by Patricia Grandjean
May 29, 2012
01:17 PMBox Office
Front Row Q&A: Jim Gaffigan
As befits a guy who holds a degree from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, comedian JIM GAFFIGAN, 45, has brought consumer consciousness to his standup. (Actually, with a nudge from comic peer Louis C.K., who carried out the idea first.) He’s released his latest special—"Mr. Universe," taped in February in Washington, D.C.—on his website, jimgaffigan.com, where anyone can download a copy for $5. This month, Connecticut fans have the even better option of seeing Gaffigan live on his current “The America Tour,” coming to the MGM Grand Theater at Foxwoods June 2. For info on the MGM show, call (800) 200-2882 or visit foxwoods.com.
Is the "America" tour a major one for you? How has your show changed since your last tour?
I'm always writing new material, so the show someone might have seen in January, when this tour started, is completely different than the show they'll see in June. It'll probably be 30 to 40 percent different. I'm always writing and rewriting, coming up with different topics and evolving.
So the show changes with what's happening topically?
Truthfully, I'm not really a topical guy, I'm just subjectively driven. I always want to do a great show, so I'll add some evolving long, different chunks. I write everything with my wife—the different chunks will be some of the strongest stuff we're working on or something I'm more interested in at that moment. That'll prompt some material versus other material.
What subjects have you been focused on recently?
It's kind of hard to describe, because I feel like whenever I talk about a topic I'm working on, it always sounds incredibly boring. I'm in the middle of working on this whole notion that I'm a "dumb guy"—not in the sense of "incredibly stupid"—but that we're all essentially dumb. I think sometimes we forget how ignorant we are of 90 percent of all knowledge that exists: We might have a lot of expertise on Microsoft Word, but that doesn't mean we know how to navigate anything else on a computer.
It sounds like you're talking about cluelessness more than "stupidity."
This is never a great subject to bring up with a fellow writer, but I've recently been railing against intolerance toward grammatical errors in our society. We all get emails or will see on the Internet where someone will make a grammatical or spelling error in a message. People respond to these as though they're all copy editors at The New York Times. It doesn't really matter, right? We're not English professors. I'm sending you an email to arrange to go out to dinner, it's not necessary to point out that I used the wrong spelling of "there" in the sentence. And it's not an indictment of my intelligence, it just means that I have a greater likelihood of dyslexia, or laziness.
Or sometimes you're sending off a message more informally, and you might not even see the mistake. It is annoying when people jump on it. I see it most often when people are having political disagreements on an online forum, or something. The idea seems to be "you can't spell, ergo your political position is garbage, too."
Exactly! That's a great insight. There's something about everyone's behavior on the Internet that I just feel is . . . that's where common civility kind of disappears. Thre's a level of anonymity there that I think justifies rude behavior. YouTube comments in particular are legendary. I'm lucky—my comedy is really inclusive. I hope for it to bring light and not conflict. But there still are people out there that if you have anger toward the world, chances are you're commenting on the Internet.
I make a point of not posting on the Internet when I'm angry, because that invariably colors what I say. Anyway, I've noticed certain signatures in your comedy over the years. For one thing, I've never heard you go "blue."
I would say the interesting thing about that is that in much of what I'm talking about, it's not necessary to curse. And I'm always working on a larger show, more than an hour long. However, some of my favorite comedians are blue. I just love the idea that at my shows, people can bring their teenage son, or that a teenaged boy can sit next to his mom. That's an undesigned result of my act; it wasn't intentional. But the weird thing about being a "clean" comedian is that I feel that some people react as . . . there's such a rich tradition of censorship and confronting censorship in standup, but there's an even richer tradition of just making people laugh. Mark Twain was not sitting there thinking, "How can I construct a joke that will question the Patriot Act?" He was more interested in making people laugh than expressing what was an issue to him.
I have mixed feelings about this, because I believe comedians just write what they write—there's no grand plan behind people expressing themselves. it's flattering to be known as a clean comedian, but i'd rather be thought of as funny.
