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As an ‘80s ‘misfit,’ Gary Gulman can look back on his awkward childhood and laugh

Gary Gulman's 2019 HBO special “The Great Depresh” revealed his struggle with mental illness and earned him a new fan base.Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Gary Gulman spent a lot of time as a kid at what was then known as the Northshore Shopping Center, in Peabody. His single mother, Barb, had a part-time job at a stationery store. While she worked, second-grade Gary roamed the mall, trying out the comedy routines he’d memorized from “Saturday Night Live” and his older brothers’ Steve Martin albums.

In school, Gulman writes in his new memoir, “Misfit: Growing Up Awkward in the ‘80s,” he was a bit of a pariah, an eccentric kid who had repeated first grade not because of any learning disorder, but a perceived lack of maturity. At the mall, though, he found a willing audience for his jokes and wisecracks among the cashiers and Orange Julius servers.


He remembers a fruitless search for a certain kind of hat — “a floppy hat with a feather in it that I called a ‘pimp hat,’ ” he writes. “I didn’t know what pimps did, but I coveted their garish haberdashery.”

Gulman returns to Boston for two shows on Sept. 23 at the Wilbur Theatre to celebrate the publication of his book, which will be released on Sept. 19. He’s about to cut a streaming deal for “Born on 3rd Base,” the tentative title of a stand-up special he recorded earlier this year in Toronto. It will be the long-awaited follow-up to “The Great Depresh,” the 2019 HBO special that revealed his struggle with mental illness and earned him a new fan base.

In astonishing detail, “Misfit” (Flatiron Books) describes Gulman’s K-12 years: his struggle to make friends, the teachers he adored and his run-ins with the ones he didn’t, his irrational affection for the fizzy hard candy called ZotZ. (“ZotZ were a superstar of the ‘70s and early ‘80s but then nearly impossible to find,” he writes, “the Peter Frampton of candy.”)


“It’s hard to remember things if there’s not either great elation or trauma attached,” Gulman, 53, explained in a recent phone conversation, while his interviewer drove up and down Lowell Street in Peabody in a hapless search for the comedian’s childhood home.

The cover of Gary Gulman's "Misfit: Growing Up Awkward in the '80s." The comedian's memoir comes out on Sept. 19.Flatiron Books

Gulman, who lives in New York City with his wife, Sade, has been in therapy for most of the last 30 years. The idea to focus his book on his coming-of-age years originated in his countless retellings of childhood incidents with his therapists.

“From the time I decided to become a comedian, at basically 6 or 7, I knew they were the only stories I had,” he said. Writing “Misfit” “almost felt like a prequel to ‘The Great Depresh.’ ”

It felt natural, then, to include the part in which, in his late 40s, he moved back in with his mother.

In between the book’s chapters, each of which covers a grade of Gulman’s public school education, he offers glimpses of his descent to rock bottom, in 2017. During the depths of his despair, he writes, a simple trip to the store would be drenched with anxiety.

If he ran into someone he knew, he recalls, he’d have to face the dreaded question about how he was doing: “I’m sleeping in a twin bed at my mommy’s house,” he imagines saying, “but things are lookin’ up.”

Andrew Freedman, who walked to the bus stop every day with “Gah” reciting the comedy routines they’d memorized, had no idea how bad things had gotten for his childhood friend. After watching “The Great Depresh,” his admiration for his old pal skyrocketed.


“He helped me personally with some things I was struggling with, my little blip in my lifetime when I was down on myself,” said Freedman, who owns a massage therapy business and lives in Newton. “I can’t imagine how much he opened up the dialog for people waiting for somebody a little stronger than them to come out and say it.

“Everyone is struggling with something. Gary really put a face on it, and I’m super proud of him for being so brave.”

A week or so ago, Gulman received a carton containing his first copies of his book. He had Sade take a video of the unboxing, which they posted to social media. Wearing a T-shirt featuring Grover, the “Sesame Street” character who appeared in the first book Gulman ever read (“The Monster at the End of This Book”), he cut open the box, pulled out a copy, and began weeping.

He hadn’t expected to react that way.

“But that got me,” he said. “Because books have been one of the things, along with basketball and good friends, that have enabled me to get through a lot of difficult times.”

Gulman, who is 6 feet, 6 inches tall, discovered basketball in fourth grade. Years later he entered Boston College on a football scholarship, but basketball remains his physical outlet.


“Basketball fit every aspect of my disposition,” he writes. “The ball wasn’t fired at great velocity near your face like baseball, and the sport didn’t permit assault and battery like football and hockey. This was a civilized, elegant, violence-free sport. You didn’t need a helmet or pads. You didn’t even need pants.”

Gulman’s precision with language is on full display in his book, just as it has been since he began doing stand-up.

“I always wanted my jokes to work not just in me telling them, but also if you were to read them,” he said. “I wanted them to work so people would think, ‘Oh, that’s a good word choice. It has rhythm, or’ — I mean, so pretentious, ‘poetry — that it sounds right.’ ”

Between his attention to detail and his openness about his mental health, Gulman has reached a new level of success in the only career he ever wanted. After “The Great Depresh” came out, Freedman and his wife traveled to New York to see his buddy perform at Carnegie Hall.

“We grew up listening to Steven Wright, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams,” Freedman said. “These guys were gods and deities. Now to mention Gary on the same stage, I’m so proud of him.

“He’s genuinely the same person I’ve known since second grade,” he said. “He’s the same goofy, lovable, funny guy.”

That sounds just right.


At the Wilbur, 246 Tremont St., Sept. 23, 3 and 7 p.m. $36-$54.


James Sullivan can be reached at Follow him @sullivanjames.