Q+A: Jim Gaffigan

The funny man on fast-food culture, cursing, and chasing his dream.

Comedian Jim Gaffigan brings his quirky, observational comedy to the Taft Theatre on August 17. Much of his comedy pertains to the experience of eating (his most famous bit is about Hot Pockets), so we sent dining editor Donna Covrett to ask him a few questions. Turns out, they have a lot more in common than a love of food.

You are offering your latest comedy special, Mr. Universe, as a $5 digital download on your website, jimgaffigan.com. Do you see this as a new wave of distribution? I don’t know. Our behavior on the Internet is such that I don’t know what we’re going to be doing in three years. So I don’t know if the download thing will make sense; I don’t know if theft will be so pervasive that people will never pay for anything. I think in this moment it made sense.

I admire your comedy for many reasons, but in particular, as a food writer, for the insightful and comedic way in which you bring our relationship with food to light. In your McDonald’s bit, you equate our fast food consumerism with our consumerism of celebrity. Is this a conscious choice to color your act with more social commentary? It’s so exciting for me to hear you describe my act in such an intelligent way. There is a social commentary there. Food is a big metaphor for a lot of things. It’s so universal, right? What struck a chord for me about McDonald’s was an unrelated idea that culturally our consumption of gossip is pretty ridiculous. The notion of a guilty pleasure is disappearing. We all know McDonald’s is horrible for us. I guess there’s a contrarian spirit in every comedian. I’m a Midwesterner; I’m a dumb guy; I identify with dumb people. So there’s this anti-elitism that kind of gnaws at me. I could go off on a tangent. OK, let me go off on a tangent. The whole tone of the criticism toward McDonald’s is that eating healthy is not something someone making less than $30,000 a year can embrace. It’s a pretty difficult task. So characterizing McDonald’s as “The Great Satan” is not the solution. I’m not an incredibly healthy eater, but I don’t think railing against McDonald’s is helping people to live healthier.

I’ve always imagined that Led Zeppelin got really tired over the years of hearing the audience shout “Stairway to Heaven” at every show. Does the audience yelling “Hot Pockets” at you have the same effect? The Hot Pocket thing is both a blessing and a curse. I would not be able to tour and do theaters if I had not stumbled upon this gold mine that is Hot Pockets. I do Hot Pockets on all my theater shows, usually as the encore. Some people want the Hot Pocket, others get angry if I don’t do the bacon chunk. And there are those who are upset if I don’t do the manatee bit. In stand-up there is an unwritten agreement with the audience that you’re going to provide new material. But my number one responsibility for a show is for people to leave having had the best time possible. People will bring their 8-year-old and the kid will sit there very politely for an hour and then I will do the Hot Pocket joke and they’re happy. I get to perform two shows at The Taft Theatre, so is doing the Hot Pocket joke again the end of the world? No.

It’s similar to a chef who gets identified with a certain dish. Yeah, the chef connection is great. A year or so ago I went to New Orleans. My manager received requests from three different chefs—I should know who they are but I don’t because I’m ignorant—but my manager was very excited. “They want you to come to their restaurants.” They listen to stand-up while they prep. They’re nerding out on food. It’s a similar point of view, a direct parallel. Maybe that’s why they open different restaurants? It’s like doing another hour on stage.

In the Hot Pocket bit you employ the internal voice—where you slip into a high pitched, whispery tone. Where did that come from? The internal voice—I call it the inside voice—is something that’s been part of my personality my entire life. Stand-up is very much a conversation where the audience communicates through laughter. Adding the inside voice adds a complexity to the show; it allows me to approach things from a different standpoint. So the inside voice can be highly sensitive or highly critical, indifferent or annoyed. It allows me to have additional points of view on the same topic, or on a specific joke. But to the audience, I think it’s empowering them with a point of view. So when the inside voice talks to the audience, I communicate to the audience that I’m not ignoring them.

How have a childhood in a small Midwestern town [Chesterton, Indiana] and then 20-plus years of living in New York City shaped your material? It’s strange. When I was growing up in this small town, all I wanted to do was get out. I remember thinking, There’s just been an enormous mistake. The irony is I came to New York and it was very ethno-centric in regards to identification. What are you? Are you Italian? Puerto Rican? Jewish? And so my identity was Midwestern, or white bread. I ended up understanding who I was by coming to the East Coast, but I’ve also been influenced by the Midwest in my sensibility. It’s strange because it goes to the culture conflict we exist in—red state, blue state, secular versus religious and all that. I’m a split personality. I wanted to get away from the crazy Christians, but now I’m defending them, and I have tons of friends who are gay. It’s just that I’m a combination of small town and big city.

