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Gary Gulman

Comedy | June 23, 2020

Listen to “Gary Gulman: This Impossible Life” on Spreaker.

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, David sits down with Gary Gulman, a world-famous comedian with comedy specials on Netflix and HBO, to talk about the relationship between comedy and the art of living.

Gary grew up with a close relationship to God and was deeply depressed as a child. He thought he would be happy if he mastered something, so he resolved to become a good basketball player, then a successful accountant. But a change in perspective led him to try comedy, and he has since felt much more fulfilled. How does one construct meaning in their life? Does comedy help construct meaning, or have any other value? Can one feel fulfilled if they feel average, or does one have to excel to be happy? And how does Gary’s Jewish identity play into his life philosophy? Tune in to join David and Gary as Gary reflects on his comedic journey and the role it played in finding meaning in his life.

TRANSCRIPT

David Bashevkin:

Welcome to the 18Forty Podcast, where we discuss issues, personalities and ideas about religion and traditional world confrontation with modernity, and how on earth are we supposed to construct meaning in the contemporary world right now? It is such a pleasure and privilege to have Gary Gulman, who I consider a friend. He is a comedian who has been featured on Conan, Colbert, all the late-night shows. He has a comedy special coming out on HBO in October. It is an honor and a privilege to have Gary on here, because Gary isn’t just a comedian, I look at him as an educator and an inspiration.

Gary Gulman:

Oh wow, thank you.

David Bashevkin:

It’s really a joy to have you here. I was wondering if we could start by moving all the way back, before we talk about comedy and some of the unique contributions you’ve made to that world, to tell us a little bit about your upbringing, and particularly the role that Jewish life played in those early years.

Gary Gulman:

Sure. I was aware of my Jewishness starting in kindergarten, there was an after school program, and everybody there was Jewish. I didn’t really understand what was going on with that, that we were this group. I slowly got to figure it out mostly based on holidays and –

David Bashevkin:

Why are we all coming together?

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, and the avoidance of Christmas. Later I went to Hebrew school, and we belonged to a Conservative temple, but my mother would often brag that she was Jewish in name only.

David Bashevkin:

Wow, but she still cared enough to send you to –

Gary Gulman:

Insisted, insisted. My father had grown up what we would probably consider to be at least modern orthodox, because he said that he used to wear tzitzis under his clothes and –

David Bashevkin:

Get out of here. Mister Gulman.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, and a yarmulke. He was – is that possible? Around there, maybe 1923 – He was 18 on Pearl Harbor, so 1923, maybe. Anyhow my dad grew up very religious and observant and went to shul and put on tefillin, and then he must have forgotten just about everything he learned, or wasn’t paying attention like a lot of kids when they go to shul, and he was very insistent that we go on high holidays and put together a Seder, but when I asked any kind of follow up questions, he would tell me things that at the time I believed, but were essentially bubbe maysahs and misinterpretations and –

David Bashevkin:

He was calling back and reconstructing from his own childhood?

Gary Gulman:

Yes, yes. He had cobbled together this version of Judaism which wasn’t that strict, and then I noticed that my brothers undid it by acting up at Seders, and –

David Bashevkin:

Oh, Seder mischief.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, Seder mischief, it’s a slippery slope.

David Bashevkin:

It’s a slippery slope, that’s where it starts.

Gary Gulman:

Then I remember in 2006 I went to a family Seder, and the plagues were represented through gummy candies, and we skipped all the reading in the Haggadah, we didn’t do any of the songs, because my brothers didn’t have the energy to keep their kids from whining, crying, and acting up. Which, when i was growing up, we were so afraid of the belt, and I’m not condoning that. There’s something in between the belt and letting Jewish kids run roughshod. Yeah, there’s something in between there that my father didn’t use, and so I just, I didn’t have that to share with my family, and my relationship with God growing up was obsessive. I would talk to him, apologize to him, and pray to him all day long into 9th and 10th grade, I just really believed he was watching me, and in control, and that all sins would be punished immediately –

David Bashevkin:

It was a very literalist –

Gary Gulman:

Yes.

David Bashevkin:

The lightening bolt.

Gary Gulman:

Yes.

David Bashevkin:

You were like, take cover.

Gary Gulman:

Yes. Yeah, I was really afraid of God, and it may have been a subconscious thing, because I remember whenever I would act up, my mom, if I stubbed my toe or inured myself, she would say, “See, God punished you,” when I was four or five years old.

David Bashevkin:

That seems healthy.

Gary Gulman:

So unhealthy, right? I would pray to God just for – You were also not supposed to ask God for anything much more than sustenance and to live through the day.

David Bashevkin:

Sustenance, very sustenance focused, yeah.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, yeah.

David Bashevkin:

A low bar for what you want to ask for.

Gary Gulman:

Yes, and then –

David Bashevkin:

All the bad was –

Gary Gulman:

Right. Later on in my life I met Christians who would ask God to do well on tests to get into colleges and would ask him for everything, so he was more of a Santa, and my God was this angry, irritable, punishing force, and I think the last remaining component of my Judaism is the Jewish ethic, and the service, and the charity, and the commitment to justice, I think.

David Bashevkin:

That’s what was left.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, that’s what was left, because I took an Old Testament class in college, and found the origin of the Bible was, it turned out it wasn’t-

David Bashevkin:

There’s some questions.

