IM Archives: Jim Gaffigan, Funnyman of the People

Standup comedian, sitcom star, ubiquitous TV pitchman—he has clean jokes, a nice-guy demeanor, and a self-deprecating persona. He left Indiana decades ago, but he still looks and acts like a Midwesterner. Just ask New York and Hollywood.

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Editor’s Note: On September 26, Jim Gaffigan is set to perform at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia—for an audience that is expected to include Pope Francis, on his first trip to the United States. IM profiled the Hoosier comic in this August 2007 feature, just as he was hitting superstardom.

A late spring blizzard is threatening the foothills city of Boulder, Colorado, but on this cold spring night, hundreds of fans—including a couple of teenagers pressed against the glass—line up outside the converted opera house, waiting to take their seats. Inside, when the star of the show takes the stage, he doesn’t look like the sort of guy who would engender such devotion: Jim Gaffigan has thinning hair and a pallid complexion. He carries a bit of a paunch and wears the everyman uniform—tan slacks, a blue dress shirt, and a dark blazer. “He looks like Lou Dobbs,” Gaffigan says in a falsetto, mimicking some unseen, un-Gaffiganated housewife wondering about the identity of the blond, ordinary-looking guy who just wandered onstage. “I don’t know who Lou Dobbs is, but he looks like him.”

Gaffigan exudes “regular guy,” and the look fits his act, and fits him. For the uninitiated, this mind’s-eye exchange wouldn’t make much sense. But this crowd knows Jim Gaffigan; they just love to watch him pretend they don’t.

He’s the Indiana-born comedian who’s making it big with clean jokes, a self-effacing manner, and everyman humor, kind of like Jeff Foxworthy with a Buick instead of a pickup. His material comes from our kitchens and living rooms and the aisles of the grocery store: jokes about freezer-burned Hot Pockets, escalators, being lazy, eating cake and bacon, trips to the pharmacist, and paper towels. No uncomfortable four-letter-word talk of race, cheating spouses, or sex, Gaffigan could be your neighbor, the funny one who can make you laugh without embarrassing your in-laws. When he gets “risque,” he’ll poke gently at religion (Jesus to his disciples: “Would you shave? We look like a homeless football team.”) or parenting (“My daughter’s almost 3. She still doesn’t have a job.”). His relentless pacing and the rubber-faced awe he feigns at the words that come from his mouth have the crowd on his side from start to finish. Gaffigan is comedy’s comfort food.

In some ways, his act is like the old joke about prisoners telling jokes from the only book they all have: They just have to shout out the page number, and everyone laughs. At a Gaffigan show, everyone in the crowd knows his routine and the punch lines, but like the old prisoner joke, it’s all in the telling.

And Gaffigan knows how to tell them. His nationwide “Beyond the Pale” tour comes to West Lafayette September 7, his Comedy Central special has been successfully released as a CD and DVD, and he makes regular appearances on the late-night talk-show circuit, including the one hosted by Indiana’s other funnyman, David Letterman. His sitcom, My Boys, returns to TBS with new episodes this summer, defying the odds by surviving in the wilderness of cable’s fractured landscape. Even his 2005 film role in The Great New Wonderful, about post-9/11 New York City, earned him praise for his portrayal of an office worker who erupts in anger.

With his fair complexion, husky frame, and nice-guy jokes, Gaffigan is tagged as a quaint Midwesterner by the entertainment industry on the coasts—a label he doesn’t tout, but doesn’t run from, either. On this spring night in Colorado, as on most nights of his nationwide comedy tour, all that’s important is that the audience thinks Gaffigan is funny. They think he is very funny.

They love those asides he mumbles, mimicking the confused audience member and self-consciously reminding the crowd that he’s one of them and cares what they think of him. Jumping into another “Voice” from the audience, this one a gruff-sounding guy who is obviously familiar with the comedian’s work, Gaffigan demands of himself: “Just do the Hot Pocket joke.”

 

Gaffigan, 41, grew up the youngest of an Indiana banker’s six children in Dune Acres, a Porter County hamlet he describes as “a suburb of Chesterton.” How concerned is the town about the proximity of Gary and Chicago? Its Web site boasts about “the tranquil lifestyle of a small town, along with 24-hour security.”

