Photo by Taylor Jewell, courtesy Invision/AP Photo
Jim Gaffigan is easy to love. Forget for a moment that the world-famous standup and Chesterton native straightforwardly resembles a scruffy, dad-bodded teddy bear. The man is just nice: a devout Catholic and central-casting genial Midwesterner whose unwillingness to work blue hasn’t prevented him from making a fortune in an industry that more frequently rewards button-pushing provocateurs.
But 2020 had a way of driving people to their breaking point. Near the climax of last year’s presidential campaign, and nearly six months into a highly politicized global pandemic, Gaffigan had to speak his piece. In a lengthy Twitter rant beginning in late August, Gaffigan decried former President Donald Trump as a “liar and a criminal,” a “poison,” and a “fascist who has no belief in law,” among other borderline un-Christian things.
Twitter means never having to say you’re sorry. Conservative media leapt on the family values–oriented comic, viewing his outburst as yet another Hollywood celebrity kowtowing to the liberal status quo and disrespecting his conservative audience. A Wall Street Journal editor wrote to an imagined member of that audience that, “He’s not disgusted with you, he’s disgusted with all of us, which could indicate he’s disgusted with himself.” Gaffigan defended his actions, writing that he “stood up for decency, the rule of law, and equality. That’s way more important to me than selling out an arena.”
Putting his money where his mouth is, Gaffigan is now road-testing that principle, with his first tour since the pandemic stopping at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on November 19. The comedian routinely pulls down eight figures annually in touring revenue alone. As of this writing, dates on this year’s The Fun Tour have already sold out in cities as disparate as Phoenix, Seattle, and Rochester, Minnesota, among others. For now, alienating the controversial former president’s die-hards doesn’t seem to have put a dent in the megastar’s business model.
It’s a funny business. Otherwise-apolitical comedians like Gaffigan faced a tricky choice during the Trump presidency: speak their offended consciences, as he did, or stay their usual course and risk being seen by their mostly liberal peers as pandering to conservatives in pursuit of the almighty dollar. In the October issue of The Atlantic, staff writer Tim Alberta asked the similarly pillow-soft comedian Nate Bargatze about Gaffigan’s Twitter incident. “I don’t have the stomach for that stuff,” he said. “I don’t have it in me to make people uncomfortable.”
Everyone has to draw their punchline somewhere. Gaffigan noted approvingly how Bargatze’s “jokes don’t make a judgment.” (Through a representative, he declined to comment for this piece.) Of course, neither do those of Gaffigan, who has decidedly not pivoted after his crisis of conscience to the form of caustic, truth-telling comedy practiced by fellow stars like Dave Chappelle or Michelle Wolf. Even a series of pandemic diaries he produced for CBS News until June of this year mostly stuck to his brand of gentle observational humor, like riffs on the difficulties of a pandemic-era wedding anniversary or a self-deprecating ode to hiking.
Ultimately, Gaffigan’s election-year micro-controversy is more telling about Trump-era pop culture than the man himself. It’s no surprise that someone as deeply devoted to the Catholic virtues of prudence and temperance as Gaffigan would feel moved to speak against the former president. But in 2020, the idea that our cultural icons could simply speak their mind and then return to their apolitical business as usual was especially foreign, considering how little an idea we had of what that business might look like from day to day. As for Gaffigan, clean of conscience and poised to keep his money train and tour bus rolling, right now it’s looking pretty good.