Gary Gulman:

It wasn’t as much history as I had been led to believe at 18, and comedians are so… What I learned early on in my comedy career was that it was very easy to take biblical stories as history and point out the holes in them, and it’s just become, it’s too easy at this point. We can all find –

David Bashevkin:

It’s almost like a trope, you don’t even go there.

Gary Gulman:

So many comedians do it now that it’s like, I don’t want to be another one piling on. There are lessons, there are contradictions, it’s a very –

David Bashevkin:

It’s a minefield.

Gary Gulman:

Complicated, it is a minefield, and it’s a very complicated text to base your life off of, and I often say I’ve cobbled together a religion and a philosophy based on the Old Testament, the New Testament, Kurt Vonnegut, and the Marvel Comics.

David Bashevkin:

What lovely company. I didn’t know you were a comic book guy. Which Marvel Comics?

Gary Gulman:

Well, my first one, and I realize now it was pretty much the Jesus of the Marvel, universe was the Silver Surfer.

David Bashevkin:

So interesting, because I was a DC person.

Gary Gulman:

Oh, okay.

David Bashevkin:

I like the grit, anger.

Gary Gulman:

I liked Batman.

David Bashevkin:

I was a Batman person. I connected, I think he’s the patron saint of struggling with mental health stuff. Batman’s processing all day.

Gary Gulman:

Oh my word, yes.

David Bashevkin:

Batman was always the best because he had the best villains. You’re only as good as your best villain.

Gary Gulman:

Yes, oh my gosh.

David Bashevkin:

How many Superman villains can you even name?

Gary Gulman:

It’s so true, just –

David Bashevkin:

Lex Luthor.

Gary Gulman:

Lex Luthor.

David Bashevkin:

Then there’s a steep decline, there’s nobody after that. You’re only going to be as good as your best villain.

Gary Gulman:

Yes.

David Bashevkin:

Batman’s got this rogue’s gallery of personalities.

Gary Gulman:

Yes, such a rogue’s gallery, yes.

David Bashevkin:

Let me ask you: you said in 9th and 10th grade you were really committed and serious, and then 18 it started to fray in this Bible class. Did something happen the rest of high school, 11th, 12th, that you kind of… It just seemed childish, is that what happened?

Gary Gulman:

No, it never seemed childish, it just seemed that I became disappointed in my parents. They didn’t have any knowledge to provide, and my oldest brother read the Siddur every Saturday, but I don’t know how much… It became a sin in their head to even question God, to be irreverent in any way, and also, it didn’t jibe with my idea of Jews being a group who questioned authority and who parsed and argued over items. God is right, never question God,, and don’t mock certain assertions in the Bible, and don’t point out the hypocrisy, often, of God and –

David Bashevkin:

You were stuck a lot in the written Bible.

Gary Gulman:

Oh yeah, totally.

David Bashevkin:

The Talmud, Talmudic stuff.

Gary Gulman:

Yes.

David Bashevkin:

You never had access to that. That’s where all the irreverence and the questioning and the fighting and the chaos emerges from.

Gary Gulman:

This thing that purportedly was so important to my family, they didn’t do a very deep dive into it, and were high holiday people who put on shuls, and I remember it being… It was very heartbreaking because my father’s wife was very sick, and he went to synagogue while she was in failing health and thought that this was the answer, and I just –

David Bashevkin:

There was a part of you that said, “It’s not going to save her.”

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, I believed God was out there, I just didn’t… I didn’t think that the showing up on the high holiday or any, I mean, I had seen what Job went through. There was such a limited knowledge of the… I knew more than my father, and it might have just been his memory, or you get into a life and you don’t have time to study. I’m a person who’s constantly reading –

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, you’re a voracious reader. It’s a wonder you haven’t finished the Talmud already.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

It’s kind of surprising.

Gary Gulman:

Right, and that’s what always I guess irritated me, that this thing that was supposed to be important – One thing that I found very problematic was, when I would ask why I had to go to Hebrew school, because I wanted to play little league baseball. I didn’t want to go to Hebrew school –

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, and you were a bit of an athlete.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, and my mother’s only answer was, “Your brothers did it, so you have to,” and that wasn’t the answer.

David Bashevkin:

That’s even worse than your father said it.

Gary Gulman:

Right. Instead of going to this thing where I felt I could have learned about this rich history with a better attitude than, I have to be there. I have friends who have said, “You have to get a bar mitzvah,” and they say because of the, this sounds so crazy but it works in some ways to me, “because you are a Jew ,and Jews have bar mitzvahs, and as much as you fight it you can’t escape it. You’re a Jewish person.”

David Bashevkin:

Does that resonate with you?

Gary Gulman:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

The inescapableness of it.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah. For me the reason is, I’m very proud of my heritage and the ethic that’s emerged over thousands of years, and the philosophy of the Jew I find admirable and a viable code for figuring out life.

David Bashevkin:

Mm-hmm. Do you still have an awareness of calendric time? Do you notice what days in the Hebrew, like, “Now is Chanukah time,” keeping that in the back, or the ethic, that universal ethic is what front and center, but you don’t have the nostalgia for the –

Gary Gulman:

Well, I observe Hanukkah and Passover and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but –

David Bashevkin:

Oh.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah. I think those are very… They’re always so timely.

