A comedian for more than a quarter century, Gary Gulman is, in the parlance of his Boston peoples, wicked hilarious. Years ago I got to see him do a set on stage in New York, and I still remember how much his routine about grapefruit juice of all things (a beverage I was a big fan of at the time) — or pamplemousse as he referred to it, using the goofy-sounding French word — cracked me up.
A complement to his lauded 2019 HBO comedy special The Great Depresh, Gulman’s memoir, Misfit: Growing Up Awkward In the ‘80s, expands on what it was like being a hypersensitive, lonely and deeply anxious Jewish child of divorce in the suburbs. Those life-long mental health struggles culminated in him having to temporarily quit performing, have a long-distance relationship with his new wife and, upon the advice of his therapist, get treatment while he went back to his childhood home at age 46 to live with his mother. Those scenes introduce each chapter, which features the adult observations of Young Gary from his earliest days through high school and are, naturally, heartbreaking at times, but also sweet, touching, and really funny.
As a writer, he paints a rich portrait of his home life, skillfully laying out the foundation for his anxiety. His very macho father, who he saw one night each week, had a quick temper, didn’t suffer fools or allow cursing. He once chased down a neighbor boy (who was for a while, Gulman’s one friend until his “softness” and tears put an end to it) who flipped Gulman’s father off from his car. His perpetually broke mother, whose idea of being calm and reassuring was to announce “oh no!” when there was trouble, often told him how “odd” he was. His older brothers weren’t much help either except for hand-me-down clothes. None of the adults in Gulman’s life were equipped to respond to a boy who was awkward, friendless and genuinely suffering.
Gary, plagued by thoughts of retribution from God for bad behavior, was also often filled with panic when he was with more than one friend at a time, or away from home for long or not regularly near his mother, spending hours every week at the mall where his mother worked so as not to be far from her. One of the few spots of joy was getting to stay up late to watch The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson and other talk shows when comedians were on and earning prized laughs at school, the mall or from his mother’s friends when he would repeat them. His humor was laced with a Jewish sensibility early on. In joking to a classmate at a bar mitzvah, he noted that the reception was “not a lunch but a luncheon”, the difference being “silverware”.
He’s rescued by sports, – basketball and baseball cards. His discovery of basketball skills, along with his height (6’5 by high school), finally lands him some hard-won friends (all of whom get their 80s phone numbers listed with their names). Gulman’s boyhood travails render him entirely sympathetic and as a reader you think, Thank God! The kid really needed just one person in his corner to understand him and like some of the things he did.
The chapters move breezily but the book wouldn’t lose anything by shortening up some of his grade school years and the observations of that limited life experience. There’s also not a lot of exploration of those months in 2017 or the electroconvulsive treatments he received, which some readers might want to know more about. Perhaps that will be for his next special. Gulman has now been healthy for six years, which along with his book, gets a hearty Mazel tov!