On his second album, No Can Defend, Gary Gulman responds to the audience’s opening applause with, “I think I… I think I absorbed it.” The tendency, as he explains, is to “deflect” the praise, but he cannot, as “It’s just the way I was raised.” He then segues into one of his few bits about being Jewish: “Cautious, are we cautious. Oh, my Lord. And we have every right to be; we’ve been in a couple of pickles over the years.”
It’s in decisions like this where Gulman’s savvy comes to light. He’s not a Jewish comedian as much as he’s a comedian who happens to be Jewish. And thankfully and appropriately, he does not mine this tired backdrop for 45 minutes; rarely even does he self-deprecate as a direct result of his heritage. Aside from comparing his visage to that of the Fruit Loops spokesbird, Gulman never takes the easy route. Instead of enlisting as a permanent disciple in the overcrowded cult of Woody Allen, Gulman acts as simply a tourist. By not relying on his neuroses or an ostensible persona as vehicles for continuous cheap laughs, Gulman is able to instead borrow what makes those paradigms workable, add to them in ways that amplify their utility, and not pigeonhole himself as any one kind of comedian.
On a superficial level, Gulman’s in the mold of a Jerry Seinfeld: an observational comedian who is able to adeptly extract humor from seemingly mundane subjects. But while Seinfeld constantly pushes the listener away by rarely talking about himself, Gulman occasionally brings the listener in, showing how what he observes can bring him grief.
A perfect example comes on “The @ Sign.” Speaking to how the sign has become pointless shorthand for “at,” Gulman laments, “We’re shortening two-letter words now?” And on “Ode to Netflix, Part 1,” he castigates Blockbuster for a slew of misdeeds, not least of which is their “criminally loose definition of ‘New Releases.’” “Why is this a new release?” Gulman asks. “Because it’s in color!?”
In instances like these, Gulman only shows off half his range, as he’s capable of turning both inward for self-analysis, as well as outward for cultural commentary. And in rare moments of beautiful artistry, he’s able to expertly conflate the two.
“I can get movies instantly on Netflix, but that’s a burden, too,” Gulman proclaims. “I don’t know if you can tell, but I gotta get out of here and watch movies… I’m gonna die with 100 movies in my queue.” This sentiment, though perhaps immaterial to some, depicts a mind struggling. Struggling with…something.
It’s a stretch to say Gulman is making an implicit comment on modern-American society’s lust for overindulgence. What his remarks do convey is the notion that anxiety comes in all shapes and sizes. There are bound to be listeners who feel that sense of urgency because of their ever-expanding Netflix queues, listeners who, in some form or another, feel a similar sense of anxiety over comparably frivolous things, and listeners who get where Gulman’s coming from. For them, Gulman’s comedy—like any good comedy—hits home and reassures them that, yeah, there are other fucked-up people out there, too.
In this way, what separates Gulman from equally funny comedians is his genuineness. There’s a quality about Gulman that makes the listener feel at ease. There are no attacks, there’s no aggression waiting to pop out, there aren’t any tricks—there’s just consistent, down-to-earth comedy. Gulman is eminently relatable: His placid demeanor is warm and inviting, and although he’s not a Louis C.K., openly listing all the shitty things he thinks and feels, he’s nevertheless being honest. We know the low-level anxiety he promulgates comes from a sincere place, and from his tone and delivery we can discern that it is quite real.
In fact, Gulman would do well to turn inward for material more often. Yes, he is primarily an observational comedian, and yes, he is admittedly skilled at what he does, having crafted a style with which he is certainly comfortable and sharp. But his best moments come when he imbues something outside himself with his own sensibility. His eight-minute closer about his ideal sexual roleplay is a prime example. Or when he outlines why he stole a muffin or how he wishes he could go back in time to tell his younger self to take typing classes more seriously. These aren’t necessarily moments of observational comedy, but they’re not confessions of the soul, either. They straddle the line between the two extremes, and they do so masterfully. And when Gulman toes that line and settles into his perfect little space, the results are both hilarious as well as rewarding.