David Bashevkin:

They are, right?

Gary Gulman:

Perfect time to be –

David Bashevkin:

They’re great.

Gary Gulman:

To reflect, and that can’t be a coincidence. The spring, the winter, the new year, these are ideal times to –

David Bashevkin:

It gives a cadence to living.

Gary Gulman:

Yes, it does give a cadence to life, but I wonder how many people are searching for some way to behave, and who are constantly shopping for a code, or an ethic, or a philosophy of life, and I think that’s what turned me off from my family’s attitude toward it, which was that it was –

David Bashevkin:

Behavior code is not great marketing for –

Gary Gulman:

Right, right.

David Bashevkin:

If that’s what’s going to keep you in, oh, this is a code of behavior. That’s going to be hard. I love thinking, because I’ve been bereft of it in my own life, and thinking of, everybody needs some rhythm to tap into. Whether some Jungian archetype that’s going to bind your world, and a starting point where you’re going to begin to construct meaning, and there’s a lot to unearth there, and I feel like, I don’t know if you felt that. In my own life, having had moments of maybe more nihilistic, you know, what does this all mean? I have found great comfort from more historic structure. The structure I find comforting sometimes, in structure itself as a rhythm to keep your day and feel like you’re a part of a larger narrative. It’s so interesting, because you started in a regular, Conservative home in Boston, and you’ve spoken about that you had a period where you thought you were going to be a promising athlete. You showed a lot of promise, and you started off as an accountant. So so far, super Jewish.

Gary Gulman:

Right, that was my first job out of college.

David Bashevkin:

You’re killing it right now, except the athlete part. You started at PWC as an accountant, then you made this switch into comedy.

Gary Gulman:

I actually started doing comedy about a month into my career as an accountant.

David Bashevkin:

Oh, simultaneously?

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, I was doing it at night, and then I would come in the next day, and when you’re young you don’t need as much sleep and you have all this energy, and as long as there’s a comedy club to go perform at, I was there.

David Bashevkin:

Was it exhilarating when you saw that you had promise in the world of comedy, or was a part of you like… I think about my own interests, that I love to write, I write comedy mostly for the Jewish community, and to me, I always look at it as a blessing and a curse, where I’m like, “Uh oh, I enjoy this too much.” I’m not going to be able to have that normal sequential life that a lot of other people comes much more naturally to them, because they’ve never had an area where they could even attempt to be the best in.

Gary Gulman:

I knew right away, and probably even before I got on stage, that I would only be happy if I could do this, if this was my job and my life. When I actually did it, it was so exhilarating that I often compare it to dunking a basketball. Very few people have dunked a basketball. If you’ve ever dunked a basketball it’s –

David Bashevkin:

Correct. Very few Jews have dunked a basketball, it’s an even smaller subset.

Gary Gulman:

It’s so exhilarating, and I remember being 16, 17, 18, through about 25 I was playing basketball regularly.

David Bashevkin:

You were dunking?

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, I could dunk at will and quite flamboyantly, but it’s the closest thing to getting an audience of strangers to laugh, and it’s not that close.

David Bashevkin:

Correct, yeah.

Gary Gulman:

I’ve never dunked in Madison Square Garden, I’m sure that’s more exhilarating than making an audience laugh. That’s a lottery that is –

David Bashevkin:

You’re almost condemned to that. If you’re able to appreciate and elicit that reaction, it’s both joyful and exciting, but it’s hard to walk away from that and then look at balance sheets.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, I remember Alan King say, “Once you get laughs on stage you can’t go back to selling shoes,” which I thought was really clever. And yeah, that’s how it felt, and at this point in my life I’m so grateful, because I get to go around New York City dunking on people all night long.

David Bashevkin:

All day. You have this great line where, I’m going to butcher it, where you say, “We have more Jewish messiahs than we have Jews in the National Hockey Hall of Fame.”

Gary Gulman:

Let’s examine the Hockey Hall of Fame, we’ll count the Jewish players. There are none. More Jews have been the Messiah than have made the Hockey Hall of Fame.

David Bashevkin:

You, to a degree, got to taste that accomplishment, and fairly early. It was nine years before you were able to… How long before you left accounting, before you got real notoriety?

Gary Gulman:

I think I did accounting for three years and then had a series of jobs: barista, waiter, bouncer at a nightclub, and then substitute teacher at my old high school. That was the last step.

David Bashevkin:

That’s the step that I will come back to, but that’s the step I think you’re returning to. You’ve become the teacher.

Gary Gulman:

Yes, yes. That was my path to full-time comedian.

David Bashevkin:

In a lot of your comedy, it’s not a consistent theme at all, and I don’t even know if you agree with the notion of something called Jewish comedy. It has very hacky connotations.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, shticky.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, shticky, Borscht Belt, all these routines that you could finish the line, but you do have these appearances of, both the Jew – when you put the “the” it sounds a little anti-Semitic – but Jewish people pop up –

Gary Gulman:

Only Jews should be using “the Jew”.

David Bashevkin:

The Jew, and also you have the Holocaust that’s come up, you have a great bit that I think was such a well executed Holocaust joke, where you talk about a friend who was trying to find the right words to describe what Hitler had done, and he used the term –

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, “Hitler’s shenanigans”.

