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A Conversation with Everyman Comedian Jim Gaffigan

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Jim Gaffigan has become one of America’s favorite comics, a uniter of Red and Blue States alike. The Indiana native, who has lived in New York City for 20 years, first became a major player with his revered 2000 Comedy Central Presents special that introduced the world to his jokes on laziness, Mexican food, and the plight of the manatee. Gaffigan would then build a small but devoted following through his appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman, a highly successful Sierra Mist ad campaign with Michael Ian Black, and the occasional well-timed movie and TV role (Super Troopers, Flight of the Concords, That ‘70s Show).

Arguably his biggest breakthrough came with his sensational 2006 special Beyond the Pale, which probably had a higher food joke per minute ratio than any previous comedy special in television history. His new special, King Baby, premieres this Sunday, and the act is already picking up steam on YouTube for his soon-to-be-legendary routine on bacon. I spoke with the Gaffigan, the oft-described everyman comedian, over the phone about how he’s really not as lazy as he seems, why he doesn’t like telling dirty jokes on stage anymore, and why he’d never do an ad for Hot Pockets.

My friends and I always talk about how our lives turn into Jim Gaffigan routines, except when we experience it it’s really depressing. Does the type of laziness you describe on stage ever stop being funny?

I like to think that I romanticize those lazy moments. Like, when we finally do indulge in some of the laziness, there’s always some guilt, like “Oh man, all I did was watch Roadhouse for the weekend.” And that’s pretty depressing, but in hindsight it’s pretty hysterical. I think it’s something everyone’s kind of guilty of.

I kind of feel these moments are even more universal than even most observational comedy, like you don’t even have to put on pants to have these moments apply to your life.

I do think that everyone can relate to moments of being a lazy slob.

You’re one of the only comedians I’ve seen who works better on Comedy Central than when you’re uncensored. Do you think there’s something that helps your appeal when you’re less dirty?

Well, I feel that I used to be kinda dirty, but I never was that dirty of a comic. I would do it in the past, but part of stand-up for me is setting up personal challenges. So I cut out cursing from my act as a personal challenge. Any comedian can throw in a “fuck” and get a reaction from an audience. For me when I’d use it, I’d always feel it was more that the joke wasn’t necessarily done. I also didn’t want to not be able to follow myself… if you have a great dirty joke, it’s kinda hard to go back to talking about cake or bacon. It’s more how the show is going. I mean, I love dirty comics. I’ve been doing stand-up forever, so it’s just how my act is starting to change. I don’t really miss cursing on stage — it’s more about good writing for me.

A lot of comedians fall into the trap of being best known for one routine (Dave Chappelle comes to mind.) You did a YouTube video spoofing fans coming up to you talking about the Hot Pockets routine. How do you try to avoid being known as “the Hot Pockets guy?”

I mean, it’s not the end of the world. I definitely don’t want my tombstone to read “Jim the Hot Pockets Guy.” But it doesn’t really bother me because there was a time not long ago where I was the “meow guy” from Super Troopers, or with my earlier stand-up it was just “the manatee guy.” So if I’m now known as “the bacon guy,” it’s not the end of the world. I’ll keep writing and hopefully I’ll come up with another joke that will replace that. Now I’m being known as this “food comic guy.” I mean you write about what your passion is, and right now it’s about being lazy and eating.

One more Hot Pockets question and I swear we’ll move on. Do you think you’ve ultimately helped or hurt Hot Pockets’ marketing department?  Lewis Black ended up doing promos for the Weather Channel. Have they approached you to do ads for Hot Pockets?

It’s interesting. A guy emailed me saying he was part of a focus group of Hot Pocket consumers who watched my material and were asked whether it encouraged them to eat it or not. So they’ve done research, and I think I’ve definitely helped them; I mean, they know it’s not caviar. But again, though, I wouldn’t want to be known as the Hot Pockets guy, so I wouldn’t do a commercial for them. That’s not to say I’m against commercials. But for awhile on my last tour they’d do guerrilla marketing where they’d have a guy show up at my show dressed as a Hot Pocket passing out coupons. We had to put a stop to them because people thought I was working with Hot Pockets.

Yeah, it must have seemed like you were on the inside of a Hot Pockets conspiracy.

Yeah, you know what I mean? And it’s not like there’s a whole message to the Hot Pockets joke. It’s basically just “Hot Pockets give you diarrhea.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone do the politically correct audience member voice in quite the same way you do. Did that come from a need in your show early on, or did it just come about spontaneously that just stuck?

