Gary Gulman will try to tell you that he’s not an intellectual comedian, and with some of his best known bits centering around cookies, the Karate Kid and yogurt containers, you might be inclined to believe him.
But when in conversation with him about comedy and his career — which includes a long string of memorable late night talk show appearances, two hit Netflix specials and a celebrated routine about state abbreviations — the thought that he invests in his material, and his commitment to craft, are readily apparent.
In our discussion, Gulman — who performs at the Newton Theatre, June 16, and at the Stress Factory in New Brunswick, Sept. 27-29 — talks about his comedy beginnings, grades himself as an accountant, addresses being a “comic’s comic,” and gets around to asking some questions of his own.
Q: If I said that I knew a person who went to Boston College on a football scholarship and made Dean’s list every semester, and then I said I also knew a person who was a substitute teacher and lived with their parents until their late 20s, someone might ask me who those two people are. But both of those people are Gary Gulman.
A: [laughs] I know! I contain multitudes!
Q: When you went to B.C. did you have a specific plan, or did you attend college simply because you thought it was a good thing to do?
A: A little bit of both. I was influenced by my family’s practicality and the fact that we grew up pretty poor. Having security and a good job were definitely in my head, and my brother was a successful accountant, so I gravitated to the business school. It was well respected and the graduates would get jobs.
Q: You were headed for a white collar life.
A: Definitely. I got an accounting degree and knew I was going to be a CPA like my brother, but I suppose subconsciously, and sometimes consciously, I believed that I would become a comedian to save myself from that torture. Early on in my freshman year I started thinking about becoming a standup because I was usually the funniest person in our group, or at least the wittiest. I thought I had a knack for it, and felt that there was a naturalness to it for me. But in my sophomore year I had my first girlfriend, and when I told her I wanted to be a comedian she scoffed and told me it was unrealistic. So I sort of put that dream to bed until my senior year, when I resurrected it, except this time with a college degree.
Q: Did you ever work in the accounting field?
A: I worked for what is now PricewaterhouseCoopers (one of the world’s most prestigious auditors) for about a year and a half, while doing open mics and low paid shows at night. I was unmotivated and inept at accounting. I was very weak.
Q: Because you had no passion for accounting?
A: No passion, no concentration, no anything. Part of the job of an auditor is to go to businesses and ask for paperwork, and then go over that paperwork with people who already had jobs that didn’t involve me. I was asking them to do extra work, which I felt was provoking anxiety in them, and I was not an assertive person in that way. I was consciously anxious about approaching these people. I enjoyed them, and I enjoyed making my co-workers laugh, but I hated the actual work.
Q: So you were working a buttoned-up job during the day – your career opportunity out of college – and spending your nights doing comedy. Were you a closeted comedian amongst your co-workers?
A: I started the job only about a month before I began doing comedy, so it did take a few months before I was telling people that they should come see me. Which, honestly, was such a delusion now that I think about it – that I was actually good enough to let people I knew see me do comedy. I got laughs and I did pretty well, but looking back now on the material, it was … abominable. It’s embarrassing to think about some of the things I did to get the oxygen of laughter.
Q: You do know that it is my sovereign duty to ask you about that material, right?
A: Oh, I know. Okay, well … I did an impression of Seinfeld and Kramer in an argument over a basketball game. Kramer calls Jerry for charging, and they have an exchange. I did a De Niro impression. I mean, if I were to see that comedian today, the old me, I would be aghast. I would be so turned off by him.
Q: Now here you are, almost 25 years later.
A: Yes, Oct 8, 2018 will be my 25th anniversary in comedy.
Q: Over that time, you’ve come to be recognized as a “comic’s comic.” It’s a term that can be interpreted a lot of ways, but I always read it as “Excellent comedian, admired by his peers, because he hasn’t made enough money for them to hate him yet.”
A: [laughs] Oh, that’s a great way to put it!
Q: So how do you feel about being one?
A: Well, there is that exact connotation of having success, yet a lack of success, especially financially. I don’t think I could handle being a rich comedian who wasn’t respected by his peers. I think that would undermine me, and drive me mad. Knowing my personality, I think I would be the type of rich comedian who would feel compelled to put something out that would make people see me as a serious artist. I also wouldn’t be able to be a “comic’s comic” who had to bomb for years to attain that standing. I wouldn’t be able to bear that. I’m too sensitive.
