If you’v ever eaten ice cream with a fork, idolized Trader Joe’s, or thought “Hey, thank a Jew for that invention,” Gary Gulman is about to be your new favorite comedian. Understated and witty, his sharp observations on the smallest of life’s adventures will have you laughing out loud. Already a Gary Gulman fan?
Gary is one of the most popular touring comics today and one of only a handful of comedians to perform on every single late-night talk show. He marked his 20-year anniversary in stand-up with his “It’s About Time” tour, selling out theaters throughout the country, and he just completed an HBO special based on his most recent tour, “The Great Depresh,” set to air on October 5, 2019. It’s no wonder the New York Times wrote, “Gary is finally being recognized as one of the country’s strongest comedians.” And he does all this with an act that isn’t racy or full of expletives.
Gary credits his unique brand of “clean comedy” to a number of influences from his childhood, including growing up in the small town of Peabody, Massachusetts (outside Boston), with a traditional Jewish upbringing. “My dad grew up very religious and probably would be considered Modern Orthodox. I was brought up attending a Conservative temple in the early 70s, where my two older brothers and I had our bar mitzvahs. Passover was always my favorite holiday because my father would run the Seder for a large group of people. It was very special.
“Now I’m more culturally identified, but I still observe the High Holidays, attend Seders, and light the candles at Chanukah. I don’t spend as much time praying in Hebrew as I used to, but I do have a personal relationship with the Lord…although I speak to Him in English now,” he says with a laugh.
On his decision to do “clean routines,” Gary shared that he just has an appreciation for clean comedy. “My father never swore. He never blasphemed. He never made ethnic slurs. My father really was very pure and very impressive in his manners and his composure.” Gary does swear occasionally, but is still jarred when he hears it in public, and really appreciates comedians who are esthetically pleasing. “It’s better to be clean. If you even swear once on an album, the album gets a label of ‘explicit content.’ And being clean isn’t any more of a challenge. It’s just part of my overall philosophy.”
“The other thing going on” to influence his comedy style, Gary explains, “was that my mother and brothers had very good taste in comedy. We watched SNL every week when I was growing up, and whenever there was a comedian on a talk show, especially on Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas, my mom would call me in to see whoever was on at the time. My all-time favorite comedian was David Brenner. I loved his comedy style.”
In fact, Gary met David Brenner when he was doing the warm-up set for his first Tonight Show appearance in 1999 and Brenner was also there doing a warm-up set for an HBO special. “We started talking, and that was the beginning of a great friendship. He was my first favorite comedian, and he was very influential on what I thought was funny. He really turned me on to observational comedy, which is my favorite kind of comedy. I also watched a lot of comedy movies when I was growing up—Chevy Chase, that sort of thing. People would call it a hobby now, but I was obsessed with comedy.”
Gary first started writing down jokes when he was a sophomore in college, but even before that, he says, he would just do funny stuff with friends. “Whenever I thought of something, I’d write it on a scrap of paper.” Then, on October 8, 1993, Gary had his first chance to go on stage and perform in front of an audience. “It went well and felt exhilarating. It feels great to make people laugh. I have spent most of my energy since then being on stage and developing my talents.”
An important influence on Gary’s life and comedy was the Jewish Federation of North Shore, Massachusetts (now part of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston). “My mother was a single mom, and we couldn’t afford religious school, so she went to the Federation and they arranged it so that I could attend Hebrew school and Jewish summer camp. I’m eternally grateful to the Federation; I really wouldn’t be who I am today without their help. I owe a great deal of my ethics and philosophy to the Federation’s contribution.”
When asked about his choice to include Jewish themes in his comedy, Gary explains that, “there weren’t many Jewish comedians in Boston when I started. Just Rich Ceisler. Most of the comedians wouldn’t do any Jewish jokes because the audiences were mostly non-Jewish people. I found early on I could distinguish myself because I was the only one willing to be Jewish.
“I am careful to never, never perpetuate a stereotype or lean on clichés. Some comedians use the stereotypes that Jews have played upon and adopted as part of our identity, but I don’t think it’s helpful. I am very careful to talk about being Jewish in a proud way to dispel clichés. David Brenner told me we should always be building our people up and not going for a cheap laugh. I took that to heart.”
Where to Hear Gary: Besides his tours, Gary’s credits include TV shows “Last Comic Standing,” “Inside Amy Schumer,” and his role on HBO’s “Crashing” and HBO’s new series “2 Dope Queens.” His stand-up special “In This Economy” is now streaming on Amazon. Gary just finished his “The Great Depresh Live Tour,” traveling to 18 cities, and concluding with the filming of an HBO special tentatively scheduled to air on October 5, 2019.
ERIKA L. SILVER is a contributing writer to jlife magazine.