When most people are out celebrating this New Year’s Eve, Gary Gulman will be working at the Chevalier Theatre in Medford. Doing stand-up in front of a theater or club crowd is where he likes to be most evenings, but he especially enjoys it this time of year. “I always prefer to work,” he says. “I’ve had maybe a handful of good New Year’s Eves [outside of performing], but most of them have been disappointing, cold, or boring. So I love to work on New Year’s Eve.”
It was rougher in the early days, when the Peabody native was working his way up through the local scene and playing shows where rowdy revelers were toasting at midnight and turning the shows into nightmares. Gulman would try to muddle through with all his faculties intact. “It was real work,” he says.
That work has paid off. With two well-received Netflix specials under his belt, frequent spots on late-night shows, and a lot of touring, Gulman is on a steady rise. Now he is playing to crowds who come specifically to see his smart, genial comedy and know his material. “Fortunately the people that I attract are pretty moderate drinkers and pretty level-headed as far as their behavior at comedy shows,” he says.
Like Brian Regan and Jim Gaffigan before him, Gulman has built a following almost exclusively through his stand-up, as opposed to work on sitcoms, panel shows, or in film. An appearance on “Conan” in 2016 went viral, and the routine he performed on the show has become one his most popular. In it, Gulman imagines a documentary about the struggle to create postal codes for each state. The team can’t settle their differences so they hire a specialist. “You wouldn’t know his name, but you know his work,” Gulman says. “He was responsible for such timeless classics as o’clock.” Writing about it on Facebook, Patton Oswalt said in admiration, “This is one of those rare — you’d be surprised how rare they actually are — perfectly written, realized and executed comedy routines.”
Gulman would like to do more in TV and film, but his most satisfying work is in creating and crafting stand-up comedy. He gets onstage five or six nights a week in New York and frequently drops in at the Comedy Studio when he’s in Boston. He records and transcribes every set, which allows him to catch things he might have said in the moment and forces him to edit and improve. “My greatest joy is in getting a new joke to work and then making adjustments and tweaks and adding things to it,” he says. “It’s just rewarding on so many levels. It makes me feel creative and smart and industrious and resourceful. It’s really my favorite thing to do, other than watching the Celtics.”
There have been times when Gulman has been robbed of that joy. In October, he appeared on a podcast called “The Hilarious World of Depression” and spoke about his battle with depression and anxiety. It was a revelation to many of his fans. He had spoken about those issues before, but never in such stark and emotional terms. Gulman revealed on the show that he had been hospitalized in 2016. “It was severe, crippling anxiety and a level of depression that I had never felt before,” he says now. “I had struggled with it through much of my life going back to my adolescence. But I never felt that bad. While I wasn’t suicidal, I also wasn’t functioning at even a basic level. I was really in dire straits.”
Gulman says he was recovering by the time he appeared on “Conan,” but he wasn’t able to enjoy himself when the spot became a hit. All he could think about was how he would never write anything as good again. “That was weird because I got a dose of writer’s block after that,” he says. “And part of it was my mood and part of it was losing touch with my process. There are days where you just don’t want to write. And you just have to. You have to put the butt in the seat and write. There’s no substitute for it.”
There is a notion that depression leads to good art. Gulman would disagree. “Some people say, ‘Your depression is what makes you funny,’ and I can refute that,” he says. “When it’s really bad, I don’t get onstage. I don’t feel funny. In the rare cases when I’m depressed and happen to say something funny, it does provide some relief and a modicum of joy.”
Now he is in a better mind-set. There will be family at the Chevalier show, and his mother will get to hear him do material on depression for the first time, something she had encouraged him to do. To get there, he had to keep fighting his mood and get healthier all around. “I have to exercise every day,” he says. “I have to eat right, I have to limit my sleep, I have to spend time with other people and not isolate. I can’t just stay in all day and avoid people. I have to do my work, as far as getting onstage as frequently as possible and writing regularly. I just have to see my therapist. I just have to fight back.”
And he can appreciate the postal code routine; he’s happy that people ask him to do it during the request portion at the end of his shows. It’s his “Born to Run,” and he’s thrilled to hear people quoting that and other routines. “Jerry Seinfeld said that a good comedian will occupy space in your mind, so when I hear that stuff it makes me feel like a good comedian,” he says. “And just on the practical side of it, it makes me feel like my work will endure, that people will take it with them and that it holds up and that it makes me feel successful in that way. I’m not a millionaire or anything like that, but I put these things out that stuck with people, and that makes me proud.”
At the Chevalier Theatre, Medford, Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. Tickets $32, 781-391-7469, www.chevaliertheatre.comNick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.