You talk about food quite a bit in your shows, but you suggest there are social implications to what we eat or don't eat. It's like, "we are what we eat," but what we deny eating says something about us, too.
There is a bit of social commentary worked into my material—again, not overly intentionally. But if there's something that I believe, it's that obviously everyone eats everything. There's a minority of people in the grand scheme of things who never go to McDonald's. My point is, don't waste your energy criticizing people for going to McDonald's, when you have your own McDonald's. It's not so much whether you eat at fancy restaurants or Subways. Neither choice makes you a better person; it's just your lifestyle. If you're a 20-year-old living on a college campus, you're more likely to eat at Subway than someone who has a nice house and kitchen. I never really thought of food as commentary, but I guess there is some of it in there.
I come from a small town in Indiana, and I've lived in New York City for 25 years. I love the Northeast, and I love New York; that's why I choose to live here. But there's this naive belief that people who live in the Midwest or South are dramatically different from us. They're not really; we're essentially all the same. I think there's a natural human tendency to think, "We're different" or "We're special." My message would be, "We're all animals trying to do the right thing."
How did you come up with the idea of the "inner voice" that you use, that comments on what you say in your act in a high voice?
I think that's something that's part of my personality; it's probably a defense mechanism I've had since childhood. Then it ended up in my act about 15 years ago. But it's something that I always used to defuse a situation—like if I had been late, rather than apologize I would just talk for the other person: "Jim, I can't believe you said you'd call at 10:50, yet I didn't hear from you till 11:30. What hung you up?" Behind that is the knowledge that I think keeps the conversation and the relationship afloat, and an acknowledgment of wrong. Using it in my act—since standup is a conversation—is a way of letting my audience know I hear them. It's a pretty important element, and it adds an improvised element to my material that I think people really enjoy. So, it feels like a real conversation.
I'm curious about how you got into comedy, as your background is in business. Not that that would rule it out.
I feel like my journey into the standup, acting and entertainment world was . . . I think there were a lot of events that played into it. I certainly wasn't raised to believe it was a logical pursuit. When I started standup, there was no XM Radio, and Comedy Central was not a viable option. Nor was the possibility of making a living necessarily a realistic choice. Growing up in a small town, in a family that sought security—my father was the first generation to go to college, so the notion that I would seek a job that didn't involve a coat and tie was kind of insane. I think a lot of events just kind of contributed to me wanting to go for it. I don't think I was ever really interested in finance, but I was raised to pursue that. So the fact that I was bad at it probably contributed to my going into standup.
When did you realize that standup might be a workable choice?
I was a pretty lucky guy. The "funny" or "not funny" thing is completely separate from the notion of it being viable. I was considered funny in high school and college, and had been told "You should be a comedian" a couple of times in my life. But I think making a career of it was never really a consideration. It was a classic case of "do what you love and maybe it'll work out," never "obviously I can support four children if I'm a comedian." I had kind of resigned myself to the notion that I would be the eccentric uncle who lived in a studio apartment in Manhattan and did standup at night. I was well-prepared for that.
It took awhile to get to the point where I felt my act was working. I started in New York and I'm kind of a low energy, observational guy. My act is not ideal for a Saturday midnight show. When I performed on the David Letterman show, I felt like, "All right, I'm a real comedian." But the big shift might have been "Beyond the Pale," which was my first hourlong special where I got the opportunity to perform in theaters. I had toured the comedy clubs, but when I got the chance to perform in theaters, I thought, "Omigosh—I can actually make a living doing this." It was pretty amazing to me, because my material is not outlandish or irreverent, but many people enjoy it. It's very inclusive. People have described it as a break from the culture wars. You can go, and people from the left and right can meet in the same room and forget about some of that stuff.
You write your material with your wife Jeannie. How does that work?
I wish it was an exact science, and obviously, having four kids throws a wrench into any kind of planning. I'd describe our style as very much an ongoing conversation. I'll bring up a topic; she'll comment on it. Or she'll see me do some material and comment. Sometimes, she'll bring up an idea or line that expands a topic. Ideally, there are times when we sit down and have a glass of wine and banter about a subject.