David Bashevkin:

“Shenanigans,” he used the word “shenanigans,” which is a great bit, but I was wondering: Do you, and maybe in retrospect or consciously, do you look as Jewish identity informing your comedy, or those are two separate tracks?

Gary Gulman:

No certainly, I think there’s an ethic there as far as… Maybe it’s not “Jewish” the religion but “Jewish” the immigrant, which is to really work hard in your studies.

David Bashevkin:

To prove yourself.

Gary Gulman:

Well, to be prepared, to be hard working, to be industrious, to use your potential… I learned early on that it was important to be different on stage, and in Boston at the time there weren’t many Jewish comedians, and the ones who were Jewish didn’t really talk about being Jewish that much, and I was able to stand out by… I wasn’t even trying to stand out as much as I wanted to be original, and I didn’t want to do jokes that other guys were doing, so I found it easy to have different jokes if I was talking from being a Jewish man rather than what the other guys were talking about. They would talk about their Catholic upbringings, or their Italian, or their Irish, so that was the first part.

I know that I love certain authors who keep coming back to certain ideas. I love John Irving. John Irving usually has certain things, whether it be amateur wrestling, or children, the circus is a big one, bears, things that he keeps coming back to, and with me it’s my Jewish upbringing and my Jewish ideas, and I feel like I remember, one of the things when I first started was, I want to be a comedian I would like to see. I knew in Boston when I went to the comedy shows there was nobody talking about being Jewish, so I knew that I would want to see that. I had grown up, and I was a fan of Richard Lewis and David Brenner, and to a certain extent – There was one album by Jackie Mason that I really connected to, this one called The World According to Me. Later on his politics turned me off, but that album was very special at the time, and holds up partially.

I knew that I had a very… It was easy for me to make Jewish jokes because I had a pretty good knowledge of our religion and our people and certain aspects of it, and I had strong feelings about certain things, whether it be the trivialization of Hitler, or I have been working for years and years on a joke about the use of, especially in sports, of the term “Sophie’s choice”. It was a Sophie’s choice, and that’s always some trade or draft pick, Sophie’s choice. It’s such a lazy and hurtful use of the tragedy.

David Bashevkin:

Do you know where that term came from? Yeah.

Gary Gulman:

I don’t expect you to have read the novel, but the film was everywhere. I feel very competent and skilled in talking about our people, and my experiences, and also the… Some of it I feel bad for, I feel bad about making fun of the athletic…

David Bashevkin:

The athletic ability of Jews. That’s what makes you feel bad?

Gary Gulman:

A little bit, because it’s so funny that they had a collapsible rim at the Jewish Community Center, but I feel like, all right, I’m piling on this thing about Jews not being able to jump high, and I try –

David Bashevkin:

They had a collapsible rim just in case the five foot six year old –

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, but we were 10 year old kids, and I thought it was so absurd, but I tried to make it about the caution that goes into Jewish parenting, I don’t know, I probably wouldn’t do that now. One thing that I am proud of was that I became very angry at anti-Semitism very early, at six or seven years old, and finally in my 30’s I was able to formulate a joke which combined this pride over the contributions of Jews, and also an acknowledgement and a chastising of the hypocrisy of anti-Semitism, where you’re more than happy to try to wipe these people out or denigrate them or humiliate them, but you use all these things that we invented, created, or produced without any kind of reluctance, or even recognize the irony.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. I was wondering, I was listening, you had a very moving interview, I think it was a few years back, on the hilarious world of depression, and you spoke –

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, I think it was October of 2017.

David Bashevkin:

Oh wow.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, two years ago.

David Bashevkin:

Two years ago, and you used a phrase that – You’ve used a lot of phrases that I feel like underneath them have almost religious language, or are coming from, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit, you mentioned on that interview about the fear of being average.

Gary Gulman:

Oh, yeah.

David Bashevkin:

When I think about that, aside from the fact of how much it resonates with me, and so many people I know growing up in the Jewish world, that need for perfectionism and distinguishing yourself, it gets to, not even a Jewish point but a human point –

Gary Gulman:

An American point, I think.

David Bashevkin:

An American point of needing to seek distinction. There’s this book called The Most Human Human, which is about somebody who takes a Turing Test. The Turing Test is basically, you have a conversation via text with computers, and it’s a way to measure if a computer can have artificial intelligence, if the computer can mimic actual conversation. Somebody took this test as a human being to try to see, because you’re talking to computers and you’re talking to humans. One person took this test as a human being to see as the confederate, can the judges, can you fool the judges to know, are you human or a computer? He was reflecting on his experiences, and they asked him, “What do you think makes humans most human? What are the telltale signs, if you’re having a text conversation with judges via text, that would distinguish a human being from a computer? What can we say? What can we experience that a computer can’t?

And he said, “Throughout history we’ve had a lot of ways that we’ve tried to distinguish our humanity. It used to be that we were the best at chess, we’re not that anymore. We were the best at Jeopardy, we’re not that anymore.” He said, “I think humans are the only people who have angst and anxiety about what makes them unique,” almost turning the question in on itself. And I was wondering, I feel like fear of being average to you is like, again, I’m not putting you on the Freudian couch right now, I’m just curious, it intersects with a search for a sense of chosenness, of distinction, of trying to reconstruct and feel like, “I am here for a purpose,” an affirmation of having a purpose in life. Which I feel like, does that resonate?