Q: Well luckily for your spiritual well being, you have a righteous claim to that label.
A: [laughs] I’m grateful that I found a course that would find me respected by comedians, in an art form for which I have the utmost respect. One of my favorite quotes is from Tobias Wolff. He said, “We know what is sacred to us when we recoil from impiety.” I find that to be true with comedy. When I see it done poorly, without respect for the art form, it enrages me. [laughs]
Q: You are a good friend of Dane Cook, someone who famously sold out Madison Square Garden multiple times in a day. You played the Garden with him. When you see that type of success in such a tangible way — when it’s that close — do you develop a lust for it?
A: Oh my gosh, sure. If you’re a human then you pine for that type of success. It’s incredibly exciting and validating and vindicating and I’ve been close enough to it to see what fun it is, but it’s a long shot just to earn a living in this business. It’s exponentially more difficult to have the success of a Dane Cook. There are only a handful of people who have ever experienced that. So yes, I yearn for that type of recognition at times, but I don’t dwell on it too much, thank goodness, and it hasn’t become a white whale for me, or anything like that.
Q: Because both longform comedy and your way of expressing things is somewhat unique, do you find that you have a refined audience?
A: I have actually found that my audience and I have the same exact tastes. We both think that I’m very funny. [Robert laughs] I’m grateful for the following that I’ve cultivated over the years. On a recent tour I was doing 300- to 500-seat theaters instead of age-21-and-over comedy clubs, and I would see all ages. One night I met an 11-year-old boy who came to the show with his parents and it reminded me of the time my father took me to see Jay Leno at the North Shore Music Theater in Beverly, Mass., when I was 16. We were both dying from laughter that night! It also reminds me of all the times I would watch “The Tonight Show” with my mother and comedians would come on. She took me to see Johnny Carson for my bar mitzvah when I was 13, and Garry Shandling was a guest. It was incredible that they not only had a comedian on the day that I was there, but that it was someone as great as Garry Shandling. I met him years later and told him the story, and he was very gracious.
Q: Comedy excited you that early on?
A: Definitely. Carrie Fisher was also on the Carson show that night, but with someone doing standup, nevertheless Garry Shandling, I couldn’t have given a shit that Princess Leia was there. And I loved “Star Wars”!
Q: Enthusiasm for Shandling’s comedy is usually associated more with adults, and older sensibilities. What was it about him that did it for you, at the age of 13?
A: Well, I had actually never seen him before. It was just wonderful. He was so funny and self-deprecating. He was also very edgy, but soft in that you weren’t afraid he was going to hurt you, physically or through his words. That was and has always been my type of comedy. I admired Eddie Murphy and Sam Kinison and guys like that, but I related more to Garry Shandling.
Q: So early on, did you consciously say to yourself, “This is what type of comic I will be, and what type of comic I won’t be?”
A: From the beginning, I knew that above all else, I wanted to be a comedian that I would like to see, and that meant someone who talked about things that I was interested in.
Q: Your audience loves hearing you talk about those things, even as you take the long road in doing it. Why did you choose longform?
A: It came out of working in Los Angeles, where I wasn’t really getting onstage much. I would write almost every day, and I learned that it was much harder to get a new joke to work than it was to improve an older joke that already worked. I found myself adding to jokes that were working, and it was easier to try them out in the few opportunities I was getting onstage. So longform came out of necessity, along with the fact that I loved it. I love that style.
Q: It does have a high degree of difficulty, though, both in practice, and in getting large audiences in this day and age to pay attention for that long.
A: Yeah, it’s kind of impressive. [laughs] Sometimes I feel that I get laughs just because it’s so drawn-out and people are impressed by the skillful attempt.
Q: Do longform comics like yourself view your brand of comedy as a high honors class, and telling jokes as something more intermediate?
A: I don’t often think about it, but when someone does bring it up, I will sometimes give myself credit and say that there is a higher degree of difficulty with what I’m doing. But there are guys who get the same amount of laughs and same pitch of laughter from telling one liners, and that’s really difficult too. Very early on someone introduced me to the quote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” I adhered to that for awhile, and even now I would tell you that laughter is the oxygen any comedian breathes during a set, and I put a lot of jokes in my set that keep me oxygenated. I’m working on a new hour, and I was recently able to take something that was a little over a minute long in the summer, and turn it into something that is around 25 minutes long now. So I actually find it easier to build an hour out of longform.