I feel like my writing is kind of evolving, and Twitter is having a big influence on it. I don't think I would have a 10-minute chunk about being a parent if it weren't for Twitter. I'd been resisting the idea for fear I'd alienate someone in the audience who was 22 or didn't have kids. But what I found through Twitter is that material about my kids still appeals to these people, someone who's 25 and single. And I really learned that funny is what matters in the end. Thats the great meritocracy of stand-up:It's either funny and relevant to someone, or it's not. There are trends that come and go, of course, but I'm a substance guy—people know, when they come to my show, that I'm going to make them laugh. I'm not going to sell them an agenda or anything like that.
Do your kids have a grasp on what you do, or are they still too little?
They have an idea. I have a 7-year-old, a 6-year-old, a 2-year-old and a 10 month-old. My older kids have been to my shows and visited backstage in between shows. I don't think they understand the enormity of work behind it all. When I go to parent-teacher conferences, I think there's this assumption that comedy is in our blood because our 6-year-old jokes around. But my father was a small-town banker.
Why'd you decide to put "Mr. Universe" online as a low-priced download?
You do a special every two or three years, and essentially there are different ways of releasing it: The most traditional is to have a TV network like HBO or Comedy Central pay for it, film it and broadcast it—then they also release it on DVD or CD. Then there's the new phenomenon of NetFlix and Amazon streaming. I've done my last two specials with Comedy Central. Louis CK was the one to pioneer this $5 download model. So I was presented with both options, and figured out I'd probably make the same amount of money either way. I just figured it would be easier to do the download, and the advantage to that is that someone can get the show for $5 as opposed to a $10 or $20 disc. I didn't want to treat the people who liked my standup as "customers," which is why I added the charity element of $1 going to the Bob Woodruff Foundation, to benefit veterans.
Comedians talk about "crossing the line." How do you know when you've done that? Where is the line for you?
There is no topic that's off limits, but there is something to be said for "at what cost" can you get a laugh. For example—and this is not necessarily a part of my act right now—but I have five minutes on cancer. I've yet to figure out how to work that into a longer theater show in a way that doesn't affect other material. If you go really blue or dark . . . if it's funny, it's funny, but it's going to hinder you from smaller stitchwork you might do on lighter observational stuff. Once you go dark, you dampen the conversation with the audience.
You've had a fairly productive acting career, too. What was it like to star on Broadway last year, in That Championship Season?
It was amazing. I never imagined I would have the opportunity to be in a Broadway show, or get to enjoy the thrill of doing a play. It's also an enormous amount of work. It was very strange in that it was so different from standup or anything else I've done, to be attached to this piece of art. I think that That Championship Season is a really great piece of art, particularly for men.
It's a very strange, different experience from standup. In standup, you can shift your own gears and control the flow of it, whereas in a play, there's freedom, but you have to be true to what the play is trying to communicate, and the structure. If you mess up a line, you can destroy the narrative. Your errors affect your fellow actors. And it's not like you can go off on an improvisation, because that'll be glaring. There's something very fun about it, but dangerous. I totally got the theater bug and it was a very powerful experience for me; I loved it, but it was so exhausting. It's kind of like climbing a mountain: I'd love to do it again if it was the right mountain.
Now, I understand you and Jeannie are developing a sitcom for NBC.
We wrote a script, but it was not picked up. So that's kind of done. That's sort of part of the journey in this industry where "the opportunity of a lifetime" comes along every six months, so you can't give too much weight to one disappointment. Ten years ago it might have bothered me, but now my attitude is "whatever."
Any other film projects in the works?
Nothing really planned. I kind of relish that; it gives me more time to do stuff like pick up my kids from school, which in the end is far more important than appearing in a movie that in all likelihood will not turn out to be Casablanca.Front Row Q&A: Jim Gaffigan