Gary Gulman:

Well, I think there were probably two things going on, because I had that feeling of not wanting to be average at a very young age, maybe as early as seven or eight, and I think part of it was that I was depressed, and convinced that I was depressed. I didn’t know it was the word for depressed, I just didn’t like myself and I didn’t think much of myself, and I was very sad and lonely a lot, and felt very uncomfortable around other kids. I was convinced that what needed to happen was, I would have to get great at something, and then I would like myself. Because I saw how I responded to people who were great at things, and later it became mostly about sports. I loved basketball, I loved basketball players. If I got really good at basketball, then I would like myself, then people would appreciate and respect me. But I realized, occasionally, but then hopefully finally, after reading Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography. Bruce Springsteen, I forget how old he was, either 58 or around there but older, and he couldn’t get out of bed, he was very depressed.

And I thought, “Oh. It’s not about working hard and being great at something, he’s the ultimate in working hard and being great at something. This is chemical. This is not me feeling bad because I’m not great.” And when I’ve said that during interviews, and I’ve heard back from people who’ve said, “Well yeah, not feeling good about yourself until you do something great, that’s just human.” No, no. There are people who feel good about themselves and enjoy their lives who from the outside you would say, “That’s not a life that would be a compelling movie or documentary, but these people like themselves. They’ve created a family, and a world, and they have their interests, and their beliefs, and they’re happy.” I for a long time had what I needed to be happy except the proper chemistry, but I also feel, when I am healthy, my potential, healthy mentally, my potential is extraordinary. I was gifted with a remarkable amount of sensitivity, enough intelligence, enough confidence, I’m sexy –

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, extremely. I’m happy you said that.

Gary Gulman:

I’m an attractive man –

David Bashevkin:

I was worried you would leave that out.

Gary Gulman:

And I’m living in a time where stand up comedians have an ability to gain audiences quickly, and also that you can have great influence, and you have power and responsibility.

David Bashevkin:

You’re thought leaders now.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

Rightfully so, as I think you should’ve been for ages. I got rejected from a fellowship, I interviewed with a Jewish fellowship. They were very right wing politically, and I should’ve played more to their audience, and they asked me, “Who are your religious role models?” And I said a couple rabbis, typical stuff, and then I said, “You know who really inspires me religiously,” it’s before I met you, I said, “Stephen Colbert.” He is so inspiring religiously. And they were like –

Gary Gulman:

That’s really insightful.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, but I got rejected immediately from that fellowship.

Gary Gulman:

Which is nonsense.

David Bashevkin:

They were not happy with that.

Gary Gulman:

Now I feel like I have this responsibility to use my talent and gifts to diminish suffering, or at least make people feel less alone or better about themselves, or seek help, or address their illness for now. Then I’ll move on to the next thing while keeping mental illness at the forefront of my –

David Bashevkin:

Exactly.

Gary Gulman:

Endeavors, yeah.

David Bashevkin:

When I heard “fear of,” when you said that, “fear of being average,” my first thought was, “The best antidote to the fear of being average is to be great,” and that’s the illness talking.

Gary Gulman:

Yes.

David Bashevkin:

After that I said, “No, there is dignity and joy and meaning to be found in the average. You have to learn to embrace. If it’s only going to be those moments of greatness and you’re living your life chasing that, that’s the illness driving you.

Gary Gulman:

Yes.

David Bashevkin:

I was wondering in that pursuit, you’ve been involved in creative works for a long time. I’ve always been moved by a passage in one of the books of the Bible, the darkest book, the book of Lamentations, which is after the destruction of the temple. And in the third chapter he has this part where he’s screaming out and fighting and being antagonistic to God, and saying, “You’re this bear and this oppressor in my life,” and he switches back and forth of being the source of his oppression versus the source of his salvation. It’s playing both roles. I’m wondering for you, comedy, do you have that feeling that it both can be a source of oppression and a source of salvation, or it’s only one, or it’s only joy? Because in the creative pursuit, sometimes that sense and that need of getting stuck on the greatness of creativity, it can be addictive, quite literally, and I’ve always connected to that narrative of having things in your life that are oppressing you, but are also the greatest source of joy and salvation. So where’s comedy in your life?

Gary Gulman:

I often compare it to my life as an accountant. The whole time I was there I was trying to figure out what the rationale was for it, how I could reconcile it with life, this will be at least nine hours a day plus the commute that I’m dedicating to this thing that I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m keeping track of some numbers for some corporations, and the numbers are meaningless, if they were meaningful then they wouldn’t grant it to a six month in auditor. And then I said, “The ultimate would be to be a partner in this firm, or start my own firm, and the best of that group, what they do is save wealthy people money, or make sure that wealthy people are complying with the rules of being wealthy, and also trying to find loopholes in the rules of being wealthy,” and I did not think that was an ethical manifestation of my gifts. I’m great at math and that’s what I’m using it for. I couldn’t… There was no purpose. There was that… I think it’s, “if you can find a why you can deal with any how,” from Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, and there was no why. Why, this is nonsense. So I can buy a better car, so I can wear jewelry, so all these things that are meaningless to me? I found my family moved by the rich, impressed by the rich, and embracing of the rich lifestyle, and so that was my rebellion.

