How does a six-foot, six-inch, 245-pound tight end from Peabody Veterans Memorial High School in Massachusetts emerge 20 years later as a successful comedian? “Because when I got to Boston College, every player was six-foot-six, 245 pounds,” deadpans Gary Gulman, the footballer-turned accountant-turned comic.
Gulman will appear at the Cranbury Inn on Saturday, November 15, in “Stand Up For a Child Comedy Night,” a benefit for Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) of Mercer County, which uses trained community volunteers to speak for abused and neglected children in court cases. There are over 900 CASA programs nationwide. CASA of Mercer was established in 2001 to address the needs of Mercer County children who have been removed from their homes.
A proponent of the gentle, observational school of comedy, Gulman has become a well-known face on television over the last few years, first as a finalist on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” and then as a charter member of “Tourgasm,” the brainchild of current comedy superstar Dane Cook. Gulman’s 2006 Comedy Central special, “Boyish Man,” is available on DVD. He has been described as “sarcastic without being offensive” and as possessing “clever wit and boyish charm” — but enough about his mother.
As in most show-biz success stories, Gulman has toiled in the field for a long while before hitting it big. He started 15 years ago. “October 8, 1993,” he says in a phone interview from his home in Edgewater. “It was open mike night at Nick’s Comedy Stop in Boston. I did five minutes. I got a nice response, but looking back, the material was just horrific. But I caught the bug, and I started doing shows in bars and bookstores and anywhere they had a mike. They didn’t even have to have a mike, as long as they had an audience.”
Gulman had a football scholarship at Boston College and earned a Dean’s list graduation from the school of management in 1993. He joined a prestigious accounting firm but his heart was elsewhere. “I was the third child — my brothers were much older,” says Gulman. “Comedy was the currency in my family; if you could get laughs, you got attention. I remember that my mother would call from the other end of the house, ‘There’s a comedian on!’ and I would run to see them, on Merv Griffin or Mike Douglas. David Brenner was my favorite. When I got to stay up later, I would see some of the guys on ‘The Tonight Show.’ I liked Garry Shandling. And we had the Steve Martin record. I could listen to that over and over. I loved the absurdist humor.”
Gulman’s family may have enjoyed comedy as a diversion, but typically, that didn’t mean that they wanted their son to marry it. “Most families want their kids to go into something that is a guaranteed paycheck. I grew up with the mentality of getting a job after college. I told them that I wanted to be a comedian, and they just looked at me and said, ‘Well, you never make us laugh.’ And of course, they pointed out that you can’t make a living at it.”
Gulman stuck with the accounting job for a couple of years (“I was about as good an accountant as I was a football player”) before striking out full-time on the comedy scene. He held the usually part-time jobs, including waiter and Starbuck’s barista — working at the ubiquitous coffee bar is this generation of struggling performers’ equivalent of telemarketing.
“Then I was a doorman at a bar that I used to go to in college,” Gulman says. “It was humiliating because I would see people from school, and they would say, ‘What are you doing now?’ And I would go, ‘Checking your ID.’”
His favorite temp job, however, was substitute teaching at his old high school in Peabody. “I really enjoyed that — working with the same teachers I had in school. I still see some of the kids at my shows in Boston and I get E-mails from them. They think I don’t remember them, but I have a good memory for names.”
What Gulman didn’t know was that he had already met one of the people who would help smooth the road to success. “When I was working in Boston at an open mike show, I met this guy named Dane Cook, and I thought, ‘If this guy isn’t famous some day, there’s no justice.’ I worked with him frequently, and we developed a friendship. All of a sudden he sold a million copies of his album and everyone wanted to do projects with him. So HBO made a show of a tour that we had done in 2005. I had worked with him for 13 years and nobody knew him. Then one day, everyone knew him.”
They were getting to know Gary Gulman, too. He had performed at the Montreal International Comedy Festival in 1999. That led to appearances on his childhood favorite, “The Tonight Show,” and on the “Late Show with David Letterman.” Those performances led to development deals with networks, although none of the four pilots he shot were picked up.
Which is kind of okay with him. His passion is stand-up. “Used to be everyone wanted to have their own sit-com,” he says. “But in the last few years, I think, you can now be a comedian who is known just as a comic, not an actor, and I would be fine with that. One of my favorites is Brian Regan. People like Jerry Seinfeld have called him their favorite comedian. He sells out theaters, and he’s never really been a TV star. I would be content with that — and there’s no statute of limitations on it.”
Gulman is now well-enough known that his fans come to his shows bringing bags of cookies, knowing his fondness for sweets. His enthusiasm for peanut butter is legendary, although he says he has had to cut back to watch his weight. He may not get crowds the size of Dane Cook’s, but he’s not complaining about the lack of arena comedy gigs on his schedule.
“I did some shows with Dane where there were 15,000 people in the audience. I was fine, but I was only doing 20 minutes. I’m low-key, which works better in a club or small theater.”
It also allows him to be available for gigs like the one he is doing for CASA on November 15. “CASA wrote me a nice letter, and told me about the program. Now that I am living in New Jersey, I like to try to give back to the local community. I do this a lot, both here and back in Peabody, and I enjoy it.”
And if you bring a peanut butter cookie to the show, that will be okay with him, too.
Stand Up for a Child, Saturday, November 15, 7 p.m., Cranbury Inn, Cranbury. Gary Gulman, a “Last Comic Standing” finalist, is the featured performer at the benefit evening for CASA. Co-chairs are Susan Mottley, manager of Commerce Bank in Pennington, and Copley Szostak, president of the Present Company in Ewing and a West Windsor resident. Register. $100. 609-434-0050.