A small-town cake-loving boy from Indiana, Jim Gaffigan moved to New York and quickly found success in standup, television and movies. Now, he’s on the road and ready for a new Comedy Central special. By Jennifer L.M. Gunn
There are a few things you can gather about Jim Gaffigan from his comedy. He loves food. He’s from the Midwest. And he’s absolutely hilarious. After years of touring and considerable acting success, Jim is tired but happy. Punchline Magazine caught up with the comedian while he was on the road in West Palm Beach, Fla., prepping for his latest Comedy Central special.
I Double-Dog Dare You
So how did a guy from Indiana who’s the youngest of six kids get into comedy? Someone dared him. “I never really knew anyone that did standup,” he says. “I was raised conservatively. Success was wearing a coat and tie.”
Jim had long dreamed of living in New York City, and of getting out of the small-town suburbs — “In Indiana, I always thought, ‘this has been a mistake. I’m not supposed to be living here,” he says — so after attending Georgetown University in Washington D.C., Jim left his family and country life behind for the Big Apple.
In New York, Jim got a day job in advertising and began taking improv acting classes for fun, and this is where his path dramatically changed course. A friend dared him to sign up for a standup comedy seminar — a seminar that included a live performance at the end of its run. “My friend ended up never performing and I ended up falling in love with it,” he says of his frightening first go. “I had some friends in the audience. But it was terrifying.” He was hooked.
After his standup debut, Jim made the rounds, “plodding along and doing open mikes” around New York and honing his act night after night. “The first time, you try to find your voice. The audience kind of tells you how you are,” he says. “But it’s an insane pursuit.” Starting in the 90s also made things a tad more difficult. The comedy boom of the 80s had just passed and suddenly the demand didn’t match the supply of fresh talent.
“There was this glut of comedians and less clubs. Clubs were closing,” he says. “There were tons of people going into it. It wasn’t the quick and easy money thing of the 80s. It was right when people could see comedy on cable and they’d say, ‘Well, I can just see it on TV.’”
LUCK BE A COMMERCIAL (…AND A SPOT ON LETTERMAN)
As standup comedy was proving a difficult venture, a friend advised Jim to audition for commercials. “I didn’t think I was right for them. But I ended up getting a bunch of them,” he says with a humble laugh. His first commercial was for MovieFone, which kicked off a healthy string of over 100 commercial appearances, including spots for Saturn, Rolling Rock, ESPN and Fleet Bank (in which he starred with Nomar Garciaparra of the Boston Red Sox). Jim was also recently seen in ads for Sierra Mist, which featured fellow comedians Michael Ian Black, Nicole Sullivan, Debra Wilson and Aries Spears.
Acting proved to be Jim’s ticket to acquiring a steady income, industry exposure, a packed rÃƒÂ©sumÃƒÂ© and the freedom to keep doing standup. “The commercials made it so I could stay in New York and develop my act, but it was a scary thing not having a day job,” he says.
Commercials quickly turned into bit parts on Conrad Bloom , Law & Order , Sex and the City , Ed and That 70s Show , among others. Jim could also be seen on the big screen in films such as Three Kings , Super Troopers and 13 Going on 30 .
“My big break was finally doing Letterman, which was a big to-do because I’m from Indiana [like Dave] and it was my first network TV spot,” says Jim. The gig on Late Show with David Letterman turned out to be another in a series of seemingly lucky breaks. Jim’s experience is what many comics dream of. It’s what comedians can only hope for after a performance on national TV in front of influential late-night magnates like Letterman and Leno. “I did my set, I walked off stage and they said the executive producer wants to meet you up in his office,” Jim says, recalling the scene. “I thought maybe it was going to be something good. I thought maybe Dave wants me to be a writer. But they wanted me to develop my own show.”
Jim had struck gold, and it wasn’t lost on him. “Not to sound too corny, but to just do shows like Letterman and Conan is in a lot of ways what I aspired to. I didn’t aspire to be a headliner guy. I wanted to maybe just get on Letterman.”
SHOW US WHAT YA GOT
“With every comic, there’s kind of this ‘what would your sitcom be like?’ thing,” Jim says. “It’s just surreal. There are so many things that can go wrong. The odds of it ever getting on the air are so slim.”
Though he had a promising development offer on the table, Jim kept his feet on the ground, aware that at any moment, it could all fall through. “I was so incredibly flattered by it, but realistic about it. To actually get a show on the air is amazing.”