David Bashevkin:

Comedy was then your salvation, so to speak, of giving you that out.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, that at least I found, initially it was, I would pray to God before every show, “Please let me make the people forget about their problems while I’m on the stage.”

David Bashevkin:

You would say a prayer?

Gary Gulman:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

That’s beautiful.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, before every show. Now I say something –

David Bashevkin:

Do you pray, is that part of your –

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, mostly gratitude and thanking and –

David Bashevkin:

Not in a traditional religious sense you’re not, but –

Gary Gulman:

Right, but I speak in English, and I say, before every show I talk about the miracle of even having this outlet, that stand up comedy exists, that I’ve been given the talent to succeed in it, and that I’ve gotten to the point that I’ve gotten, that I haven’t been passed over like so many great talents have, that I’ve been fortunate enough to get to this point, and thank you to the audience that’s there, and it used to be –

David Bashevkin:

It’s a meditative reminder.

Gary Gulman:

“Please help them forget about their problems,” it became, “Make them feel better about their problems, or feel less alone with their problems,” as I started to speak more about my struggles with mental health, and I don’t know what the next step is. The thing that I’m really obsessed with these days is our values with regards to the poor, and our ideas of strength and masculinity. My next special will be either about those two things, or one of those things. I couldn’t have done it 10 years ago, I didn’t have the skill, but I gave myself a lot of confidence by being able to finally talk about mental illness with humor and make that funny.

David Bashevkin:

You did that a little bit with the economy.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

That’s a nice set, you could find the values in that. You could hear your voice between the setup and the punchline, that’s where you are.

Gary Gulman:

Right.

David Bashevkin:

Taking the audience on that leap.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, that’s a great point. I try to get all my political leanings out in the setup and reinforce them with the punchline.

David Bashevkin:

You quoted Frankl. That’s so funny, when I was getting ready to speak I actually wrote down a Frankl quote. He writes in his book, which was about his experiences through Auschwitz, in Man’s Search for Meaning, and how he constructed meaning in such a dark place. He writes that, “It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human makeup, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds. The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of trick learned while mastering the art of living.”

Gary Gulman:

Wow.

David Bashevkin:

“While mastering the art of living”. And I was wondering: For you, you’ve been in some pretty difficult places. Are you still able to reach and grasp comedy in those places, or is comedy your EKG, that the healthier you are the more comedic you are? How does comedy factor into your art of living?

Gary Gulman:

I am funnier the healthier I am, and perspective and talking about the near fatal accident afterwards, it’s a much safer place and more comfortable place. But I will say that it really resonates with me, because there were times when it did, and he says just a few seconds, and that’s enough, it’s a respite from worry and angst. I remember there was a moment, and we didn’t get this story into the special, but my girlfriend at the time, I’m still with her but I prefer calling her my wife because I’m too old.

David Bashevkin:

She had a promotion.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, so we were late for an appointment for my psychiatrist, and my psychiatrist, while he didn’t cure me in each session, he would give me some tools and also some medication adjustments or things that ma – And he would, he came with hope, and I have the utmost respect for his time and his life. So we were running late. We were going to be late, and so I… One thing that happens to me when I get very sick is I worry about money obsessively, because I think I’m never going to work again and I’m going to wind up homeless, and it’s just catastrophizing that a lot of depressed people do.

David Bashevkin:

Sure.

Gary Gulman:

We were stuck in traffic, it was raining, we decided to take a cab, which I hate to take a cab because we could’ve walked, but it was raining, and we’re stuck in traffic in the cab, and at one point, we did the math and realized if we ran we might make it on time, so we needed to get out of the car right at that point. And as I’m making the decision I’m overwhelmed, and I start crying, and I’m bawling in the back of the cab, and my girlfriend is maintaining her composure. Somehow she grabs my hand, takes me out of the car. We start running down the street, she’s wearing these boots, combatish boots, and an old lady is walking a dog of medium size, and my girlfriend hurdles this dog –

David Bashevkin:

Jumps over the dog.

Gary Gulman:

Yes, because we’re in such a rush, and I started laughing, and at the time it was funny –

David Bashevkin:

It was just a few seconds.

Gary Gulman:

It must have been incredibly funny because I was so dead to the world with depression. That I laughed is a remarkable hurdle, that’s a hurdle, to laugh in despair, but it was so funny and she was so… She’s not an incredibly athletic person in that she doesn’t really exercise as vigorously as I do, but she was a superhero at that point. She jumped over and I started laughing, and it took me out of my misery for a moment, so that Viktor Frankl quote is –

David Bashevkin:

Just a few seconds, yeah.

Gary Gulman:

Amazing.

David Bashevkin:

Now what you’ve done, and allow me to share one other, because it’s always resonated with me. I’ve shared with you how the late great comedian Garry Shandling has been a massive role model, and it’s so interesting at how centered he was regarding religious identity. It wasn’t a Jewish identity, he identified as Buddhist, but he became a monk of sorts. Religious identity was something really, really important to him. He has this quote that he shared in that documentary that Judd Apatow put out, who’s also producing your HBO show that I – The whole documentary, it’s two parts, I found soul shattering.

