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Stand-up comic Gary Gulman on his awkward 1980s childhood

Gary Gulman’s most famously funny bit is a take on the abbreviation of U.S. state names (trust us, it’s hilarious.) His 2020 HBO special, “The Great Depresh,” poignantly addressed his mental-health struggles, including depression, while his new memoir, “Misfit: Growing Up Awkward in the ’80s” (Flatiron Books) delves into the childhood that turned him into the kook he is today. 

With such a successful stand-up career, why did you decide to write a book?    

It’s something I always wanted to do. 

Growing up, I was keeping track of stories and sort of delusionally thought maybe one day I’ll write a book. 

First it was about my rise to stardom as a basketball player [laughs], and then about football or comedy, but I kept track of things. 

I love telling childhood stories because they’re laughable and absurd and more painful but you have some distance, too. 

By definition you’ve survived your childhood stories so people feel comfortable laughing at them, which is really important.   

In the introduction you say the worldview you learned in your childhood home is a reason you ended up moving back in your 40s while depressed? 

There were two things going on there. Basically, I was an only child since my brothers were so much older than me.

There was a lot of loneliness and not much attention paid to me. I only saw my father for a few hours on Sundays.

We were also always worried about money and making ends meet, so I was convinced only rich people were happy. 

I was also guided sort of obsessively by ethics and morality that I learned in Hebrew school and from my father’s Old Testament interpretation of spirituality and religion, so basically I didn’t like myself and didn’t believe in myself. 

It was partly chemical, but I also didn’t get the idea — other than from Mr. Rogers — that just being myself was something worth being. 

Any kind of specialness that I had came from doing something other people approved of, like doing well in school or at basketball, so I was always looking for outside validation.

When I got it as a comedian later on then it became something like “is that all there is?”

Getting healthy for me was a matter of getting my chemistry straight, but also adopting a new philosophy about being much more kind to myself.

“Misfit” makes clear you managed the difficult feat in high school of being both a sports star and a virgin?  

Hahaha! It’s miraculous in a bad way, and it continued into college. 

There seemed to be a lot of sexually transmitted disease at the time, so in the same way I resisted drugs because of all the propaganda against marijuana, I also resisted sex because there were a lot of people saying how dangerous it was.

I also didn’t find myself physically appealing, so I couldn’t imagine that any woman would — so I never did feel comfortable in that realm. It was sort of my own personal war of attrition with my own sensuality.

You highlight some real ’80s memories, including the idea Prince wasn’t always universally beloved? 

Yeah, in some cases he was androgynous, even effeminate, but at that point, he was just a flamboyant R&B singer with just a patina of disco about him. 

For that reason teenage boys of that era, their mindset was to embrace metal and acid rock as an opportunity to comment about how much they hated disco. 

One style flashback is what you call “pants with dozens of zippers, none of which had any utility.” 

Yes, I resisted those pants in the same way I resisted heavy metal because the boys who tormented me were into them. 

I also had a limited ability get my hands on anything that was current because 99% of my clothes were hand-me-downs, and my brothers weren’t into anything that was trendy.  

Your book is filled with incredible turns of phrase, including that pimps were famously attired in what you called “garish haberdashery . . . ” 

I did an interview with Mike Birbiglia the other day and he brought up the same sentence, so I’m very happy that it was appreciated. 

Those are two words I’ve loved since I read them.

When I was 11 there was an article about baseball cards and they referred to them as “garish” and I thought, wow, not only does that have my name in it but it’s really evocative of a certain idea of decoration. 

Are you imagining a sequel to “Misfit”? I’d love to hear about you overcoming your accursed virginity, or the path you took to becoming a successful comic.

There are no plans for a follow-up. I am having sex now, so that’s good, and my comedy career worked out, but I tend to avoid sequels in most cases. 

Every once in a while a good idea comes around and I’ll do a sequel, so it is possible, but I would also like to try something a little different in terms of scope and avenue.