When I first wrote about Jim Gaffigan, on his visit to the UK in 2017, I asked: “Is this America’s Michael McIntyre?” OK, so the Indiana man is bluer of collar, and rather less gigglesome. But he was, like the Englishman, a purveyor of fun-for-all-the-family observational comedy, inhabiting that territory where funny foodstuffs, marital scrapes and pesky kids meet, and from which politics and rude words have made themselves scarce. Here was an act – known as “the king of clean” – who opened for the pope in Philadelphia before a million-strong audience, whose albums topped the Billboard comedy chart and secured six Grammy nominations, and who reigned supreme at standup comedy without ruffling any feathers whatsoever.
Suffice to say, when Gaffigan visits again this autumn, no one will be comparing him to McIntyre. On 28 August 2020, “it finally happened”, in the words of one askance USnewsreport at the time: “Donald Trump broke the world’s nicest man.” The lifelong noncontroversialist Gaffigan had launched an extraordinary Twitter tirade against the then president, hot on the heels of that year’s Republican National Convention. Addressing his 3 million followers, from all sides of the political spectrum, he called Trump “a traitor and a con man who does not care about you. Deep down you know it.” The president was “a liar, a criminal [and] a fascist who has no belief in law.” Gaffigan-watchers couldn’t believe what they were reading. Some predicted a career implosion. Gaffigan followed up with an explanatory Facebook post three days later, sarcastically titled What I’ve Learned Since I Lost My Mind.
“As for my Trump rant,” he tells me now, over Zoom from the US, “I’m somebody who does not think that anyone listens when a comedian or actor tells them to do something. But I had reached the point where I was so convinced there was this great con occurring that I was hoping to shake some moderate, who might be from a small town in the midwest like I’m from, to not be conned.”
Whether or not we should be thanking Gaffigan for Trump’s ousting at the ballot box a few months later, it seems that breaking the dam of his personal politics marked a watershed moment for the 56-year-old’s comedy. I’m not claiming he’s since become some Mark Thomas of the midwest but his 2021 Netflix special Comedy Monster, with its routines on Covid, QAnon, stolen land and “billionaire pretend-astronauts”, was noticeably spikier than Gaffigan’s usual fare.
Is that how the man himself sees it? Yes and no. On the one hand, “entertainment is the perception business”, he says. “And because I was clean, I’ve got five kids and I don’t curse on stage, people made assumptions: ‘Oh this guy is vanilla, he’s milquetoast.’ In fact, I’ve always made some political jokes. But I’ve also always had the approach of: it’s better to convince someone of your point of view with subtlety than with a hammer.” In his audience of him, he says proudly, “there’s always been the conservative Mormon family sitting next to the lesbian couple. I never wanted to do ‘us and them’ comedy.
It comes down to a matter of taste. While he has respect for “my brothers and sisters in comedy that get off on it”, Gaffigan’s is not for the kind of “edgelord” standup who rejoices in giving offence. “My whole thing is, you can communicate a point of view without throwing a punch as if it were 2am outside a pub.”
“You look at someone like [90s standup icon] Bill Hicks,” he goes on. “A great comedic mind, but a lot of what he says seems shocking by today’s standards.” Seen as progressive at the time, Hicks’s shtick can feel homophobic or misogynist at 30 years’ distance. “Is that because we’re too fragile now,” asks Gaffigan, “or because we’ve evolved? The concept of liberty for gay people has changed so dramatically since the 90s. So are we sacrificing some individual liberty by not saying things that are offensive [to gay people]? Or are we just learning a greater level of civility?
“Maybe I’m just a dumb guy, but I’m like: ‘OK, if that pisses you off, I’m not going to say it.’ I don’t feel like there’s any freedom being infringed.” You could call that an apology for mild-mannered comedy – or you could credit a comic who makes an effort to engage constructively with the times, and with the debates that swirl around his art form him. Certainly, there’s more to Gaffigan’s new show – called, with more than a hint of irony, The Fun Tour – than just a nonconfrontational disposition. Because “you’ve got to evolve”, says Gaffigan, who admits that his work is developing slightly sharper edges. “As a standup, I’m on my 10th hour now. And I view standup shows as a conversation among friends. And the friends we really like, they challenge us. Whereas the people that only want to have the same conversation with you, over and over again – you get bored of them.”
For Gaffigan, the same conversation would be more jokes about being a “doughy” (his word), pale-skinned midwesterner, a hapless dad hitched to an ardently Catholic wife, and hopelessly addicted to bad food. (His signature, career-breakout routine is about the microwaveable American snack Hot Pockets.) All will feature, he promises, in the London-bound new show. But so too will a brand of comedy that responds to the changing times.
“Culturally, whether it’s bad or good, whether down to social media or the Kardashians, we have become more voyeuristic and more exhibitionist. And it’s become obvious that the personal point of view is an important price of entry to any artistic endeavor.” Of his new show from him, he promises something “pretty dark”, and influenced by “how the Brits see comedy”, which is that “shows should strive to have a message [and] be closer to a piece of art. You guys take comedy much more seriously than Americans.”
If the show has a message, Gaffigan says, “it’s that after Covid, there’s a nihilism. We’ve been dealing with some harsh realities. What’s going on worldwide, it doesn’t look great. I don’t know about you but I’m like: what is the winter going to be like?” That may not sound like a hoot, as Gaffigan admits – but early reviews stateside, of a gallows-humorous show that tackles Death with a capital D, nose-diving aircraft, anti-vaxxers and divine retribution for humankind’s misbehaviour, are encouraging.
The show isn’t all Gaffigan has in the pipeline, mind you. While he knows you wo n’t know this about him, the New York resident is also a screen actor, with several live-action and voiceover roles under his belt – not to mention his autobiographical sitcom The Jim Gaffigan Show. He’s now got a plum upcoming role in Disney’s remake of Peter Pan, as Smee to Jude Law’s Captain Hook. But Gaffigan seems less eager to talk about this than about his standup, perhaps because “I’ve been acting for the past 10 years in mainly dramas, and with every single movie, my interviewers always ask: what’s it like to be a comedian in to drama? I won’t ask, Jim, I promise! “Look, the first time I did a comedy special in the US, I was known for sitcoms. And the USA Today review was headlined ‘Sitcom actor tries standup’.” Even on a transatlantic Zoom call, I can feel the exasperation behind Gaffigan’s brave face of him. “It’s a perception-based industry,” he shrugs, “and I can’t control that.”
Happily, he’ll always have standup comedy to fall back on, an art form with which – as London beckons – he still seems sweetly in love. “I take pride in being a comedian,” he says. “There’s a big responsibility, of course. People don’t have much time. If you’re getting them to come to a theater, you’ve got to deliver. You have to add value to their day.” But – whether joking about hot politics or Hot Pockets – “the creative fulfillment you get from coming up with a line, or figuring out how to set something up, or teasing out a question you want to examine… And the immediacy of standup! I don’t think there’s any art form that can compete with it.”
Jim Gaffigan plays the Eventim Apollo Hammersmith, London, on 13 November.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism