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.