Gary Gulman:

Me too. Me too, especially the second part. Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

I’m a crier, I’m a heavy crier, but only maybe once a year.

Gary Gulman:

Oh wow.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. But it comes down, it’s torrential.

Gary Gulman:

That’s great.

David Bashevkin:

That was an unexpected cry, thinking of that documentary. He writes over there, he has a line –

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, the letter to his brother.

David Bashevkin:

The letter to his brother, that’s at the very end, but the line that made me think of you and the role that you use comedy in empowering and inspiring others is, he wrote in his diary, “Maybe your comedy is a natural gift to be given to others with joy, to help them through this impossible life, and you sharing it with no desire of getting anything.”

Gary Gulman:

Wow, yeah, I took a screen shot of that when I first saw it, and it’s interesting because I was a huge Garry Shandling fan. For my bar mitzvah my mother took me to see The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and –

David Bashevkin:

As your bar mitzvah present?

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, and Garry Shandling was the stand up act that day.

David Bashevkin:

Wow.

Gary Gulman:

They show a clip from that episode during that documentary, it’s the one where he’s sitting next to Carrie Fisher, and he says he knows her parents, and he says to her, “Do you know my parents Irv and Muriel Shandling?” Which was so brilliant. There’s a part where they talk about all the comedians who Garry helped, and I actually said to Judd, I said, “You are picking up his position as that guy. You’re helping a lot of – ”

David Bashevkin:

He’s always looking.

Gary Gulman:

You’re really inspired by that, and he said, “I’m trying to,” and it was –

David Bashevkin:

Because he sees the healing power of comedy. You see it in everything that he does.

Gary Gulman:

Yes, and something you said about Judd was that Judd loves comedy for comedy, not for show business.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, exactly.

Gary Gulman:

Which I thought was so beautiful.

David Bashevkin:

That’s really, really real. I want to wrap up. We’ve had you here for a while, and it means a great deal that you’ve spent this time with us. I was wondering if, coming back to the question of Jewish identity, if you have any Jewish phrases or texts that you return to as a mantra or as a meditative practice that have resonated or stuck with you over all of these years. It could be not –

Gary Gulman:

Lately I’ve been closing any Jewish show by saying, “Be kind to strangers for we were strangers once in Egypt,” which I think is very timely considering our immigration policy.

David Bashevkin:

Sure. That’s so beautiful because there’s this work, it’s an anonymous work, who talks about the need to remember Egypt is, he literally talks about, that’s being kind to strangers. It means people who show up to a new school for the first time, that’s the stranger in that situation. It’s building that radical empathy. There’s always a stranger in every room you’re in. Sometimes it’s you coming to a party, you don’t know anybody. There’s a radicalness to that idea of looking out, who’s the stranger in this room right here and right now?

Gary Gulman:

There’s another one that I struggle with, and it seems so easy but it’s a very difficult one, and it’s… My friend told me that there’s actually, he was taught a, I wouldn’t say it’s pessimistic because it balances out, but it makes the phrase neutral, really, which is Solomon’s “This too shall pass.”

David Bashevkin:

“This too shall pass,” yeah.

Gary Gulman:

Which is my friend told me, it’s not just, you’re not supposed to just say that when bad things are happening, you’re also supposed to say it when there’s great joy, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, now that is Jewish.”

David Bashevkin:

But there’s something existential, the Sisyphean push that you had just written something like that.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, I’m obsessed with Sisyphus.

David Bashevkin:

No, but I think that there’s something really powerful about that, of building – It’s this story about somebody who’s pushing a boulder up a mountain and it’s never going to get up there, but it’s building a sense of purpose and dignity in that push, in that averageness. Getting it up there, if that’s the only thing that’s going to give you that sense of accomplishment and purpose, you might be missing the point, you’re afraid of the average. Maybe just pushing up against that boulder has that dignity in and of itself.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, there’s a moment in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest where Jack Nicholson tries to tear out this huge console that’s heavier than anyone can budge or lift, and everybody’s mocking him afterwards, and he says, “At least I tried.” I always think that about, because you receive all kinds or criticism and sometimes it’s very cruel and it’s hurtful, but at the very end of this, I can – whether I am considered to have reached my potential as a comedian or I die penniless – I can say, “You know what? At least I tried. I didn’t continue to be an average accountant who saved millionaires some money on their trust funds.”

David Bashevkin:

No, you have students. You’ve already shifted.

Gary Gulman:

I’ve tried, yeah.

David Bashevkin:

Okay. I always close with a few questions. Before that, I’ve always been meaning to tell you: I texted you before your bar mitzvah parsha.

Gary Gulman:

Oh yeah.

David Bashevkin:

There’s this verse that I love, and it’s one of my favorite ones, where it says that they looked at themselves, they were looked at as grasshoppers, and that’s how they appeared in their eyes.

Gary Gulman:

Yes.

David Bashevkin:

And I feel like, when you look at life, and there’s this idea afterwards where, if you look at life with that smallness, and you feel like you’re being put in that smallness, then everything’s going to feel small and petty.

Gary Gulman:

It’s so interesting, because from the time I was 13 until I first started to do comedy with people who were better comics than me, I kept coming back to that. I remember telling a therapist –

David Bashevkin:

You remember the grasshopper line?

