Punchline Magazine analysis: Jim Gaffigan is more subversive than you think

By | March 31, 2011 at 2:36 pm | 23 comments | News, Opinion | Tags: , , , , ,

jim gaffigan

When you think of a comic who really speaks the truth, who really tells it like it is, when you think about a subversive comedian, who do you envision— leftist folks like David Cross or Janeane Garofalo; maybe libertarian Doug Stanhope? You know who you probably don’t think of is Jim Gaffigan.

Gaffigan is a subversive voice, for the reason others consider him so middle of the road: He’s able to talk to everybody, and that puts him in a position to affect more societal change than the trio of “on edge” comedians mentioned above.

Comics “on the edge” tend to have edge or fringe followings. Stanhope is fantastic, but he’s a niche performer. Cross may be offensively poignant, but he’s preaching to the choir. Same goes for Garofalo; as much as she is able to rally the left, she’s not changing any Republican minds.

Now, take Gaffigan: he’s less vitriolic than the aforementioned comics, but he’s certainly found a way to criticize people to their faces—and because of his wide appeal, he’s been able to accomplish this on a larger scale.

Let’s look at the same phenomenon outside of comedy. A lot of my left-leaning friends think Richard Dawkins is spot-on in his aggressive advocating of atheism, but also kind of a dick. And he is. But sometimes being honest and uncompromising requires being a dick, and sometimes you need people to be dicks on the edge in order to make room in the middle. Dawkins (like Cross, Stanhope and Garofalo) pushes the limits of what’s considered acceptable public discourse and therefore has created more room for moderates (Gaffigan).

Then there’s scientist Neil Degrasse Tyson, who calls himself agnostic, but based on the way he speaks about the world, is widely considered an atheist (a concept mainstream America doesn’t embrace). Tyson, like Gaffigan, however, is more concerned with getting his message to the masses and not just trying to engage people already in line with his worldview. So, he keeps his personal beliefs quiet, or at the very least, subtle. He’s aware of, and cares about public perception, and therefore has become a more popular figure for a broader spectrum of society than has Dawkins.

So Tyson and Dawkins are not that different. It’s just that Tyson is more socially accessible and therefore has a wider appeal. And because of that wider appeal, a more mainstream audience will be receptive to his beliefs and possibly transition to even edgier figures like Dawkins. So, in other words, the Gaffigan figure (seemingly NOT edgy) can act as a conduit to overtly edgy comics like Stanhope or Cross.

Back to Cross. He’s a significant figure for a relatively small group of passionately thoughtful people. There aren’t many conservatives listening to Cross, and I’m willing to bet lots of people think he’s a dick (even his fans). And he is, and that’s fine.

Gaffigan, by contrast, with his Midwest background, everyman physical appearance and laid back delivery, is simply more accessible to the populace. Gaffigan regularly criticizes society, but does so gently (similar to Tyson’s approach to science). For instance, Gaffigan lays into obese middle-America, but its filled humility and self-deprecation. In a bit about McDonalds he says:

We all know better, right? We’ve read the articles, seen those documentaries. It’s the same message: ‘Look, Mcdonalds is really bad for you. It’s very high in fat and calories and we don’t even know where the meat comes from!’ and we’re all like ‘that’s disgusting. (beat) I’ll have a Big Mac, a large fries and a two gallon drum of diet coke.’

Cause there’s a McDonald’s denial, and we all embrace it. You know? No one’s going in there innocent. We’re walking into a red and yellow building with a giant M over it. ‘What is this, a library? I’ll get some fries while I’m here.’

At the same time, he cautions the “New York liberal” against self-righteousness:

I’m sure some of you are like, ‘Sorry white trashy guy, I don’t eat McDonald’s.’ I have friends that brag about not going to McDonald’s. ‘Oh I would NEVER go to McDonald’s. Well, McDonald’s wouldn’t want you, cause you’re a dick.

Why are people acting like they’re better than McDonald’s? You may have never set foot in a McDonald’s, but you have your own McDonald’s. Maybe instead of buying a Big Mac, you read US Weekly. That’s McDonald’s. It’s just served up a little different. Maybe your McDonald’s is telling yourself that Starbucks Frappucino is not a milkshake. Or maybe you watch Glee. It’s all McDonalds.

What Gaffigan is really talking about here is how we call certain guilty pleasures wrong and other ones right— not on the basis of some principled distinction, but on the basis of perceived cultural “better-ness.”

What Gaffigan is saying is “let he without sin cast the first stone,” or, to put it in a more modern context, “I am disgusting and you are a hypocrite. Together, we are America.”

The idea that underlies Gaffigan’s point is that it’s easy and gratifying to form small alliances based on meaningless distinctions. But when we’re caught up calling people Nascar-loving, McDonald’s eating hillbillies, we lose the opportunity to connect with those people, and possibly affect the way they think and act.

About the Author

Mike Blejer

  • guest guest guest

    I totally agree with this article, but why no mention of his Christian-bashing? I think his religious jokes are fantastic, and he has about twenty minutes of them in each album. That’s gotta be more controversial than saying that Americans love things that are terrible for us.

  • http://www.curlycomedy.com Abbi Crutchfield

    Great post Mike!

