As he prepares for two homecoming shows at the Wilbur on Saturday, Gary Gulman is not sure if he’ll mention “The Great Depresh” onstage. That’s the title of the recent HBO special that has bumped the veteran comedian’s career up to another level.
“Part of me is so insecure that I feel it’s presumptuous to assume that all these people have actually seen me before, or are familiar with my work,” he says on the phone from Los Angeles, where he was about to kick off his new Peace of Mind tour. “I guess it would be crazy to think that nobody in Boston has seen ‘The Great Depresh,’ but my nightmare is that I bring it up and nobody knows what I’m talking about.
“At the very least, my family will be familiar with it,” he jokes. “Or at least the trailer.”
Gulman, who is 49, grew up in Peabody, graduated from Boston College, and got his start in the fertile local comedy scene of the mid-1990s. Though he has lived in New York City for years, he still feels deeply connected to Massachusetts.
He’s self-deprecating to a fault. His reluctance to gloat over the positive feedback the special has received, he says, “is kind of a Boston thing. You don’t want to rub any success in anyone’s face, or your friends are gonna tell you not to get too big for them.” Yet he realizes some in the crowd will be coming to see him for the first time after discovering him through the latest special.
“It’s a real mess in my brain right now,” he says.
“The Great Depresh” has been lauded not just for Gulman’s sharp wit and his delightfully curious mind. It’s a confessional about his years-long struggle with crippling anxiety and depression, which he’d kept hidden from nearly everyone around him until hitting rock bottom about four years ago.
Audiences have responded with gratitude for his willingness to discuss it. In that respect, “The Great Depresh” follows Hannah Gadsby’s 2018 Netflix special “Nanette” — in which the comedian addressed issues of gender nonconformity and her autism — as an “event” comedy special that has attracted attention for reasons that reach well beyond the laughs.
As a child of the ‘70s, Gulman says in the show, there were really only two remedies for depression. The first was a simple “Snap out of it!” The other, he says, modulating his voice to sound like a schoolyard bully, was “What have you got to be depressed about?”
“That was the second-leading brand of antidepressant,” he jokes.
On the night before Thanksgiving, Gulman went to a pub in downtown Peabody, where he met up with a large group of fellow Peabody High School graduates. For a time during his early years in comedy, he worked as a substitute teacher there.
“I will say I was given a hero’s welcome,” he admits. More than his previous career highlights — the appearances on late-night talk shows, his strong showings on “Last Comic Standing,” three other one-man specials — “this has connected in a new and deeper way,” he says.
He’s always been happy to meet with fans, but now there’s a real sense of fulfillment that “The Great Depresh” may be encouraging others to come to terms with their own mental health issues. Therapy and medication have saved his life, he says.
“I think people are thirsty for these connections,” Gulman says. “They want to unburden themselves of these secrets. When one person is vulnerable, I think it gives them permission. It’s been so moving, so satisfying.”
Early in his career, Gulman caught a set by local headliner Paul D’Angelo, upstairs at the Kowloon in Saugus. He found himself taking notes. Afterward, the two bonded over their shared status as Boston College alumni and the fact that their parents were less than thrilled about their career choice in comedy. (D’Angelo was a lawyer; Gulman studied to become an accountant.)
D’Angelo soon began inviting Gulman to open for him, “though I did not deserve it — I was not very good. We just started hanging around every day together, like two high school friends. I couldn’t have had a better mentor or friend.”
Before a recent set at Giggles, D’Angelo sat down to talk about his long rapport with Gulman. He’d just phoned Gary’s mother that day to wish her a happy birthday, and he’d reminded Gary to do the same.
“I call him my little brother,” he says with a smile. Gulman is 6 feet, 6 inches.
“He’s obviously very smart, and he had a passion for comedy,” D’Angelo says. “We both have an appreciation for the history of it.”
Still, like most people in Gulman’s life, D’Angelo had no idea about the extent of his battle with depression.
“He went incommunicado,” he says. “Everything I got was secondhand.”
Not long ago, Gulman asked D’Angelo to accompany him to a BC basketball game. (Gulman loves the sport. He still plays regularly in the gyms and on the outdoor courts of Harlem, where he lives with his wife, Sade.) That’s when he let his old friend know about his “great depression.”
“I thought the show was really courageous of him,” D’Angelo says. “Talking with his mother, we both agreed it was a cathartic experience.
“He’s probably helped so many people. But he made it entertaining, too.”
Gulman’s current stage show features all-new material. He’s beginning to hone a routine about class distinctions and income inequality, he says, with an eye toward his next special. As with depression, he’ll approach his new subject “not in a heavy or didactic way, but funny, with some irony,” he says.
“I always worried when I was sick, ‘Well, if I come out of it, will I even enjoy any kind of success?’ I’m thrilled to report that I probably have a better perspective than I would have without the suffering.”
He waits a beat, then adds, “I could’ve done without the suffering.”
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.