a rough day the past few months, one of us has said to the other, "Well, at least we've got Gulman in October!" to get us through.

On even rougher days, his stand-up specials have been among the things to which I turn that can reliably buoy my spirits.

It says a whole lot about the kind of comedian that Gary Gulman is that I knew, after weeks of being submerged in writing about Brett Kavanaugh and the suffocating memories his abuses evoked, going to see Gary's show would be like surfacing for air. I trusted that I would feel safe, and that I would laugh, and so I did.

What I didn't expect was just how much his new show, "Must Be Nice," would mean to me.

* * *

We got to the theater a bit early, picked up our tickets, and went to the bar to get a drink. As soon as the glasses were in our hands, there was Gary Gulman, standing in the lobby as people from the earlier show lined up to meet him. The line was short enough to give us a decent chance of squeezing in a hello before the second set, so I walked over and took a place at its end, where Iain and Deeks joined me.

As I've mentioned many times before, I am by nature a painfully shy person. I'm not the kind of person who waits in line to meet people, because I am awkward and introverted, but I wanted to tell Gary how much I appreciated his comedy. I wanted to say thank you, and that felt like it was worth getting over my shyness to do.

So when I got there, I introduced myself and I thanked Gary for his work and told him how it got me through writing about these dark times. He was gracious and friendly and gave me a hug. I asked if we could take a picture together. He said sure, and he leaned down so that Deeky could get us in the same frame, because Gary Gulman is 6'6, and I am 5'2.

Tall men usually make a joke about how short I am, to make me feel even smaller, and I hate it. Gary Gulman didn't do that. He's the kind of tall man who makes people around him feel taller.

* * *

Some of the material in "Must Be Nice" will be familiar if you've heard Gary on John Moe's terrific podcast "The Hilarious World of Depression" — which I highly recommend. On his episode, Gary shares some of the important benchmarks of his journey with depression and anxiety, which also feature in his new show, crafted into something that is both comedic and dramatic, in perfect measure.

Maybe it doesn't feel harrowing, if you haven't experienced anxiety or depression yourself. It felt harrowing to me, hearing about how hard Gary has fought for himself, for his mental health. It felt harrowing even as I laughed, because it was familiar and because it was validating. Here was the most intimate of profoundly stigmatized life experiences turned into broad observational humor. We can all relate to this, right?

If not, you were invited to understand. (And expected to listen.)

Other comics have talked about depression and anxiety before, about being neurotic, about being in therapy. It's well-explored territory. But like much humor that marginalized people mine from their own lives, it's frequently been self-deprecating — the jokes made at one's own expense and the severity of the harm minimized to make the jokes palatable.

Gary's set felt different. It wasn't the self-deprecating humor of a person with the internalized shame of being mentally ill, carefully drawing lines between their own mental illness and people who are really crazy. It was the humor of a vulnerable person who is fighting to survive with every tool in the drawer, including humor.

That felt raw and radical and rare to me.

I knew I was watching something very special indeed when Gary told a terrific joke, just perfectly crafted and exquisitely executed, about a college football coach coming to his house to offer him a scholarship, seeing only his outside, the body that looked like a football player's body, and not seeing his inside, the being who still slept with his baby blanket, which rested on his bed in the next room.

Watching a man talk about the full scope of his humanity, in this particular moment, was moving. Gary Gulman is not a political comedian — but striding across the stage with his broad shoulders and long legs talking about being vulnerable was a deeply political act in a country where there is underway an aggressive referendum on how the powerful, animated by a sickening malice, regard those without their privilege.

In a time of wanton harm, Gary Gulman stood on a stage for nearly two hours and talked about navigating the world as a profound empath; about living with mental illness; about seeking treatment; about healing; about self-care. With jokes!

Great fucking jokes.

* * *

Let me just be abundantly clear, lest I make "Must Be Nice" sound like some kind of shitty TED Talk: IT WAS SO GODDAMN FUNNY AND I LAUGHED SO MUCH.

Gary Gulman could have told fart jokes for 90 minutes, and I no doubt would have come away completely satisfied. But he didn't. He did something remarkable. So I wanted to remark upon it.

Having built a career at the intersection of politics and feminism, I've spent an inordinate amount of time being disappointed recently. It feels pretty great to have an occasion to share a little joy about my expectations being exceeded.

* * *

I don't know if Gary Gulman regards his new material as radical. Even if he does, I suspect it wasn't designed that way. I suspect he is telling us about his mental illness and his fight for wellness because he needs to talk about it.

Which is part of what makes it feel so meaningful to me.

Over the last three decades, I've loved stand-up comedy, and I've watched an endless parade of talentless dipshits hackily crafting ancient bigotries into predictable punchlines under the auspices of being "edgy." They don't have anything original to say, and they don't even know enough about their own art to understand that they're about as radical as sensible golf trousers.

Gary Gulman has something to say which is worth listening to, and that he's saying it in this way in this moment makes it edgier than all the comics in all the bad jackets in front of all the brick walls telling all the jokes about women amirite?

In a time of institutional cruelty perpetrated by people who don't care if we fucking die, jokes told with kindness about survival are radical as fuck.

And I am here for it.

I am here for it as a fellow traveler with anxiety, who has chewed her lip until it bled. I am here for it as a fellow empath, who sometimes feels like she's a raw nerve walking through the world, unable to escape feeling everything. I am here for it as someone who can't help but be exactly who I am, and hope every day that it's enough.

And I'm here for it as a fan, who loves to laugh. Who loves to make other people laugh. Who needs laughter to survive.

* * *

Gary Gulman is on tour now. If you can get to one of his shows, do yourself a favor and go go goooooo.

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