Jenny Slate and Gary Gulman prove mental health can be more than a punchline

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ByJay Graham

Sometimes I crave escapism. Podcasts and TV series that lift me out of myself and drop me into a disparate reality where there’s no mention of influencers, political disasters, or companies that co-opt queerness to sell t-shirts. But after my blood pressure drops again, escapist pop culture loses its appeal. I don’t want to disengage from reality; I just want to find better ways to survive in it. And right now, more than uplift or escape, I need my media to be real with me.

I’ve been clinging to standup comedy, especially to specials that offer barefaced honesty in addition to catharsis. Jenny Slate’s Stage Fright and Gary Gulman’s The Great Depresh stand out to me — not only because both comics are ridiculous and lovable, but because they tap into their own vulnerability to reframe comedy’s relationship to mental health. Slate’s special jumps from bits about brain-melting weed to crushing confessions about existential dread, and Gulman’s delves into toxic masculinity and his most severe depressive episode.

By experimenting with a structure that braids autobiographical clips into their standup segments, Slate and Gulman cultivate a more intimate, self-reflective style. They both bring us back to their childhood homes and show us documentary-style interviews with their family members. And they use humor to hold space for depression, anxiety, and fear — instead of mocking them. It’s a refreshing departure from the type of comedy that treats anxiety like a throwaway joke and depression like a cheap punchline.

Both specials begin with intention. Stage Fright with a home video of kid-Jenny performing a violin solo and The Great Depresh with an old clip of Gulman on stage, saying in a flat tone,“I have a severe mental illness . . . It’s excruciating . . . It’s excruciating.” Jarring, yes, but it’s also a fitting introduction. The mood is set, and the curtain is pulled back.

Gulman brings a certain charm and wholesomeness to his work. He dips into his childhood in the '70s and admits he’s jealous of our generation’s healthier attitudes toward gender. He normalizes the experience of living with depression by joking about meds, and he recreates the first time he laughed after months of chronic anxiety, which also happened to take place during his first day at a psychiatric hospital. We watch as he flips through his childhood journal to a story he wrote about a lonely tree that grows by crying — and he laughs sadly, knowing it was an allegory for his own isolation and unhappiness. And in one of his documentary segments, Gulman talks with his friend, comic Robert Kelly, about the misconception that if a comedian stops being depressed, they’ll stop being funny. Above all, Gulman’s special exposes that myth.

Slate’s special is also a collage: standup spliced with home videos from her childhood, interviews with her family in the house she grew up in outside Boston, and clips of her prepping for the show. She takes us on a tour of her childhood home and its jukebox, its ghost stories. We see her bury her face into her Nanna Connie’s old sweater, saying quietly, “She’s had this sweater for my entire life. And this whole closet smells like powder and the perfume that is called Shalimar.” She pronounces Shalimar like it’s something small and precious. Then Slate tries on her grandma’s dresses and spins around the bathroom in front of the mirror, swirling the gauzy pink sleeves. We watch her unpack the cardboard box she filled as a teenager with all the things that made her angry, which she’d write on scraps of paper: ”bullshit”, “Trevor,” “that I treat myself like shit constantly,” “that all I want is to be cared about,” and “that I would really do anything for Trevor.”

The special feels like a patchwork of Slate’s formative relationships and treasured spaces, stitched with eclectic details from her life. An undeniable intimacy runs through it all — and not just because we’re seeing Slate’s interior world, but because we’re seeing how her interior world interacts with the extremely public world of celebrity and the crafted art of standup. We see her adjusting her grandma’s mic during interview sequences, performing a practice set for a sea of empty red seats during those behind-the-scenes segments, joking with the camera operators as she gives a tour of her childhood bedroom, and talking with her dad about whether she’s ready to write jokes about her divorce.

During a backstage interview, Slate dives into her deepest fears: “It’s not that I think I’m not funny. It’s that right before I go on stage I am presented with this essential question, which is: Will they like me? And I know that they will once I start to talk. But I don’t earn the love unless I give something beautiful that comes out. So my stage fright comes from a deeper thing — of exchange.” It’s this kind of honesty that hits like a gut punch. And you don’t have to relate to the phenomenon Slate describes for her words to resonate. Simply by exposing her deeply rooted fears, without immediately attempting to eliminate them or explain them away, Slate offers us a refreshing portrait of self-awareness.

Gulman’s just as committed to articulating his most painful experiences. Of course, he also makes a point to remind us that talking about his depression only helped up to a point. Gulman tried dozens of different medications before he found something that worked. And his most effective treatments were two practices that still carry weighty taboos: a three-week stay at a hospital’s psych ward — which he says is far from the abusive hellscape pop culture makes it out to be — and electroconvulsive therapy — which used to be known as electroshock and, Gulman admits, has “a very bad branding problem” thanks to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Throughout his special, Gulman is up front about the shame he felt around his treatment, in addition to the shame that built up around having depression to begin with. Like Slate, Gulman knows that merely vocalizing whatever it is we feel afraid of or ashamed by has a kind of restorative power.

It’s true we expect comedians to pull material from their own experiences, but we’re not used to encountering them in such a holistic way. We aren’t typically faced with the reality of a comedian as a person — not just a presence on stage. Of course, both Slate and Gulman’s art is grounded in this kind of vulnerability, invested in the strange and terrifying details of being alive.

But feeling afraid, as well as angry, is a natural reaction to being attentive to the world. And if being afraid is inherent to being alive, then deflecting fear is deadening. Comics like Slate and Gulman give us the space to access that fear, instead of distracting us from it. Their work doesn't need to be revolutionary — because it's deeply necessary.