Comedians are famous for knowing how to work a crowd with their side-splitting and sometimes off-color commentary on everyday issues, but they also have a unique angle on social issues. Well, at least Gary Gulman does.
The Peabody native and Last Comic Standing finalist has a lot to say about the effects of income inequality and the accessibility of services for those suffering from mental illness while living on the street.
Gulman’s most recent stand-up special In This Economy? features the 6-foot-6 Boston College graduate throwing jabs at capitalistic giants like Bill Gates and Donald Trump. Gulman’s criticism continues far beyond the final curtain. His experiences growing up and the hardships he went through early in his comedy career have helped to shape that criticism.
“We were on public assistance, like food stamps. It would pay for our heat and the Jewish community programs paid for me to go to Hebrew school, and one time they sent me to summer camp for a month,” Gulman recalls. “My family was a beneficiary of a lot of help from the government growing up, and while I’m not in the 1 percent, I am on the other side of where I was growing up,” he continues.
“Income inequality is so infuriating,” says the former substitute high school teacher. “It’s so heartbreaking. In New York City, you see people on the street waiting for rich people to come out of hotels, and they’re sitting in Bentleys, and then there are people lying on the sidewalk right next to them,” he says.
Gulman continues: “I think it’s a combination of things. There’s the elimination of the middle class through elitism, and a sort of entitlement of greed and superiority. People would tell me it’s unconstitutional, but you really shouldn’t be allowed to be a billionaire. You’re monopolizing money.”
On the topic of In This Economy? Gulman uses his stage as a type of protest toward the billionaire class. “It was kind of a protest, and I guess it was satire on the people without conscience, really,” he says.
Gulman also weighs in on the issue of mental illness among the homeless while discussing his own experiences.
“I think it’s also mental illness that causes a lot of the suffering on the streets of New York. Mental illness or addiction, which I believe is a part of mental illness, and they, many times, go hand in hand,” Gulman says. “I suffer from a severe major depressive disorder, but luckily I’m in a profession where I can suffer by day and work by night,” he admits. “The requirements of the job are not exemptive outside of putting on a smile and telling jokes.”
“I’m not arrogant enough to think I’m so different from someone who has lost their way and has wound up on the streets,” Gulman says. “A few good breaks, and the fact that the government was very generous with my family growing up, and that I was born very tall and athletic, so I was able to get a scholarship to go to college, whereas I may not have gone to college without that kind of assistance,” he adds.
“For some reason, people who are very well off feel it is some divine right that they did it all right, and they were hard working and that they were also born with some advantages, physically or mentally, and also many of them are products of their environments,” Gulman continues. “They were able to go to better schools with guidance from their parents, who also went to better schools.”
The former Boston College tight end feels that in order for poverty to decrease, income inequality must be addressed as a serious issue, along with mental illness and addiction.
“Oh, absolutely!” Gulman says. “The other side of that is that mental illness needs to be taken more seriously, and I think they’re taking steps toward that. Also, the way addiction is handled is very backward. We are exposed to the people who are on the streets, but I know there are families that are living in shelters because there are jobs that aren’t paying a livable wage,” Gulman states.
“I think it would reduce everyone all the way around, but you would still have the homeless because they don’t address mental illness. If they could address the income inequality and pay a higher minimum wage, the way the stock market is built, that everything is about increasing shareholder wealth, if it was more of a social contract there to also make sure the workers are also paid a decent wage. Sure, people wouldn’t make as much money on their stocks, but there would be millions of more dollars to pay workers, which I feel would increase productivity,” Gulman continues.
“I’m not an economist, but I read Paul Krugman frequently in the New York Times, and I also really like Robert Reich, and maybe I’m just echoing stuff that I agree with those two guys on, but my gut feeling is that something is wrong, and I’m hoping people will recognize that. It could take generations for this to be addressed, but I feel that Bernie Sanders, or at least his influence, could help that, but there are still so many people who are so selfish and greedy,” Gulman explains. “It’s not a feeble battle, but it’s certainly an uphill battle.”
A nationally known stand-up comedian? Yes. Has he sold out theatres across the country? Yes. Has he forgotten about his humble beginnings? Certainly not.
Gulman, a man who at one time had to perform 66 shows in a single month in order to pay his rent and who has had to pass on guacamole at Chipotle because it was too expensive (a joking reference to a routine from In This Economy?) has painted a candid picture of his career and experiences with mental illness and hardship and is as real as they come.
Pending funding and other support, Gulman has a forthcoming stand-up special in the works and is slated for a sort of homecoming when he occupies the Wilbur Theatre for a show on Friday, Oct. 16.
Update: an earlier version of this piece said Gulman was slated for two shows; however one performance was recently cancelled.