Jim Gaffigan walks on stage to thunderous applause at the Ace Theater in Downtown Los Angeles. His simple black jeans and shirt match the immense black curtain that rises behind him up to the stratoshphere. This restored 1927 movie theater is palatial in size and décor and has been reclaimed from history and puts in stark relief Gaffigan’s incredibly pale head and full blonde beard that would make a Civil War General proud. It seems to float over the proscenium like a magic trick as his first words at the mike are:
“Why the beard? I joined Al Queda.”
The joke is emblematic of a Gaffigan routine, and the laughter that followed, and that filled the theater for the next two hours is what comes next. He and his writing partner and wife Jeannie Gaffigan are coming off two seasons of their TV show, him now touring with his fifth album and it seems his comedy is even more carefully defined, the mechanics carefully hidden by his casual, semi-irritated attitude at even having to show up at all because it required effort.
Let me say I’ve always enjoyed Gaffigan’s work, but I appreciate what seems like an even higher level of comic efficiency he and Jeannie have put into every joke in the current show. There’s no wasted space, no wasted, pause or punctuation. He goes for the comic kill in the shortest distance possible between sentence open and punch line. And it’s a pleasure to experience.
“The first thing you notice when you go for a hike is that it’s a mistake.”
Gaffigan has had a steady rise from his first album Beyond the Pale back in 2006, now on his fifth, Cinco, and has twice been nominated for a Grammy, has had two best selling books and last year he played Madison Square Garden for the first time, an honor that’s gone to only a handful of comics – you can count them on two hands.
“At my gym I see old people there with their parents. Watching someone in their nineties work out inspires me to die in my 70s.”
Gaffigan’s comedy persona, which seems to be his real persona (he confessed to me in an interview we did last year with Jeannie, which you can read here), is to embrace his shallowness, salute his laziness and honor his eating habits which he refers to as somewhere inbetween ‘dysfunctional or medicating.’
That of course is his genius. The best comics take their own deepest flaws and shame and parade them publically with the most debilitating commentary. But whereas an icon like George Carlin listed societies failures and faults with fabulous rhetoric and rose above the mess, or Chris Rock orates with a preacher’s intensity about life’s absurdities as a keen observer, or Louie C.K. will admit to an awful personal act but take pride in it, which sets him apart, Gaffigan has a different approach.
He really never stops being one of us.
He makes it clear that he knows the way he acts and thinks is wrong, but he seems to shrug and say ‘what did you expect? Aren’t you listening to my act? This is who I am.”
“We say dogs are like children, but they’re not. You’d never say ‘my son had a behavior problem so I gave him to a friend who had a farm upstate.’”
Gaffigan’s current show runs the gamut through his current foibles, successes, misadventures and fate’s ability to turn life on a dime. Even as he and his wife have experienced the height of his fame and their own success, they had a recent medical scare so profound it radically upended their life to the point Gaffigan was faced with possibly retiring. “The doctor told me my wife had a brain tumor the size of a pear. And I thought, did he go to Med School or the farmers market?” It’s clear what happened to them suspended anything close to normal and caused some real soul searching. But an artist can only share their deepest nature through the lens they were gifted with, and the Gaffigan’s is comedy. “My wife was really sick, and I looked at my kids and felt terrible. Because if she dies, these kids will be put up for adoption.”
Asked on a recent talk show if it’s ‘too soon’ to be doing comedy about his wife’s medical experience (she is in the clear and fully recovered, yet that recovery is ongoing), he responded;”you don’t understand my wife. She comes out of the MRI and says ‘write down these jokes.’” So clearly, his routine has been approved at the highest level.
His travels, and touring have taken him across the world. “I was invited to Finland and invited to go cross country skiing and I thought, is fun illegal here?” But he never misses a moment to give a dig to some of the big fads he thinks are just too stupid to bare. “I noticed a lot of people in Iceland looked like me, so I had a genetic test and discovered I’m 100% Asian.”
He and his wife are Catholic, and very open about their faith. A testament to his religion is his routine being expletive free and family friendly. As a comedy writer, I’ll tell you that’s twice as hard to write because dirty language is a guaranteed laugh. A clean act is also a filter for the best quality, simply because for it to work clean it has to be. But Gaffigan doesn’t hold his faith up as a cross to bear, as it were. He’s clear on where he stands. “I’m a Catholic, but not a good catholic. If there’s a test I’d fail. But most Catholics would which is why there’s no test.”
”We get massages from strangers because we can’t trust those who love us to touch us.”
He covers many topics, from his frustration at never winning an argument with his wife again “I had a brain tumor, she points out. How do I top that?” He also discusses the challenges of opening for the Pope, traveling with five children, colonoscopies and the inability to find something good to eat in a hospital.
“Hospitals have cutting edge equipment, but still serve food like the Shawshank redemption.”
Gaffigan, who does acting and voice over work, is still doing a voice character in the show which set him apart early on, a high register of a supposed audience member shocked at his poor choices of material “is he really doing that joke?” he’ll murmur into the Mike after a comic line. Then doubling down on the same joke the voice murmurs in the mike again: “He did another one, I can’t believe it!”
Hot Pockets, of course, was a viral sensation of a bit he did on his Beyond The Pale album, and has returned through his career as a comedy encore. Singing the ‘hot pockets’ theme was met with cheers, and immense delight from the audience as he took us on new Hot Pocket themes. “I’ve got an idea! Let’s fill a pop tart with nasty meat! They had a recall you know. They said the meat was ‘unsound’. What is that? Sounds like they’re hiding something… They have vegetarian hot pockets now. For those who don’t want meat, but want explosive diarrhea.”
It all works to support and balance his observations about his life and loves, in which he has clearly prioritized three things; trying to avoid work, personal embarrassment and responsibility; in that order. Yet he always seems to fail.
And that, secretly, is exactly what the rest of us are trying to do as well, we just don’t have the guts to share like he does.
Lucky for us that he’s failing upwards.
Jim Gaffigan is still on his Noble Ape tour and more information about it is available here.