The Duluth Comedy Fest came together in dribs and drabs, seemingly. First, there was a Brian Posehn performance announced. Then, John Hodgman was added and almost immediately dropped. Finally, it was a proper two-day event, with Tig Notaro taking Hodgman's place, and Gary Gulman and Alex Edelman also added. It almost seemed too good to be true, what with such incredible talent as part of the lineup, but then Friday night rolled around, and there was Gulman onstage at the Norshor Theatre, working out his latest batch of material in front of a welcoming, three-quarters-full crowd.
Edelman opened the night with about 20 minutes of strong material. "I'm from a really racist part of Boston called 'Boston,'" Edelman announced, early on. His jokes were largely about his family's dynamics, with detours into his identity as a millennial, and a funny piece about getting disappointed by a chance meeting with astronaut Neil Armstrong. Edelman detoured for a bit about wanting to walk out on the ice of Lake Superior and being dissuaded by locals, and this helped to endear him to the crowd. By the end of his set, he had suitably won over the audience, and he then announced Gulman as one of his favorite comedians.
Gulman came onstage looking dapper in a jacket, slacks and boots, and almost immediately went for local color, using the name "Gitche Gumee" to refer to Lake Superior. "You guys gotta get outta here," he said to peals of laughter. "That lake is clearly trying to get rid of you." Before long, he was off and running, doing a solid 90 minutes of material that's likely to end up on his next special, called "The Great Depresh." In a word, his performance was marvelous.
The thing that was so remarkable about it was that he built his whole set around a theme: his experience over the last several years with crippling anxiety and depression, a sickness so terrible he had to be hospitalized at one point. But he didn't tell his story all at once. Instead, he often digressed into memories from his childhood or his college days, detouring into detours until eventually finding his way back to the main path, but it all seemed masterfully done. Clearly, Gulman - who has appeared on just about every talk show there is - is a total pro, yet he never seemed anything other than conversational and even loose.
Probably the most affecting thing about Gulman's set was that it was so beautifully humanistic. He talked about his mental illness struggles not with self-pity, but with a tone of advocacy for others, and it never seemed as if he was pandering, looking for easy approval. He simply read like a man - a very funny man - who had been through some serious pain, and who wanted to relay that pain so that his audience would perhaps be more considerate of the pain others around them might suffer.
But, no matter how serious he got, Gulman always went for laughs to break the tension, and he always hit his mark. No matter the topic - water fountains, his family, Bob Saget's ridiculous wealth - it was all funny.
Saturday's bill (Feb. 16) with Notaro and Posehn is the big-ticket item during the inaugural Duluth Comedy Fest, but Gary Gulman's performance was a kind of revelation, one that showed an incredibly thoughtful, considerate, hilarious person at the top of his game.