Gary Gulman:

I would tell my therapist, “I feel like, the Israelites felt like grasshoppers, and these were giants, and I’m feeling like a grasshopper,” and I finally feel that we’re the same size, that yeah, I’m no longer a grasshopper.

David Bashevkin:

Beautiful.

Gary Gulman:

That’s interesting that that would be the thing that resonated.

David Bashevkin:

Oh I love it, that’s my favorite line in the whole thing.

Gary Gulman:

It’s the best line, yeah.

David Bashevkin:

They were looked at as grasshoppers, and then they’ve convinced themselves that’s all we are. I always ask, and this might be dangerous because you have a bit about this. Your routine: what time do you usually go to sleep, what time do you wake up usually?

Gary Gulman:

I usually go to bed between 11:30 and 1:30, I always wake up between 8:30 and 9:30.

David Bashevkin:

Wow. You’re able to do that even when you’re doing night gigs and in the –

Gary Gulman:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

Oh that’s beautiful. Okay.

Gary Gulman:

My night gigs never keep me out of the hotel –

David Bashevkin:

You’re not taking the 2:00 am –

Gary Gulman:

No, very rarely. It would be un –

David Bashevkin:

You’ve paid your dues.

Gary Gulman:

Unusual, yeah.

David Bashevkin:

If you were given a fully subsidized two years, three years, university stay to write a dissertation, what do you think the topic of your PhD would be?

Gary Gulman:

Wow. Would it be possible to do something on American ideals of strength and masculinity?

David Bashevkin:

Absolutely, absolutely.

Gary Gulman:

I think that would be interesting to examine. It’s so interesting, because I have so many of the physical traits of somebody they would consider a man’s man, yet my emotional makeup and my sensitivity and my philosophy is not that Clint Eastwood.

David Bashevkin:

No, there’s a softness. That’s what makes you so gracious.

Gary Gulman:

On the other side I would want to get in my idea that the vulnerability is the true strength, not the shooting, the vigilantism and the tough guy, yeah.

David Bashevkin:

Final question: What books would you recommend that have impacted your larger, I’m going to call it religious outlook, but you could just call it your philosophical outlook. What is the canon, the religious canon, your personal Talmud of Gary Gulman?

Gary Gulman:

Okay, so I would say everyone should have a, in the Judaeo Christian world, should have a Hebrew school knowledge of the Old Testament, I think it’s just cultural literacy. And I would extend that to, Jews should know the main themes and characters in the New Testament. I think it was a superstitious thing that my parents did by avoiding any talk of or acknowledgement of Jesus. It was so silly that –

David Bashevkin:

I still get nervous when you mentioned him just now.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

I still get a little nervous.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, but if you just look at him as this really successful Jew, it can take away some of that fear of, am I supposed to know about this, am I supposed to discuss this? Because he was, I read Reza Aslan’s Zealot, which was –

David Bashevkin:

Oh sure.

Gary Gulman:

For the historical –

David Bashevkin:

A biography of him.

Gary Gulman:

A biography of Jesus, and it was really interesting, and so I think it can inform your Judaism to know how seriously this guy took Judaism, so that’s very helpful. Man’s Search For Meaning was essential. Also, everything I read by Kurt Vonnegut has informed my philosophy and my ethics, but I would say The Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse-Five are the main texts that you will get everything you need from that. I’m trying to think – John Wooden. John Wooden has a book of his philosophy and ethics, and that was very helpful in informing my outlook on life. Creatively I think Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance was very helpful in me figuring out what to do. My sense of humor was informed mostly growing up by work on Letterman, and later on a TV show called Get a Life by Chris Elliot.

David Bashevkin:

Oh, sure.

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, his –

David Bashevkin:

That’s Abby Elliot’s father.

Gary Gulman:

Yes.

David Bashevkin:

He’s great.

Gary Gulman:

Abby and Bridey, yeah, he’s incredibly talented and –

David Bashevkin:

He’s a journeyman. He’s been –

Gary Gulman:

Yeah, but also, to me, as influential as Andy Kaufman was to a lot of people, I think Chris Elliot was to a lot of –

David Bashevkin:

Didn’t know that. He had a big influence on you. Really?

Gary Gulman:

Huge influence on me, and as I read more and more interviews by comedy writers and comedy performers, they’ll talk about Chris Elliot as an inspiration, he was just –

David Bashevkin:

Well they’re already talking about you that way, they are, and you are an inspiration, truly.

Gary Gulman:

Wow, that’s so nice. Thank you.

David Bashevkin:

You inspire so many, it means a great deal to talk about the art of living together, and comedy, and all that stuff. It means a great deal that you came out to join us.

Gary Gulman:

Oh, it was a pleasure. Anytime you call I love getting together with you. We never run out of things to talk about, which is rare amongst interactions.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, but this really means a great deal, and next time they’ll be food. That’s a guarantee.

Gary Gulman:

We never wind up talking about the weather.

David Bashevkin:

No. No siree.

Gary Gulman:

Or other times we’ve gotten together.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, I pour my heart out to you. You’re the greatest. I can’t thank you enough –

Gary Gulman:

Thanks, thanks Dov.

David Bashevkin:

Signing off. Thank you so much.

 

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