he head coach of the Boston College Eagles football team [a few] years prior had coached Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie. And then two years later he was recruiting a future participation trophy advocate…” says Gary Gulman, in his new HBO special, The Great Depresh, his candid reflections on growing up with depression in the ’80s, when being told to “snap out of it” was the cure.
The special relaxes the conversation about depression with self-deprecation and unflinching candor and offers a fresh, substantive perspective when it feels like more people than ever are offering self-help advice.
Gulman, BC ’93, debuted on television in 1999 on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and made a career touring comedy clubs and late shows with Stephen Colbert, David Letterman, Seth Meyers, and others. He filmed multiple stand-up specials and made guest appearances on Inside Amy Schumer and The Pete Holmes Show.
He is one of Boston College’s most laughed-at alumni, and unlike his classmate Amy Poehler, BC ’93, who created the fictional Parks and Recreation town, Eagleton, to mock BC’s elitism, his story in The Great Depresh harkens back to the University’s more humble days.
He’s outspokenly grateful for his BC education, and his spot in the Class of 1993 wasn’t guaranteed with alumni donations or letters of recommendation. In fact, he almost didn’t even return after his freshman year.
Gulman was given a scholarship to play football at BC coming out of his senior year of high school. He grew up playing basketball—“It’s the only sport you can play by yourself,” he says—and although he received some interest from D-III schools like Bowdoin College, he didn’t think the sport was going to afford him the opportunity to go to college.
Standing 6-foot-6 in high school, Gulman’s presence was commanding. There were two assistant coaches at his high school: twin brothers who told Gulman that if he played, he would get a football scholarship to pay for college. He agreed and dominated on the defensive line during his only year of high school football.
“I was being told by college football coaches that I was going to be great at this, and I cautiously believed them or let that override any doubts I had,” Gulman said.
He arrived on campus for preseason in the summer of 1989 and was initially put at defensive tackle. But after strength and conditioning tests—bench press, squat, 40-yard dash, etc.—Gulman’s tall, slim frame made him a candidate for a position at tight end. The coaches told him that his best shot of playing was as a freshman. But Gulman was struggling with something bigger than earning playing time in his second year of his football career.
“There were learning resources for student-athletes which at the time was run by Kevin Lyons, and Kevin Lyons has spoken to us during preseason camp and he told us if we had any problems to come see him,” Gulman said. “One day, after practice, I went to him with what I now know that are symptoms of severe depression. And he told me about his friend, Dr. Tom McGuinness.”
McGuinness was a counseling center director for 39 years before retiring and becoming assistant vice provost. In his time at University Counseling Services (UCS), McGuinness led an initiative to centralize services into Gasson—there were once counseling services outposts in Campion and Fulton—and to refocus how counseling operated within the University.
When he arrived, counseling was considered an extension of academic advising. Some of the counselors were academic advisors, performing “personal counseling,” which dealt more with adjusting to campus and less with mental health. Over the years, McGuinness made counseling more clinical, eventually hiring full-time psychologists and refocusing counselors’ attention on the psychological needs of students.
But McGuinness was just starting his tenure as UCS director when Gulman showed up to his office on that day in August. He offered an air of stability as Gulman toiled in the cruel summer heat, playing an unfamiliar sport on an unfamiliar field.
“I mean, he was like a father to me during college,” Gulman said. “There are whole years of my life where I couldn’t tell you many specific details, but I can remember conversations I had with that man in his office. Not a day goes by where I don’t think of some of the wisdom imparted on me, or a moment or a situation I shared with him.”
When classes started, Gulman got into a routine and enjoyed making friends who were not on the football team. But once the newness of the school year wore off, Gulman felt similar to how he did in August.
“Every day, I would go to class, and I had early classes,” Gulman said. “Then I would nap before practice. The nap wasn’t really to refresh myself or anything, it was just to avoid my life. It was a depression nap, it was really deep sleep. It was problematic. And then I would go to practice.”
As a non-starting freshman, he served as a member of the scout team, which runs the plays of that week’s opponent against the Eagles’ starters in practice.
“We would get manhandled by guys who were four and five years older than us,” Gulman said. “It could be pretty grueling, and the practices were pretty intense. I knew I had to do it, I didn’t see any way out.”
Even though the coaches were impressed with Gulman at the beginning of the year, by midseason he realized he wasn’t going to end up starting, at least that year. So he turned his focus to academics, which he felt to be the one area over which he had some control, and in which he took a bit of pride.
At the end of the semester, after getting crushed by starters every day after class, Gulman had one of the highest GPAs on the team.
“Despite not performing well on the football field, I felt I could hold up my end of the bargain by being a good student and perhaps raising the GPA of the team,” Gulman said.
Around the same time, McGuinness referred him to a psychiatrist off campus. UCS did not have its own at the time, so Gulman traveled to Newton Centre, where he was prescribed Nortriptyline, an antidepressant which, he said, made him feel like himself again for the first time in a while.
Gulman returned in January feeling better but had to face the cruel reality of offseason workouts—waking up at 5:30 a.m. to walk in below-zero wind chills to lift weights every morning.
During the spring season, Gulman began to feel as if he wasn’t cut out for college football. McGuinness, who told him he usually doesn’t give advice, told Gulman to quit the team.
But he still felt an obligation to the team. So Gulman, a practicing Jew at the time, prayed to God for a sign to quit the football team. That spring, Gulman got moved to the offensive line and was struggling to maintain the weight needed for the position.
