By Moonah Ellison
Photography: Corey Hayes
Second only to, “You’re grounded!” bemoaning the arrogance of the current generation is the Daddest Dad thought to ever Dad — unless you’re King Dad of them all. And then, it’s a proclamation. Jim Gaffigan has transcended the unthreatening “everyman” label to claim something more. There is power in that populism. We feel like he’s us, so we feel like he can speak for us — even when it’s tough love. “Every generation has such an arrogance to where we feel like we’ve figured it out and we refuse to look back at like a generation or two and see how off the mark they were. It’s this kind of arrogance. I don’t know if it’s a Western thing. I don’t know if it’s every generation thinking they have it figured out but…” his deadpan growl holds forth on this with an ever-present twist of wry. One thing this generation has figured out, is how to consume the comedy they want, on demand.
“The audience is so much more educated on how to be an audience member and knowledge of standup is dramatically different. I mean today you get 13 year olds who have access to YouTube and Netflix. I mean, they can become experts on decades of comedy relatively quickly. Whereas 20 years ago people had five minutes of standup on The Tonight Show or some kind of crummy cable show showing a bunch of people in front of a brick wall.” Back in the days of that brick wall, Gaffigan’s comedy was a little different. He wasn’t always so c-word — clean. Though it makes him a bit of an outlier, it’s more organic than pointed. Though it’s tempting to attach the peculiarity to his well-known Catholicism, or the fact that he has five kids who literally follow him on the road, it’s more service to his comedy — adding, by omission of anything gossipy, snarky, or dirty. “We all have friends that are really funny but kinda it’s tiresome — so either they’re nasty or they’re angry and there’s a fatigue built in. It’s not just how someone views standup its how they feel about the standup a couple days later. ‘Cause we all have that friend thats really funny but it’s also you feel icky because it’s basically being mean.”
Being everyone’s nice, funny friend is paying off. He’s working on the second season of The Jim Gaffigan Show, which is as much the family business as his Partridge Family comedy tour bus. His wife is his co-executive producer and collaborator on everything from this show to his best-selling books. He addresses the pros and cons with his trademark self-shade. “There is something about writing with someone that you live with that, you know, I’m not worried about her getting another project and then being distracted, which is great, but other than that it’s just a negotiation. I feel like our strength kind of balances each other out.” His wife, Jeannie Gaffigan, has been described as “the quiet powerhouse” of the Gaffigan empire. Her presence is grounding, at least. “Whenever we go on some absurd bend, it’s usually her but then again the larger-conceptual-outside-the-box episodes are definitely my ideas, that she brings down in some practicality.”
Maybe the most practical and insane fact most people know about Jim Gaffigan, is that he lives with his wife and five kids in an improbably tiny apartment in New York. It’s as central to the Gaffigan canon as Hot Pockets, and is so well-known and baffling, it’s one of the central conceits of his semi-auto-biographical show. Though he’s since moved into a bigger place, it’s more fun to imagine the barely contained circus, and TV viewers must agree, as the show has been picked up for a second season. Any measure of success in our fragmented media attention span, where every niche is catered to, is “seconds” — something Gaffigan has never turned down. That is, a second season of his TV Land show, and a second best-selling book, to go with his two Grammy nominations for his comedy specials, Mr. Universe and Jim Gaffigan: Obsessed.
Nobody is as surprised by this as he is. “I was somebody that was an unlikely participant in standup or the entertainment industry as a whole — i come from a small town in Indiana.” Though he might have wanted to perform from a young age, he didn’t pack a tiny suitcase to go to the big city to sit at malt shoppe waiting to be discovered. He went to college and got a job in advertising. Eventually, he figured out the one place he could be the boss, was working for laughs. “There’s something about being a comedian where I’m up there by myself with a microphone and I have a lot of that authority.” This famous foodie compares what he does on stage, to the culinary — if his career had gone a different way, maybe he’d be in a kitchen instead. “I feel a kindred spirit when I meet chefs, like i feel like there is something creative and solitary about their work and pleasing people that might be appealing to me.”
