Life

Gary Gulman Explains His Best Joke

The Great Depresh comedian shared his comedy advice with How To!

Gary Gulman performs onstage.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Hilarity For Charity.

Comedian Gary Gulman has a new HBO special out now, The Great Depresh, but earlier this year he talked to How To! about the joke he is perhaps best known for, on state abbreviations. Gulman also shared his comedy advice with host Charles Duhigg to help a pastor in Oklahoma give funnier sermons. Some highlights of their conversation, condensed and edited for clarity, are below.

Gary Gulman: I just wanted to recommend a documentary to everyone, and then I’m going to go. It’s about the men and one woman who abbreviated all 50 states down to two letters. All you have to know for this is that we have 50 states in America, and they each have a two-capital-letter abbreviation, but that wasn’t always the case, up until, I want to say, 1973. And so I will. Up until 1973, every state had its own length of abbreviation, and it was chaos.
Like, Massachusetts was M-A-S-S-period. Florida was F-L-A. Utah was “Uta.” They just dropped the H, not much of an abbreviation.

Charles Duhigg: How did you come up with that joke?

Gulman: I first had the premise, which is “Gee, a lot of states start off with the same first two letters.”

Duhigg: That just comes into your mind one day?

Gulman: Yes, yes. And the first part of it was the guys trying to abbreviate the states and they immediately come into trouble after the first state.

They thought it was going to be easy because Alabama lulled them into a false sense of security. They said: “Alabama—AL. Holy crap, this is easy. We’re going to finish before they stop serving breakfast in the hotel restaurant.”

And then there was nothing. There was nothing. Every once in a while, I’d pull [the joke] off the shelf and rework it and add a line. But I could never find an ending or structure to that joke. And then, maybe 18 years later, all of a sudden, documentaries were about small things. They were only about Hitler forever, and then, all of a sudden, I saw this documentary about Helvetica, and I wrote a joke about the documentary about Helvetica.

Focus on the small things.

Duhigg: Novices like me, we tend to look for these big, exaggerated topics to joke about, but the funniest stuff often comes from the most mundane parts of life.

Gulman: One night I said: “What if I did this thing that never works? The abbreviation thing. What if I try this and tell the people it was a documentary? In between the first time I got onstage and that night, I had learned an important thing in comedy, which is it’s OK to lie.

It’s OK to lie.

Duhigg: You can lie about anything as long as it helps the joke.

Gulman: There’s something called artistic license, which I had never understood and had never heard it applied to jokes, and that changed everything. And so I said, “I’m going to lie and tell them that this is a documentary,” thinking that part of the funny would be them figuring out that this isn’t real. But I still get emails and tweets, “Hey, where can I find that documentary about the abbreviation?”

Duhigg: And then you go into this long ministory about the omelet chef.

Gulman: And then one guy said, “Oh, I hope they have an omelet station.” Just for context, the omelet station had just been invented. … And this other guy said: “You know what? I’m not comfortable with the omelet station, because I feel like the omelet chef resents you. Like, he didn’t want to be the omelet chef. Nobody dreams of being an omelet chef. He wanted to be the chef chef. Now, instead of giving the orders, he’s taking the orders from your stupid wife and your ugly kids. I think one day he’s going to snap, and I don’t want to be there when it happens.” And then the boss said: “Guys, I hate to be a noodge, but could we get back to abbreviating the states? We still have 49 left.” And apologies were made, and understanding was reached, and they got back to abbreviating, and they said, “What’s next?” He said, “Alaska. Everybody cool with AL?” But somebody caught it.

You have to make people forget that Alabama was AL and then remind them that Alabama was AL. But the interesting thing about the joke in between is that it was from 20 notebooks prior to that. I could never make a joke about the disgruntled, hostile omelet chef I had on vacation one time that I totally identified with and totally got it, why she was so miserable, to the point where I loved omelets and I wouldn’t go to the omelet chef because she was so surly.

Start with a mundane idea and push it to an extreme. And then get it in front of an audience as fast as you can to see if it’s actually funny.

Gulman: I always tell comedians at every level: Don’t spend two hours writing this joke that you’ve never tried out onstage before. Write down two or three sentences that you have confidence that you think may get a laugh tonight. And then if that premise works, then I’m off to the races. Because it’s so hard to get a new joke to work. It’s the hardest thing in stand-up comedy. It literally drove me mad for years.

Duhigg: That’s interesting.

Gulman: Yeah, I think it really contributed to my eventual hospitalization for it. I was in the hospital for depression and anxiety, and part of it was writer’s block. Absolutely. Yeah. There are chemicals involved as well. But I know that part of the thing when I was going through that was just despair over not being able to—it was almost right after that abbreviations joke too, which may have been coincidence. But it was also like, I’m never going to write another good joke. It took me 20 years to write that one.

Duhigg: That’s fascinating.

Gulman: That I went crazy. Yes.

Duhigg: Because you felt like that joke was so good?

Gulman: No, because I also thought it was really, really flawed, and I also felt that I had blown it, and I cringe when I watch it. So that really bummed me out. It was the best joke I had. I kind of choked, I felt, and how am I going to come up with another one?

It’s OK to bomb. Just be self-deprecating and honest.

Gulman: I’ll never forget, for my bar mitzvah, my mom took me to see Johnny Carson, and he stumbled through a joke. He made fun of it in the moment, and then at the commercial break, he talked about it again, and it humanized him. Just by acknowledging the fact that a joke bombed, you can get laughs. And you can make everybody really, really comfortable with you by taking a moment to say, “Wow, that sounded much better in my head,” or whatever it is that you want to want to say. It’s an honest moment, and it’s so endearing.

Find an easy crowd, like a wedding or some other kind of ceremony.

Gulman: I killed at my father’s funeral. And then the rabbi went on after me and tried to do some time. And I said, “Rabbi, you never want to follow the headliner.” And that got another laugh. I destroyed at my father’s funeral, and it was a nice tribute and everything like that. But I always say, a funeral, you can really—there’s so much tension.

Duhigg: So the No. 1 rule I’m hearing you say is find funerals to try and practice your stand-up on.

Gulman: [Laughs.] Yes.

To listen to the entire interview with Gary Gulman, click the player below or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.