You grew up in a generation of comedy with a bunch of loud comedians around you: Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy, Lewis Black, even back to Richard Pryor and George Carlin. Was your style a calculated move to differentiate yourself from the pack? It wasn’t a calculation of, Everyone is being irreverent, so I’ll be clean. That’s just what worked best for me. The topics that I would write about, if I’m talking about muffins or camping, there is no reason to curse. The anger didn’t match my personality. Nor did talking about politics. It didn’t work. I look too much like Hitler’s wet dream. I’m a white-bread looking white guy. My style of comedy is very American. When I go on stage, it’s because of the American experience with white bread guys that my comedy works.

Maybe food works so well within your comedy because it’s the great common denominator. Everyone gathers around the table, everywhere in the world. Yeah, I totally agree. Though as much as I love food, I’m very curious as to why I have yet to have the obsession with the chemistry of food. What made you a chef and what made me just talk about food? I have an emotional attachment to bacon, but a chef understands the value of the salt and how it works with other food. My point of view is different. I see the bacon as the gold that we’re panning for in the salad. But a chef understands what happens if you put the bacon with dried red fruit and pine nuts and light cheese.

Actually, I think you have much in common with chefs. Their understanding of flavor profiles and chemistry is driven by an emotional attachment; your comedic observations about our relationship to food is driven by that same emotional attachment. You understand the chemistry or psychology of a joke, and we just eat it up. Yes, that’s it. Exactly.

Was comedy always your path or was there a moment where one left turn could have meant a different career? Oh, beyond a doubt. There was no one in the entertainment industry. Even being an entrepreneur was not encouraged in my family. My father was a banker. He was the first one to go to college. Success meant wearing a coat and tie. I was the youngest of six, and so my father saw my brothers and sisters graduating with different degrees—like in international terrorism—and not being able to get a job. So he strongly encouraged me to study business. I used to jokingly say I could study finance or accounting. I remember studying in college and thinking, Well, maybe when I get paid for this I’ll like it.

Who do you find funny? Jonathan Winters—I think he’s funny. Letterman and Bill Murray were big influences on me growing up, Louie Anderson too. I think Carlin’s style of writing and deciphering a topic was something that really influenced me. I think Dave Attell is funny. This is another tangent, but I like for my comedy to be evergreen and not be topical and not be mean. The two primal instincts are lust and hatred. It’s the easiest way to connect with someone. Comedians hate whoever is popular. It’s ugly. And the lust is the salacious irreverent stuff. We all have the friend who is the catty and snarky kind of funny, but you eventually grow tired of that friend. It’s exhausting. So that sort of comedy just doesn’t have evergreen quality. There has to be consistency. There are rules of comedy. You can be dirty, but it’s hard to follow dirty with anything but dirty. Once you shock someone, once you’ve given them the salacious, that’s all they want from you. Just like it’s hard to go from violence in a movie to conversation in Downton Abbey.

Do you experience stage fright? I did for a long time, but I’ve pulled back. I record my sets because I’m always trying new stuff, and when I watch the playback, I notice I talk lower when I’m trying the new stuff, so I think there’s some element of stage fright. But vulnerability is very important for a comedian. It is for me. Someone who is flat out confident all the time or they never engage in being self-effacing, to me it doesn’t create any empathy for that performer.

Your wife Jeannie is a comedy writer and produces your show. And she’s my writing partner. In a lot of ways she’s a secret weapon. There are plenty of lines that are hers. Some of the material comes out of our conversations. Last night, we were talking about people comparing little dogs to babies, which prompted an entire conversation that I recorded on my iPhone. So that’s how a lot of the material gets developed.

Who gets the last laugh in your house? How do I answer that without sounding like a jerk if I pick myself? There’s definitely a lot of laughter going on and it’s fun to see our children engage in it. Ironically, me being this clean comedian, our son thinks anything that has the word penis in it is funny. It’s interesting to witness the value of humor within our family. Instinctively, we know we shouldn’t be sarcastic with children, but we end up doing that, and so our 8-year-old has a sarcasm that doesn’t fit her age. It’s unfair that we’ve given that to her because there are these sweet 8-year-old friends that have no idea she’s being sarcastic.

August 17. Two shows. tafttheatre.org

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