And so he started tossing out ideas to the network and to Letterman himself, and despite some push and pull between the two, Jim managed to come up with an idea for a sitcom mirroring both his own life and Letterman’s. “Weathermen aren’t seen as respected newscasters. It ended up that Letterman had been a weatherman and I thought he wouldn’t like it. But he said, ‘It’s fine as long as it’s funny.’” And thus Welcome To New York was born. The show — about a popular local weatherman from Indiana who moved to New York to be a big city ‘meterologist’ — debuted in October of 2000 and co-starred Christine Baranski — a rather high-profile cast member coming off four seasons on CBS’s successful Cybil — and Sara Gilbert of Roseanne fame. Despite some good critical acclaim, Welcome to New York failed and went off the air in January of 2001 — before completing a full season.
Losing the show was a difficult blow. “People watched, but not enough. I think some of it is the timeslot. There were a lot of different variables. It was going up against Who Wants to be a Millionaire?,” Jim says. “I was fortunate enough to be on a show that I wasn’t embarrassed about. There are plenty of people who get shows and they aren’t how they wanted them to be.”
Aside from the cancellation, the daily grind of working on a sitcom was also eye-opening for Jim. “It’s also really hard to do a sitcom. It seems really easy, but if you’re a lead, you have to remember a 40-page play every week. There was some burnout.”
The loss of the show was tough, but Jim had been prepared for the uncertainty of fame. He was aware going in that even though he had come to helm a major network sitcom in prime time, nothing was set in stone. “You get too much respect or not enough. It’s so fleeting. It’s cyclical. You might be the golden boy for like a month,” he says. “I have no idea why some shows work. Plenty of shows are on the air and I’m like “who is watching this?’”
And then, the humble boy from Indiana peeks out for one final modest show of gratitude: “As an actor, you know you’re never going to have the same job forever. Would I love to have a show on the air and be making a million and episode? Yeah. But I felt like I was just lucky to be there.”
After the demise of Welcome To New York , Jim returned to standup, commercials and bit parts. “I love acting and I love standup. I have to do both of them to keep some semblance of sanity,” he says. “If I could have another show, that would be great. I’d like to be acting more, but I’m not aspiring to be on the cover of People . I’d like people to come to see me but I don’t need to be a household name.”
TAKING THE CAKE
Jim’s newest project is a one-hour special for Comedy Central. And though he’s done a half-hour Comedy Central Presents , the one-hour format requires more preparation and cleanup. “Once you have a point of view, you can go with that. I’ll get a topic and kind of obsess on it. I’ll kind of look at it from every angle… like cake. And then I’ll kind of exhaust the topic until the audience is like ‘ok, enough already.’” It’s this relentlessness that makes audiences wonder how many jokes about food one guy can make — but Jim can spend a enormously significant portion of his set talking about food and consistently keep the audience in hysterics. At a recent performance at Caroline’s in New York, Jim hit the mark by doing his “Hot Pockets” bit, which segues into a riotous rendition of the Hot Pockets jingle.
But perhaps Jim Gaffigan is best known for his “inner voice” character. It’s a sort of running commentary by an imaginary woman in the audience who criticizes Jim’s performance — and it works like a dream. “The ‘inner voice’ started 7 or 8 years ago. I used to have a joke where I talked about my sister commenting on my act, so it’s kind of her. Some of it also might have been stopping the audience from commenting, like ‘I’ll comment on it so you don’t have to,’” he says. “It’s pretty amazing… it’s like the cornerstone of my act, but there are some audiences that just don’t get it.”
And what happens when it just doesn’t work? “The last time that it didn’t work was when I was in the Kilkenny Comedy Festival. It makes me pull back on it. It’s like, ‘how weird can I be with the audience?’” he says. “If you’re doing an hour, you want to keep them. Even if you have to baby sit them.”
After filming his Comedy Central special in early October (it airs in January), Jim will stay busy. But road life is no easy task — especially when it means leaving his wife of two years, Jeannie Noth, who is expecting their second child. “My wife and I, we’re kind of a total team. I write a lot with her. We wrote a script together for Fox,” he says. “I’ve always wanted my act to be something anyone in my family could listen to and not be embarrassed by. If I do anything she doesn’t like, she’s gonna tell me.”
And with that, we wish Jim luck, knowing we’ll probably see a lot of him in the future – on stage, in the movies, on TV, on the road and maybe… eating cake.
Jim Gaffigan’s CD/DVD Doing My Time is now available.
For more information, visit jimgaffigan.com.