I started out definitely doing these characters from the Lower East Side. And there was a lady where the voice came from, going back, like, 12, or 14 years. But the whole idea of talking for other people has always been an aspect of my personality. It’s just an effective way to diffuse a situation in a funny way. Like if you walk into a room and there are people waiting for you, you say, “I can’t believe he’s late.” In doing that, I end up where people aren’t that mad at me. There’s an awareness, and they’re more likely to forgive you.

So you use that voice in everyday life in addition to on stage?

Yeah, I do. I kind of do it involuntarily.

I’m from New York but I went to school in Chicago, so I’ve kinda got the reverse dynamic of how you came from the Midwest culture and then moved to New York. I feel like you definitely play with the Midwest/East Coast dynamic a lot in your show. Do you feel that’s been an influence in your act?

I’ve lived in New York for 20 years, and I’m still treated like a tourist. There’s no getting around how bland Midwestern I am. I wouldn’t be able to describe it, but there is kind of a Midwestern sensibility. It’s a kind of sarcasm and cynicism, but in a different kind of way than it is in New York and the Northeast. But there is kind of a New York element of my pacing, like an efficiency, that is a sign of a New York comic. I don’t take too long in getting to the joke… I like that wherever I go, audiences are responsive. I would never want to be just a regional comic.

There’s been a return in popularity of observational humor the last couple of years (Mitch Hedberg in his time, Demetri Martin, etc.) after a lot of years of angry political comedy. How much do you think cultural timing has played into your popularity?

There are a ton of styles; for awhile there was a lot of high energy, angry comics, I was thinking I could be a lot of people’s second favorite comic, but they’d also like me, so I could be something of a crossover. But nowadays you can’t just be one thing as a comic. In the '80s, you could be the topical comic or the guy who did impressions. Now, you have to be more eccentric in how you do even observational comedy. What Demetri does is very different from what I do. Each comic has to do their own thing; both me and Demetri are just doing the kind of stand-up we like doing. That’s pretty much how it is for every comic; I love Chris Rock and Lewis Black, but they’re just doing their own thing.

How much do Twitter and social media play into your comedy now? It seems like the format of Twitter (just 140 characters) is sort of perfectly suited to your style. Do you see is as part of your comedy or more to help your career?

I honestly have no idea. I’m doing an hour special on Sunday, and I want people to know about it. On the Internet, it’s more useful if you want to find out when I’m performing in your area. Most people I meet say, “I’d go if you were performing in my area.” So with Facebook, Twitter, and vlogs and everything, I'm more trying to get the word out. I’m not really trying to convert anyone. A while ago I was in a club in D.C., and when I got back I got an email saying, “Hey, when are you coming to D.C.?” I was just there! So I decided, “Alright, I’ll just have an email list.” Facebook’s great because you can promote your event without really bugging people who aren’t interested. And with the Twitter and vlogging, it’s just another way of getting the word out. I was on a plane the other night, so I was just horsing around on Twitter. I mean, it’s all in the hope of getting people to watch my special. I mean, I spent three years writing it… and I worked really hard on it. All this lets me do self-promotion without being obnoxious about it.

The line on TV between marketing and material has gotten blurrier, at least. You’ve been good with that. I think people who’ve seen you on social media will certainly not miss your special for lack of information.

Oh yeah, cool. I mean it’s an essential part to get the word out. I’ve worked for awhile to get my act out there. I mean, I really do work hard. There’s a whole kind of coolness to saying something like you don’t do your homework. It’s cool to say, “I didn’t work on this, I just show up.” But I do work hard, and I certainly want people to know about it. So if sending a message on Twitter gets 20 more people to see my show, it's doing important work. I mean it seems like I’m not trying, but I push myself to go really far.

To wrap things up on a more serious note, one of my best friends is a militant feminist who has completely lost her sense of humor after a bad relationship, and she will still cry from laughing when she sees your act.

I feel like I’m just doing my thing and it’s nothing exceptional, but I love it when I talk to audience members after my shows and I see a lesbian couple along with a Mormon couple. I really had no elaborate plan with my stand-up. But I love to see how many different types of people like my stuff.

Jim Gaffigan’s King Baby premieres on Comedy Central Sunday, March 29, at 9/8 c. The DVD of King Baby, as well as the CD, come out on March 31. Photo by Martin Crook.

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About Ethan Stanislawski

  • Manny T.

    Awesome interview Ethan. Gaffigan rules!