Jim Gaffigan: The biggest baby in comedy

By | March 16, 2009 at 6:24 am | 2 comments | Features | Tags:

Jim Gaffigan

Jim Gaffigan is a monster in the world of stand-up comedy. Few other contemporary comedians have the drawing power and versatility of the former Midwesterner. The premiere and release of his new comedy special/DVD King Baby will only further cement his place among stand-up royalty.

Jim Gaffigan is fucking brilliant, not that he would ever say it on stage. You might get that trademark inner voice of his to admit a bit of brilliance in its creator, but Gaffigan, the 42-year old everyman extraordinaire, stripped all cursing from his act in the last few years, not a moral stand but a challenge to write jokes that didn’t need to lean on an obscenity.

It’s only seemed to make him funnier. Gaffigan’s transcendent observations on the commonplace will be featured in a new one-hour Comedy Central special, King Baby, which premieres on Comedy Central on March 29. The album and DVD comes out March 31.

His previous special, Beyond the Pale, went platinum, and he continues to be one of the most popular live acts in the industry, selling out theaters across the country on his current tour. He’s also put up some impressive indie film credits including the upcoming Away We Go and will be back for a third season as one of the stars of the TBS comedy My Boys.

Here, Gaffigan chats with Punchline Magazine about the limitations of acting, his relationship with ‘the voice’ and his definition of success as an entertainer.

Where did the name King Baby come from?
It really kind of came from an inside joke from when I first started dating my wife. She would kind of spoil me and I felt like I was the King Baby. I really wanted to have the name of the special be something kind of strange rather than something like Bringin’ It At Ya! since the comedy is relatively observational.

How would she spoil you?
I would come home and there would be like cheese and sausage laid out, and she would run errands and all that. And because I look like a giant baby with no hair and the oversized head, it really kind of stemmed out of that.

You had never tried stand-up before moving to New York City. Do you ever think about how your development as an artist would have been different coming up somewhere else?
I totally feel that way. I think Dave Attell was a big influence on me in New York in kind of the efficiency of my writing. In those days, it was really hard because of the showcase format. It was really kind of a necessity to get to the jokes quicker. But I guess I almost wonder how it would be stylistically different, if I would have grown into my style earlier if I was in say San Francisco or Minnesota.

How so?
Following a guy who’s simulating having sex with a chair or someone who’s
screaming, you’ve got to kind of compete with that. It’s all within the context of things. When I first started, there wasn’t these alternative or underground rooms. I don’t know. I’m thankful for where I’m at. It’s just such an evolution for every comic, I think, finding out what works for you and transferring your persona to stage, refining your point of view.

Did comedy make you feel like more or less of an outsider in New York?
The lifestyle of a comic in New York City or probably anywhere is a very strange adjustment. In stand-up comedy, the conversation you have with the audience, the audience tells you exactly who you are, which is kind of a gift that comics have. They can go up there and be talking, and they don’t have the benefit of talking to friends. The audience will really let you know how you come across. Would I have realized that I was Midwestern had I not done stand-up? Yeah, but I think things are kind of amplified a little bit when you’ve got a microphone and you’re talking and your point of view is coming across to them.

I really do love it, and I definitely believe you’re a product of your environment. It’s weird. I love talking about comedy, but there’s also a little dose of talking out your ass when you’re talking about comedy. Here I am, the guy who talks about food and camping and stuff like that. But you really get to know yourself and what you can pull of with an audience and what you can’t. It’s an interesting conversation.

Where was the closest comedy club to where you grew up in Indiana?
Probably in Chicago, which was about an hour away. Where I was growing up, there was nobody in the entertainment industry. I’d watch Carson and Letterman, but I just thought Letterman was some fluke. I didn’t imagine that anyone would actually pursue it. Now clubs are everywhere. I actually was a doorman in college in a comedy club, a very short-lived comedy club, in D.C. It served no alcohol. I remember thinking I wasn’t that incredibly impressed with it.

Even then, I didn’t see it as really an option. I was raised in a family where my father was the first one to go to college. It was what kind of financial field you were going to go into. It really took some time for me to take the leap. I studied finance in college, not enjoying it but thinking once I get paid, it’ll be OK. I don’t know, I feel like for me I always am kind of battling other people’s expectations and struggling to do what I want to do.

How so?
Whether the notion of success is wearing a coat and tie, or doing certain things that will result in a lot of money, or not doing commercials because they’re considered selling out. A personal thing for me is, I curse in everyday life, but getting rid of the curse words onstage, there’s nothing rebellious about it. But this whole notion that comedy has to be only about challenging authority and rebelling against that, I don’t know. I realize that sounds very ironic.

Stand-up is such an amazing thing for comedians. Compared to other creative fields, there’s an immediacy of the feedback; you get a sense of control, you get to write, you get to direct, the lighting, the sound. It’s really up to you. In some ways, that kind of ruins you for other things, whether it’s writing a script or acting in a film or being on a TV show. There’s part of me that’s very much a split personality. There’s part of me that loves acting. But when you’re doing stand-up you know when a joke’s not funny or you know that something’s not going to work so you don’t do it. When you’re the hired gun actor, you’ve got to do it.

You might sit there and try to sell the people on why this is not funny, but you’re just hired. I had a great time on Ed and I had a great time working on some indie films, but doing commercials, improvising on commercials has been ironically some of the most creatively fulfilling work I’ve done.