Q: You’ve said in the past that you are obsessed with words, but I think your work also has a great deal of occupation — if not preoccupation — with practicality. Whether it’s a poorly designed yogurt container or a failed approach to defeating Daniel LaRusso in a karate match, you often point out the impracticality of things.
A: I’m a combination that’s really bad for life, but good for comedy, in that I’m both very sensitive and very irritable. [Robert laughs] I’m constantly feeling things, and then becoming irritated by the feelings I get. So with the yogurt cup example, just the entire execution of the Yoplait container is irritating and infuriating and has bothered me since its inception. From a comedy standpoint, the good thing was that no one else had gone on a rant about it.
Q: I’m always impressed by your comedic bravery — your willingness to remain silent onstage for what feels like long periods of time. You sometimes receive very little back from the audience on something that maybe should have brought more, but you stay the course to serve the bigger joke. It seems to require an impressive amount of self-assuredness. Would you describe yourself as either a secure, or insecure person?
A: I was incredibly insecure, and I still am. The thing with the long spaces, though, is a contradiction. I think the best example is probably in the abbreviation of the states joke, where I had to be prepared for certain nights when I would be raving in the dark. I knew that for extended periods of the joke, no one would be laughing. It’s great when I digress and they laugh along with the digression, but the digression is an end in itself in that it takes away attention from the main argument. So, when I return to it there will be a revelation and a release of tension and I get a laugh there. Because I had done that joke so many times in front of audiences that I believed in, and because it had received so much praise from comedians I respected, I developed a defiant attitude about it. The audience might not have been laughing one night, but I believed in the joke so much, I knew there were points within it where I would win them back.
Q: Were there nights when you didn’t win them back?
A: There were a few nights here or there, but I developed the approach that if they didn’t laugh, the audience just didn’t get it, or didn’t get me, and that would be fine. I would live to fight another day. [laughs] But I will say, there were times in my career where I couldn’t go 10 seconds without a laugh. I talked so fast and the punchlines were so on top of each other that I never really let the set breathe. So what you are talking about is something that I really matured into. It’s something I had to build up the confidence for.
Q: You mentioned that other comics appreciated the state abbreviations joke. The most notable public endorsement came from Patton Oswalt after he saw you perform it on the Conan O’Brien show. Did you feel a tangible bump in attention and recognition from his tweet about the joke?
A: It had a few million views previous to that, but it received several million more afterwards. Above all, it was just the greatest praise you would want from a fellow comedian. When we went to commercial, Conan said it reminded him of Bob Newhart, which blew me away because Bob Newhart is as smart as it gets when it comes to comedy. And then that was such validation from Patton, and it came at a time when I was feeling down. I was very depressed when Patton said what he did, but I had a really good day that day.
Q: I don’t mean to deny you your individuality as a performer, but I’m sure you have both direct and peripheral influences. You’ve mentioned Shandling and Newhart thus far, but was Steven Wright on your radar at all? I feel like he might be in there somewhere.
A: Oh sure, certainly. I listened to I Have A Pony (Wright’s acclaimed 1985 standup album) dozens of times as a teenager. So I am very familiar with his delivery and his style of jokes, and any bend I take towards absurdism probably originated from my listening to him.
Q: To say the least, Wright didn’t deliver his punchlines dynamically. There are also times that you don’t. You don’t seem to mind if something you’ve written slips by an audience.
A: The most influential movie in my life, as far as comedy goes, is “Young Frankenstein.” The idea in Mel Brooks movies is that you convince yourself while you’re watching them, that no one else but you would find them funny. The joke is for you. But there are 6 or 7 billion people on the planet, so there are probably thousands of other people who find it funny. I take great joy in leaving a few things in the set that will barely get a laugh or a faint smile, but then people quote them back to me on social media. I leave those in there because they become so memorable to people, and oftentimes they cherish those jokes the most. To hear, “It’s as if he wrote it just for me” is a great feeling.