  • http://mikecomedy.com Mike Blejer

    @MikeSanders

    Although there’s often overlap, there’s a big distinction between playing to the middle and appealing to a broad audience. Steve Martin for instance had a huge audience but I don’t think he could be accused of watering himself down/pandering/playing to the middle. Same with Hitler. He really brought the audience to him.

    Hicks also went into the south and told his jokes to the faces of people who disagreed with him in principle. That’s something I really respect which (for a range of reasons often outside of their control) is less frequent among “subversive” comics in the internet/niche comedy age.

    @Eric
    Stand-up comedians are inherently putting their own distilled views out into the world and not just asking questions. I believe you’re thinking of stand-up philosophers, who haven’t been terribly popular since Ancient Greece.

  • Eric

    I find it interesting that the article is about affecting other peoples thought and not your own. That your thoughts are correct, everyone else’s are wrong, you just need to find a way to convince them of this. Do you think that might be your real problem.

  • MikeSanders

    I think this was a very well written article, but I don’t buy the premise. Since when is playing to the middle a good thing? So, the left can/should be dicks, the right can/should be dicks, but the mindless, thoughtless middle is where we can all be comfortable, salt of the earth Americans? Hicks asked, “Since when is banality and mediocrity good for your children” in reference to the state of music, but I think it also applies here. Comics like Gaffigan make people laugh at themselves and feel good, but he doesn’t make people live any differently. He makes people feel better about their flaws. Self esteem is the last thing audiences need. Next I’m gonna hear that Jeff Dunham is subversive because his act is politically incorrect through the guise of foul mouthed puppets. A spoon full of sugar may help the medicine go down, but I’d rather our comedians be in search of the cure, not the sugary medicine.

    • Jrice4534

      Wow, never realized that comedians had such far reaching power!  

  • Tim

    really great!

  • Dylan P. Gadino

    @Aaron: you are for sure the exception. but i’m glad people like you exist. and you’re right. you’re a conservative who can appreciate David Cross.

    i consider myself socially liberal, but, i also find conservatives like Nick DiPaolo, Jimmy Shubert or even Jeff Wayne very funny.

    on the same token, i wish more hardcore cringe comedy fans would listen to folks like Gaffigan or Regan and realize it doesn’t have to always be ultra-subversive to be “real” or funny, or like Mike says in his essay, subversive.

  • gchoma

    I have always said: a comedian who demeans people and uses foul language to be funny is not a very intelligent person. Jim Gaffigan is the brightest comedian…ever.

  • HottPokket

    Even my 11-year-old daughter knows Gaffigan is a genius. She has her Dad play his recordings while she’s getting ready for school in the morning. Current fav is Hot Pockets routine. He’s subversive, alright…he’s getting his comedic tentacles in our CHILDREN!

  • http://www.sawyerspeaks.wordpress.com Jeff Sawyer

    When so many are appearing to push the limits, usually through at best moderately subversive ideas dressed up in vitriol and profanity, Jim Gaffigan appears to be edgy simply by not doing so. Pretty smart. And funny.

  • Aaron

    Great article huge fan of Jim!

    Btw…I’d consider myself an extreme conservative….and I love David Cross! A social view assignment doesn’t have to equate to closed mindedness. It’d be a pretty boring life if I only listened to people who believe and think exactly as I do…

  • assfacerobot

    Nice!! I’m gonna send this link to a friend with whom I was discussing a very similar topic just the other day.

  • Dylan P. Gadino

    “this is more watery than regular water.”

  • Leah

    The greatest is his critique of bottled water. Awesome article.

  • http://mikecomedy.com Mike Blejer

    @ROPED I agree that the inside voice is an important part of Gaffigan’s toolbox, but to me it seems like he’s made less frequent use of it over the past couple of years than in the time prior (and he doesn’t use it at all in the Mcdonalds bit I mentioned). I’m also not sure why that would make him subversive (though obviously it does add an entire dimension to his act which other people don’t get to play with, that seems more structurally innovative than necessarily subversive). I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I do think a case would have to be made.

    @everyone else: Thanks!

  • Chris

    “let he without sin cast the first stone?”

    Of course Gaffigan is not Dawkins; Dawkins would never quote Jesus.

    I think you have a good point though, as far as changing minds. At least I hope you’re right, because a LOT of minds need to be changed.

  • ROPED

    what you’re missing here is Gaffigan’s strange voice that talks back to his jokes from the perspective of a confused (possibly female) audience member. This tic makes him more subversive than any of the other comics you’ve mentioned because he is able to play with our responses by responding to this voice. Through this he goes beyond simply stating what he thinks in the way you’ve mentioned. Like, he’s not just going “I HATE OBESITY AND CRITICIZE IT” but he can display both sides of the conversation. It is wizardry.

    • Yeliza

      Yes, exactly. There’s different dimensions of his personalities that make him so subversive.

  • Bill Squire

    Great article!

  • http://www.danlicoppe.com/ Dan Licoppe

    Nice article. Love Gaffigan’s stand up for many reasons, including the ones you pointed out.

  • Jodi

    Great article! I’m as leftist as Dawkins but Gaffigan is a better rep for my side for sure.

  • http://www.twitter.com/chaseroper Chase

    Mike,

    BRILLIANT.

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