Just like working and living with someone might make it hard to draw a line between where work ends and home starts, add that he’s playing someone on TV that is him down to the number of children. He’s either the most genuine version of himself in his performances and appearances, or he’s living the most exhausting method character study since Stephen Colbert. Even if that’s what he’s playing, he brings none of that political bent to his stage. Just because he doesn’t joke about it, doesn’t mean he doesn’t think about it. “You know as an American, when you travel internationally someone will bring up like “Well I hear Bush is your president” and then you think about Trump and I’m sitting here thinking, “Aw man, if Trump wins I’m gonna have to deal with this conversation.” It’s a scenario for all Americans to think about — even if Gaffigan thinks there’s a chance the whole thing is a long con. “I still think that, like, there’s no way Trump’s gonna win, there’s no way that if Trump has momentum and Hillary is weak then Bloomberg will come in, you know what i mean…” But while some comedians are hoping for a Trump presidency because of all the fodder it will bring them, Gaffigan sees politics the same way as “working blue.” “Standup-wise, I don’t like the fact that its topical, I don’t like the fact that it’s decisive, so if i have an opinion i’m gonna alienate someone in the audience.”
Gaffigan brings audiences together, and lots of times it’s for a cause, participating in events like “Stand Up for Heroes,” benefitting the Bob Woodruff Foundation and their work for wounded and impacted veterans, and he has donated proceeds from the sale of his specials to the organization. He treats making people laugh as serious business, and wants to make it available to the widest audience he can. “There’s enough human failure to not have to talk about certain things.” His own opinions aren’t part of what he’s selling. “I also think that often when people talk about things whether it’s gay marriage and stuff like that — you know my opinion is that debate is already over— obviously I support equality, obviously most of us support equality.” Even if he believes it, contributing to the discussion by posting rainbow hearts on Twitter, or including politics in his act, isn’t his style. “I mean look, I’m from the Midwest and I’ve lived in Manhattan for 25 years, I love having a political discussion, but i feel like, as my comedy, I’m there to entertain, you know? Gay marriage is gonna sort of help out but human selfishness is like a bigger problem.”
In light of the recent attention paid to the lack of diversity at the Academy Awards, racism is on the list of big problems, too. “There is such a rich, unfortunate history of racism it’s just undeniable and it’s, you know, them not being acknowledged.” He’s very matter-of-fact about the effect, and takes the wind out of the cause. “My problem is the premise of awards for entertainment is not real.” Even though he’s been nominated for awards in this arbitrary universe, his perspective is unwavering. “I like it, but it’s not real. You know art is not something necessarily quantifiable. You cant really compare the movie Room to Brooklyn, but we’re forced to do that and I mean there’s nothing malicious behind the idea of giving awards, but it is a beauty contest. We are so influenced by so many factors like, ’Is this movie more important? Is this person more deserving of a nomination? Is there person playing a more complex character that’s socially relevant?’ It’s like awards don’t make sense.” Pointedly, the least stereotypically “Hollywood” celebrity has a joltingly frank reframing. “I guess the Academy Awards are a fine example of showing that racism does exist but i think, you know, talking about how many African Americans are in American jails is a better example of illustrating racism.”
As the dad of two daughters, he notices the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry, hits close to home in a different way. “If you look at like the percentage of female directors in Hollywood — like thats even more glaring.” While the current generation might think they have everything figured out, they’re not moving away from the traps of the past quickly enough, and the result is contrary to their self-perception. “I mean these people, there’s nothing malicious, it’s like these men that are not hiring, or these women that are not hiring these female directors, they consider themselves very liberal.” And though the world is full of division, if those differences aren’t given center stage, maybe we can come together, whether to work or just sit in the dark and laugh with a group of strangers. “It just kind of goes back to my whole thing that there’s like this arrogance that human beings have, that we have this all figured out — our parents were idiots but we have it figured out — when the reality is i think we should just all be a lot more humble.”
And then it becomes clear that sometimes, Dad really does know best.