Q: I interview a lot of musicians, and even though some of them obviously miss the days where they could make money selling records, others are happy to be off the record company hamster wheel so to speak — where they would have to write and go on tour, over and over again. Bob Dylan once wrote “You have to serve somebody.” Does a standup like yourself have any masters to answer to, or do you solely decide when you’re going to write and tour, and at what pace?
A: That’s interesting. Well, do you have anywhere to be? If you don’t, I have some questions for you.
Q: I can assure you that I have nowhere to be. [both laugh]
A: Okay, so what was the period in history where musicians were required to write quickly and then tour?
Q: Generally speaking, it happened on a small scale in the ’50s, took hold in the ’60s, but most of the artists I am talking to engaged in it when that type of culture was at its peak, between the ’70s-’90s.
A: And then what changed?
Q: The biggest turning point was when the internet arrived, and turned the way music was sold and distributed on its head. The profit went out of recording, and put a lot of these artists on the road in order to earn the living they had been accustomed to. Some of them feel liberated by that, because they are no longer forced to write on deadline.
A: So in the past they were touring to promote the album?
Q: The vast majority of the time.
A: Alright, and Bob Dylan said you have to serve somebody. What do you think he meant by that?
Q: I think he meant that no matter what your occupational stature is, or how much money you possess, you still have a boss, somewhere. A few years ago I saw Mick Jagger do an appearance on Letterman, where he was reading some goofy Top 10 list. He’s nearly a billionaire, and one of the most famous males on the planet, but he was out there pining for laughs like a dancing monkey. [Gary laughs] I later read that the Stones had received a massive deal of some sort, with loads of upfront money. So Mick had to promote something contractually, when he probably wanted to be in the south of France with a model and a bottle of wine instead. He took the money, and had to serve somebody.
A: Oh, wow. Okay, so … who or what am I serving? There are a number of things. And my practicality comes into play here, because I need to earn a living, and in order to earn a living, I need to tour. I can live fine, believe it or not, off the royalties from my recordings that get played on Sirius and Spotify and places like that. I would be okay.
Q: Wow. I’m happy to hear that, but it surprises me greatly.
A: Yeah, I certainly wouldn’t be in the lap of luxury, and I wouldn’t be able to afford an apartment in Manhattan, but I would be fine. But to maintain a level of comfort, I need to tour. Awhile ago, Louis CK recognized that thanks to the internet, the audience does not want to see you do the same jokes they saw on your special. Although, I have to say that I get the biggest response at the end of a show when I take requests for some of my older material. So maybe that contradicts what I just said. [both laugh]
Q: I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. You can be right about both.
A: Two (television) specials ago, I happened to have a lot of new material written that wasn’t in the special — about 45 minutes — and I felt wonderful because it was strong and the audiences hadn’t heard it and I was able to go out there and not feel self-conscious while performing it. But after the last special, I had to come up with stuff quick and it wasn’t as good as the other post-special material, and that wore on me. It made me feel guilty and lazy and uncreative. It was troublesome for me. It put me in a pretty deep depression, to the point that I didn’t take any work between March and June, which is unusual for me. Making that decision contradicted my need to make a living, and I had to conserve and curb my spending.
Q: So a number of things dictate the pace of your work.
A: Yes, so the masters I sort of serve are my desire to earn a comfortable living, but also the audiences, and my idea of what is good comedy. I don’t want to cheat them, and I don’t want to sacrifice my integrity and go against my judgment of what good comedy is.
Q: What was the struggle that caused your depression? Would it be too easy to simply call it writer’s block?
A: It was writer’s block, and it was a desire to try to outdo what I had done. I mean, I don’t know if I’ll write anything as good as the abbreviations joke. That was something that took me 20 years to perfect. It’s actually imperfect, but it took that long to get it as good as it is now. So that weighed on me. I was preoccupied with the notion that the next thing I wrote had to be great, and it’s almost impossible to go about things that way. I put immense pressure on myself, and lost my process.
Q: There is a happy ending to the story however, or at least a happy now.
A: Yes, at the moment I am touring over an hour’s worth of new material. It may not get as much attention as the abbreviation joke, but I believe it’s as strong and as interesting, and at least as original. I feel really good about it. It was beneficial to get off the hamster wheel for a little while.
Follow Gulman on Twitter: @garygulman
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This interview originally appeared on Robert Ferraro’s website, ofpersonalinterest.com.