If you’ve experienced depression, you’ll recognize its description instantly: sleeping all day, lacking the energy to do your hair and, when it’s severe, having trouble speaking, not being able to work and experiencing suicidal thoughts. Comedian Gary Gulman knows what it’s like to live with depression and doesn’t mince words about it in his latest comedy special, “The Great Depresh,” and it may just be the most relatable comedy special about mental health ever.
Gulman, a veteran of the stand-up comedy world with three previous comedy specials and performances on just about every major late-night TV show under his belt, is back with his first TV special in almost four years. But it almost didn’t happen.
Gulman said he has experienced depression and anxiety since he was a child. In 2015, however, he had a severe major depressive episode that derailed his life for more than two years. When he performed during that time, he said he couldn’t avoid addressing his mental health. It turned out, being very candid about what he was going through resonated with audiences as well.
“I wanted to keep doing stand-up because it was it was therapeutic when I started to feel a little bit better, but I was still very sick and it was showing physically,” Gulman told The Mighty. He added:
My hands were shaking, my voice was very shaky and strained … I had to acknowledge that something was off and the most comfortable way to do that was to do it through some jokes. The feedback I got pretty quickly after I started opening up about the illness and the depression and the anxiety and the way I was feeling, the interaction afterward with audience members, was so encouraging and so supportive.
That early stand-up material about his mental health became the seed that grew into “The Great Depresh,” which will air ahead of Mental Health Awareness Week Oct. 5 on HBO.
“The Great Depresh” covers a lot of ground that will sound familiar if you’ve ever seriously struggled with your mental health. He delivers a powerful (and hilarious) comeback to all those worried about antidepressant side effects who forget the reality that some symptoms of mental illness that can kill you. His descriptions of spending time in a psychiatric ward normalize the experience — it’s just a hospital, after all. And you might just come to a new realization: It’s “classic depressive thinking” tricking you into believing you can “achieve” your way out of depression.
— (((GARY GULMAN))) (@GaryGulman) August 28, 2019
Gulman even explains how electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) was critical to his recovery from depression. Gulman wasn’t sure how jokes about ECT would be received onstage since it’s still a very stigmatized mental health treatment.
“The ECT I really expected everyone to be either horrified and avoid talking about it or tell me that I was I was wrong to talk about it in positive terms,” Gulman said. “But until today, literally today, I hadn’t heard a single person who came up to me after a show who didn’t have something positive to say about the experience either a loved one or a patient had with ECT.”
Though it’s considered a safe procedure that is highly effective for treating depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, some people can have bad experiences with ECT. Most often, people who receive ECT cite difficult short- and long-term memory issues after getting treatment. However, as Gulman said of his experience, others do find the benefits of ECT far outweigh the side effects.
“ECT saved me from non-stop feelings of depression and suicidal thoughts,” Mighty community member Ashley Owens previously said. “I had memory loss of events that happened right around a treatment, such as seeing a movie. Other than that, my memory seems pretty well intact.”
For Gulman, talking about his painful experience with depression and anxiety may have started out as a necessity to explain what seemed “off” during performances. The material then transformed into a hybrid comedy special and documentary that candidly captures the reality of struggling with your mental health. Where other performers may have skated across the surface of experiencing a mental health issue, Gulman digs in and the result feels authentic, relatable and funny.
“While it was painful and agonizing in the midst of it, it’s actually a pretty interesting story,” Gulman said. “And it can be funny because there were funny or ironic things that happened along the way.”
I moved back to Peabody, MA when recovering from my Depression. This is what the room I grew up in looked like when I returned. I wrote a lot of the Special on that bed. #TheGreatDepresh premieres on @HBO THIS Saturday Night 10 PM. Tell your friend!@juddapatow @mbonfiglio2000 pic.twitter.com/cOKX7X1m2A
— (((GARY GULMAN))) (@GaryGulman) September 30, 2019
After getting some advice from his manager, Gulman worked with Judd Apatow, who serves as executive producer, and director Michael Bonfiglio to design “The Great Depresh,” a 75-minute comedy special that intersperses documentary snippets in between Gulman’s stand-up set to show more of his journey to recovery.
“I’ve been a fan of Gary’s for a long time, and seeing the depth of his struggle, and how he was able to come back from it, is remarkable,” Apatow said in a statement. He added:
I feel that Gary’s ability to speak openly about his battle with mental illness will not only bring audiences tremendous laughter and joy, but also open up dialogue about something that is often difficult to talk about. Mental illness affects every one of us in one way or another, and with ‘The Great Depresh’ Gary makes it easier for all of us to talk about it.
Now that Gulman’s depression is largely in remission, he has many routines to support his mental health. This includes seeing his therapist, psychiatrist and taking medication. It’s also about a solid self-care routine, which Gulman said always must include exercise as well as intentionally planning ways to get out into the world and connect with others. He also addresses all the basics included in the 12-step H.A.L.T. acronym, which stands for “hungry, angry, lonely and tired.”
273) A wise woman I met at a meet slash greet taught me about
When my mood feels off I ask myself “Am I H-ungry, A-ngry, L-onely, or T-ired?”
Then I try to do whatever I can to address it. I’ve added “Have I exercised and meditated today?” #GulManTip #WriteNow
— (((GARY GULMAN))) (@GaryGulman) September 28, 2019
Gulman said he is looking forward to “The Great Depresh” premiering as it represents the culmination of several of his goals, from getting a special on HBO to making an impact on others with his story about mental health.
“I’ve been told by it by people that it makes them feel less alone to hear me talk about it. And beyond that, I’ve heard people say that it gave them hope that they can get better, because I was so far down,” Gulman said. He added:
It seems surreal. It’s been a dream of mine for a long time to be on HBO and in this way. But more importantly I’ve always wanted to use my experience with depression to help people who are suffering because it just seemed like a way to redeem it and use it as a source of strength rather than just something that took two and a half years of my life away.
“The Great Depresh” airs Saturday, Oct. 5 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO. You can watch the trailer below.