Gary Gulman: Born on 3rd Base. Courtesy of Max.

Review: Gary Gulman’s ‘Born On 3rd Base’ Transcends Comedy To Exist In The Gloaming Of Something Greater

Gary Gulman: Born on 3rd Base. Courtesy of Max.
Gary Gulman: Born on 3rd Base. Courtesy of Max.

In his short story “The Emerald Light in the Air,” Donald Antrim ends the piece with a passage that does something new in fiction, which is to have the character and narrative focus leave the liminal space of the page and enter a wormhole to something weirder, more brilliant, and more abstract. It is something that the journalist John Jeremiah Sullivan remarked on in his review of the book, and it’s the closest revelation we have to describe what Gary Gulman does in his special, Born on 3rd Base. The fact that transcendence in letters is being used to clarify transcendence in Gary’s comedy is no coincidence, as Gulman is a writer at heart, as exemplified by his work on stage and on the page in his memoir.

Gulman’s essential qualities as a comic are wordplay, righteous frustration, and, above all, a pacing that allows the audience to equate its drawl and elocution with trust that comedy is going to happen, in an exact and interesting way, no questions asked. Watching this hour, which begins streaming today on Max, the buy-in is easy, but the consistent raising of conceptual stakes is compelling and impressive, much like the magic trick that features in the final chunk of material. It’s not that an elevation of comedy is unexpected, but the particular way Gulman does it is something new for the art form, and maybe something that can’t be applied, proofed, or recaptured for the next one.

Starting from the fact that Gulman grew up poor and Jewish, the special twists logically  inward and existentially outward with each new detail, creating a ripple effect that manages to allow the audience to see in 65 minutes how Gulman’s experience in one economic class subset impacts him as an adult, and how his particular parents shaped him into someone who needs to be on stage. Indeed, Gulman starts the special by sharing that he thinks all one-person shows could just be called Mommy Look, before sharing that if his mother had looked up even once from her People magazine, he wouldn't need to be on stage doing stand-up. The yelling of “mommy” in two distinct variations from the vantage of a kid on the diving board is the sound that bookends the special, as it’s crucial to leading into the primary focal point of the show, and also the last sound one of it, almost like a caterwauling of desperate potential from the abattoir of childhood.

Gulman’s mother doesn’t appear much in the show, but where she does, she’s portrayed as an almost cursed figure, not quite evil, but someone threatening to undermine the foundation of Gulman’s self-esteem at every turn. Yet, he loves her, and this is conveyed by his word choice of “dingbat,” when he imagines speaking back to her in a situation where she asks him something obvious about a magic trick. Gulman not reaching for worse or harsher language is a sign of affection. This also allows Gulman to position his mother on one end of the emotional spectrum before moving to introduce his father, who was more emotionally capable than his mother, but perhaps less so, somehow, financially, with Gulman quipping that after he died he “got his copy of Gone Girl.” His third y-axis point is his older brothers, both about 14 years older than Gary, who were unkind to him, but he seems to understand this as loving, or at least feckless in a way.

In each of these, Gulman sets up a nest of stories that he introduces and inhabits, before moving back to a previous point, or running through an aside that complicates and deepens his point. For example, Gulman introduces his poverty, shares that he got free lunch, then shares that it also works as free breakfast if you got to school over an hour before the day started. From here, he discusses the options for breakfast, discusses corn flakes briefly, then moves on to pop tarts for several minutes, which manages to make room for two pocket dimensions that contain an exploration of the word tart and being at Au Bon Pain the first time he saw an actual one, and a scene where the pop tart company decides not to spread the frosting to the edges of the pastry. Again, to return to writing, Gulman is taking a Tea Obrecht or Helen Oyeyemi approach to joke craft, fitting stories into stories into stories, creating a tapestry rather than a narrative that might connect to something later.

Gulman also reinvents two joke types in his own image. In Richard Jeni’s HBO special, A Big Steaming Pile of Me, he has an unfortunate running bit where he pretends to be an angry person from the Middle East emailing him about his show. It serves as a meta-commentary that is also just…so gross. The base concept of having an act out to comment on the show is something that hasn’t been seen in a comic’s act much since then, but Gulman finds a way to utilize this concept in a way that allows it to sing. At different points in the show, Gulman turns the laptop into a typewriter, and heightens the bit with each focal shift, starting with something small, then escalating to imagining mitochondria and other uni-cellular organisms feeling excluded (complete with many fun terms from middle-school science class), and then shifts to imagine a British character with a fun and funny opinion that doesn’t feel mean, excluding, cheap, or bawdy. It lands elegantly, as only Gulman could make it.

The other joke type is harder to describe, but here we go. Sometimes, a comic, often a newer comic, will tell a joke where the punchline isn’t funny, but sort of sad, and the delivery of mocking delight is what’s meant to sell it. A good example of where it doesn’t work as well is in Kumail Nanjiani’s otherwise excellent (perfect?) Comedy Central special Beta Male, when he ends a joke about a cat pizza chain by trying to push the name (sigh….Meowminos) as a laugh line. It’s sort of impossible to really make work, because it’s a version of anti-comedy that one is trying to sell as real humor. Against all odds, Gulman manages to crack this only because he makes it personal.

The successful version involves pipe cleaners bent into legs and feet, which isn’t funny, but it comes after a block-chain of events that involves Gulman's father and empathy. The moves preceding the line are as follows: Gulman’s father had little money, but instilled a set of values in his sons that made Gulman radiate with empathy throughout his life. This has led him to a life where he takes on causes that are abandoned by everyone else, such as Colin Kapernick and the NFL boycott. Gulman ends the run by explaining how a National Geographic photo with a sea turtle drove him to give up plastic straws, and holds up his own metal straw as a point of pride. Then the tag comes: not only is he saving sea turtles, he’s saving the pipe-cleaning industry (metal straws are cleaned with pipe cleaners), which leads to the image of them posed into legs and feet. The ending lands as gracefully as a joke like this could, but it also earns laughter from the vantage point it sets up, as opposed to trying to short the joke by insisting it be one bit a series of unrelated chunks.

I’m not sure if Gulman has this point in mind for the hour, but there is an argument to be made that he’s championing empathy over economy, as it’s given him so much. Gulman closes with a beautiful sequence of scenes about magic, but the most striking has Gulman watching magic up close, being a participant, and when asked “is this your card,” all of the beautiful things he wants to say about how much he appreciates the gift of the trick come out as a comment about how lonely the magician’s childhood must have been. It’s funny, not because it’s awkward (it is), or cruel (it isn’t), but because it’s an attempt to see the people who perform miracles in front of us for who they are: kids on the diving board desperate for attention and parental approval. 

Gary Gulman's new comedy special, Born on 3rd Base, is streaming now on Max!

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