“Glenn Foley was the quarterback at the time and who went on to play in the NFL for a number of years,” Gulman said. “He got blindsided because I missed the block, and coach Jack Bicknell was so furious that he came across from the other side of the field and he laid into me.”
It was the sign Gulman was asking for, so he went into Bicknell’s office the next Monday and told him he was quitting the team. Bicknell felt horrible, asked Gulman to reconsider his decision, and even called Gulman’s father in hopes of convincing him to stay. But Gulman’s mind was made up. He finished the semester with good grades again, except for calculus.
But without football, Gulman couldn’t keep his scholarship. He left Chestnut Hill after finishing his freshman year, unsure if he would return.
Determined to get Gulman to return for his sophomore year, McGuinness and Lyons told Rev. J. Donald Monan, S.J., University president at the time, that they were willing to resign if Gulman’s scholarship wasn’t honored for all four years.
“[Lyons] called me and he says, ‘You’re good, you’re in, you’re staying,’ and I jumped for joy and I was so, so thankful,” said Gulman.
ou came! You actually came,” Gulman says as he opens his special. “Thank you. It was a long time since I shot my last special, over four years. The reason why is I got very sick with ‘the Depresh.’”
Gulman has been performing stand-up comedy since 1993 and appeared in the spotlight just at the turn of the millennium, performing on Jay Leno in 1999 and David Letterman the year after that. He finished in third place in the second season of Last Comic Standing in 2003 and toured throughout the country before filming his first special with Comedy Central in 2012 called In This Economy. Stand-up comedian Jimmy Pardo said Gulman was among the best with “Brian Regan, John Mulaney, and Maria Bamford.”
He filmed his second special, It’s About Time, in 2015, and appeared on Conan performing a joke that is one of his most watched on Youtube, with 1.3 million views called “Gary Gulman on How the States Got Their Abbreviations.”
“They thought it was going to be easy because Alabama lulled them into a false sense of security. They said ‘Alabama, AL, holy crap this is easy.’ … ‘What’s next?’ ‘Alaska, everyone cool with AL?’” says Gulman. “… By the time they got to Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts followed by Minnesota, Mississippi, and Missouri, shots were fired. So they did what any savvy business would do—they brought in a contractor. I’m sorry not a contractor, a contract-er.”
The joke was a hit, but Gulman was still struggling with depression. He was hospitalized in May 2016.
In 2017, he appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert with a self-deprecating routine involving his day-to-day life with depression, and joked about how little motivation he has to perform basic tasks like doing laundry and waking up before 3 p.m.
“Gar, I said, I’m very gentle with myself, just brush your top teeth,” he said.
The audience loved it, but Gulman was still at war with himself internally. He was hospitalized again in 2017 and went on a hiatus from stand-up comedy, appearing as a fictionalized version of himself on HBO’s Crashing.
In 2018, he began doing a few sets of stand up and sent an audio recording to his manager, who suggested Gulman do a special about depression. Gulman said he didn’t have an hour of depression jokes, so his manager, Brian Stern, proposed a stand-up hybrid that would allow Gulman to tell his story of his battle with depression.
Stern reached out to Mike Bonfiglio, who had directed in 2017 Jerry Seinfeld’s special Jerry Before Seinfeld, which intertwines stories of Seinfeld’s childhood at his home with stand up about childhood.
“We wanted to make something that was first and foremost funny,” Bonfiglio said. “That was the most important goal. And then the secondary goal was to try to destigmatize mental illness, destigmatize some of the treatments that Gary had, to make something that would help people be comfortable in talking about these issues.”
Bonfiglio directed Gulman’s special with a similar structure as Seinfeld’s, but with a more serious tone. The Great Depresh begins with a grainy video of Gulman at the Comedy Studio in Boston, somberly describing his depression.
Later, Gulman is shown sitting at home with his mother. A picture of Gulman in his BC football uniform as a freshman marks the cutaway. His mother holds up photo albums with pictures of him.
“See how happy he was,” she says. “I mean, come on.”
“This is a book I made in second grade called The Lonely Tree,” Gulman said as he read the laminated picture book he made in elementary school. “To anybody with just a small amount of psychology knowledge, this was a cry for help, an allegory.”
In this one scene, Gulman makes the audience laugh and addresses the larger problem younger generations face in asking adults for help. Sometimes adults just don’t notice, and while unfortunate in the moment, by looking back and laughing about it, Gulman compels his audience to be more willing to ask for a hand and to lend one.
Much of Gulman’s authority comes from being the only one brave enough to take initiative and talk about depression so personally. The conversation he has about depression in his 75-minute special isn’t of the vague, removed vein of previous generations. By taking the reins and addressing the reasons his own depression was so pestilent, Gulman has changed the tone and focus so that more people can laugh, cry, and speak up.
Gulman doesn’t arrive at a fix-all solution for depression, but that’s not what he sets out to do. Rather, the larger gesture of examination serves as a testament for others to prioritize their well-being, to keep a sense of humor, and to keep trying.
“In 2017, I thought about transitioning out of comedy, but then I started to feel a bit better and do some comedy,” Gulman said. “I wrote new jokes and they were different, and I was encouraged by a quote of Samuel Beckett’s: ‘Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.’”
The response he’s received since the special’s debut in October has been more than enough to convince Gulman to stick with his comedy.
“I did comedy for 24 years, and I would, I would kill with my joke, but I never got a standing ovation,” said Gulman. “I never had people crying in line when they met me. And after I started being this vulnerable and this honest on stage, I started to get the standing ovations regularly after shows, and people waiting in line for over an hour. ”
Photo Courtesy of Gary Gulman