As you’ve gotten more experienced, do you feel better equipped to set your own definition of success?
I’m very confident in what I want, but even in an hour special, there are so many elements you can’t control. It’s puzzling for a comedian in a lot of ways. You’re like, well, wait a minute. I deal with this huge variable, which is the audience, and I don’t know, a quarter of them may be coming from a funeral and I can still pull that off. But we can’t get one guy that’s working a camera to do his job? There’s nothing malicious about it but it’s very strange.

And there’s part of the whole entertainment industry that’s really disgusting. Comedians, when we’re doing shows or working on a weekend at a club, there’s something pure about it. But you do a show and after a show someone will come up to you and go, ‘I liked you, but I didn’t like him.’ I always feel like that’s kind of the entertainment industry corrupting things. Even if I’m not into the style of some comic that’s going on before me, I wouldn’t want to hear something bad about it. The guy’s going onstage trying.

If you had to give up either stand-up or acting, which would be easier to do?
It would be easier to give up acting, just because I think it’s so impossible to do something good. I know among comedians, it’s like, if you can be on a TV show and not be embarrassed, it’s a success. There’s part of me that really loves acting, but acting is truly an insane pursuit. The whole notion of auditioning, and then your sensibilities matching up with someone else’s— it’s really a long shot.

What is the writing process like for your inner voice?
I typically don’t really write anything for it. I definitely will improvise, find something onstage and continue to use it. But some of it is just kind of giving a voice to that inner critic we all have. I think stand-up is very much a conversation, and the inner voice is an aspect of my personality. If I show up late, in an effort to diffuse the situation I will try to make a joke and speak for the other person by saying, ‘I can’t believe you’re late! You were supposed to call me at 12 and you called me at 12:08. That doesn’t make me feel very important.’

It’s an effective way to diffuse, and I think that when the audience knows that you’re aware of how the conversation’s going, whether it be talking too much about a topic or using it as a tool to highlight maybe the possibility of a very small percentage of the audience having a problem wit the topic, from a comedic standpoint, its an additional point of view. My character can have a far more conservative point of view or far more liberal point of view or an utterly insane point of view. Once I do the straight line that I’m speaking for the audience, then I can make the inner voice have a completely different aspect. It’s ever-evolving.

Has the inner voice ever said anything that surprised you?
It’s usually done for a laugh so it’s typically incredibly PC or incredibly conservative. It’s rarely a sexist thing or a homophobic comment. In stand-up, someone can bring up a topic and be saying something very intelligent about it. But then you can bring up one word that is so powerful that people shut down. To a truly devout Christian, even bringing up Jesus or anything like that is such a taboo thing. My wife’s a devout Catholic so I would never say something that she would be offended by. That’s not to say that she censors me, but I’m not interested in going after that. Who knows, maybe in the future I will be. But I want my stand-up to have a universal appeal. I don’t want it to be us and them, like, ‘I like ketchup, and the people who don’t like ketchup are horrible people.’ That’s not to say that I’m some great guy, it’s just kind of how my point of view has evolved.

Do you ever perform without the inner voice now?
Sure. There are waves of it. In front of an audience that knows who I am, I can just use it once over the span of a 20-minute set. I do it at the beginning of this special because it’s kind of like introducing a scene. When I did my first Comedy Central Presents, I was doing the voice when I was doing sets or on the road, but it was inconsistent. It would work 80 percent of the time, and 20 percent of the people would think I was just insecure or bailing on my jokes, which is not what I’m doing. So when I did Comedy Central Presents, I didn’t do it at all. I remember friends saying, ‘I can’t believe you didn’t do the voice thing!’ I said I didn’t want to risk it. Obviously in Beyond The Pale I did it, and in King Baby I feel like I do it less or more effectively.

The whole cursing thing, I weeded it out because I felt like when I was cursing it indicated to me that I wasn’t done with a joke. And that’s just for me. Lewis Black or Chris Rock, without them cursing it would appear odd. But some of it is also the subject matter that I’m discussing, like bacon, bowling. Do you really need to curse? It just feels like my point of view. Maybe I painted myself into a corner. I certainly don’t want it to be, ‘Bob Saget… he’s up there being dirty!’

Maybe I’m being naive here, but I don’t think people even notice I don’t curse. I think comedy people, and then like a small minority of people that are like, ‘I don’t want to hear that,’ or ‘I’m listening to a CD with my 10-year-old and I don’t want to hear ‘fuck’.’ I would say 90 percent of people it doesn’t even register with.

It’s not like you were Chris Rock to begin with. On Doing My Time, you probably cursed five times.
Here’s an interesting story. On Doing My Time, I was actually encouraged to curse by the record label. In their defense, they signed me to this deal and the guy was kind of like, ‘You know, you might want to curse because teenagers really like that.’ When Beyond The Pale came out, there was a blog review I read: ‘Kind of funny, but there was no cursing,” as if that was the missing element. It’s kind of weird. I think people do what they do.

On King Baby, working toward this special, I didn’t want to do any food jokes, and the irony is that special is probably half food. You kind of do what you can do. I grew up in a small town and you’d curse when you hit your leg or someone was truly obnoxious to you, but if you were just discussing an escalator, it would just seem odd to curse. If I was really angry about something in my act then it would make sense— like the ketchup gave me diarrhea or something.

Does your family get to see you perform much?
Yeah, a fair amount, when I’m back around Chicago. I should preface this by
saying I’m just as surprised as everyone else that this guy who works hard at stand-up and tries to get better. I didn’t know it would translate into doing theatres. The thing I’m thrilled about is I feel like I keep getting better at it. I come from a funny family and they’re obviously supportive. It’s pretty cool.

See more of Jim at jimgaffigan.com.

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Tom Keller

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