Gaffigan says he was raised without struggle or want. His dad, Mike, did well enough to live in a nice neighborhood—safe, if a bit dull, situated between the heavy industry to the west and farm country. “There was the steel mill, and then there was the Indiana Indiana,” Gaffigan says. “In high school I definitely went to parties and sat on a haystack. It was like Orville Redenbacher was 10 minutes away.” (In fact, Redenbacher’s processing facility was 10 miles down the road in Valparaiso.) Gaffigan graduated from La Lumiere School, a Catholic school in LaPorte, where he was a bit of a class clown—but the kind that could still deliver a B-plus average.

He describes his upbringing as “risk-averse.” The family expected him to go into banking. “Going into anything that wasn’t banking would be considered really risky,” Gaffigan says. “I went to work in advertising right after college, and my dad was like. ‘Well, if you want to go and deal with unemployment, go ahead.’“

His older brother, Mitch, still lives a few miles from their childhood home. He’s a banker. “It always comes up: ‘Was he funny as a kid?’“ Mitch Gaffigan says. “You could always tell, as the youngest, he was storing all that up, taking it all in. You could see it.

“I remember that first time we saw something there, the first time we said, ‘Hey, he’s funny.’ My dad got a video recorder. It was that kind that looked like you should be working for NBC News. It was huge. It’s Christmas, and he’s got all of us coming into the living room one at a time, by age. We come in, and make a face or say something. Jim’s watching all this, and my dad calls him, and he crawls down, where my dad can’t see him in the viewfinder. Jim was 6 or 7.”

Mitch Gaffigan, perhaps realizing that the old family story doesn’t translate well as an early sign of comedic brilliance, adds: “It was funny at the time.”

Showbiz never occurred to Gaffigan as something to pursue. “Chesterton does have a marching band that’s been good for a while, but I knew no one in the entertainment industry,” he says. “So seeing Jonathan Winters or Jerry Seinfeld on The Tonight Show or Letterman was not like something I’d see as a career option.” Yet he wanted something bigger, something more … cosmopolitan. TV reruns of The Odd Couple captivated him: New York City. It looked so sophisticated.

Still, leaving Indiana wasn’t easy. There’s family. There’s distance. And for a teenager from a family that didn’t exactly leap before looking, leaving Indiana after high school wasn’t in the cards. He went to Purdue.

He lasted just a year before transferring to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. More cosmopolitan, yes, but he still had no plans to go into comedy or acting. It was just before he hit the real world, his college career over, that Gaffigan first hinted that he might want to be onstage.

“It was the night before graduation. I confided to a friend,” Gaffigan recalls. “I said, ‘I secretly want to be an actor and a comedian.’ And she said, ‘Really?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but everyone wants to do that.’ And she said, ‘Nnnnooo, I don’t’… I thought everyone secretly wanted to do that.”

He had studied finance at Georgetown (like a good banker’s son), so he took a financial-consulting job after graduation, but hated it. Soon, he shifted to advertising for a more creative outlet, and took a job in New York. Writing pithy slogans for the Hardee’s fast-food chain was risky enough.

But finally, he was in New York. And friends thought he was funny.

 

The Hot Pockets stuff neatly sums up Gaffigan’s blend of humor. It’s a signature bit. He riffs on something many have picked up in the frozen-food aisle, when nobody’s looking. They can’t possibly be good for us, we know, but they’re easy, and we tuck them into the shopping cart, hiding them under the asparagus and whole-grain rice. It’s our secret—not a big secret, or a deep shame, but something we can laugh at ourselves about.

“I’ve never eaten a Hot Pocket and then said, ‘I’m glad I ate that.’ It’s more like, ‘I’m gonna die,”’ Gaffigan says onstage in Colorado. “I was looking at a box of Hot Pockets. They have a warning on the side!”

And then, in falsetto, the gratingly familiar theme for the weird, crust-wrapped burritoish thing you cook in a paper sleeve coated in slick, silvery mystery coating.

“Hoootttt Pockets.”

“There’s the vegetarian Hot Pocket for those who don’t want to eat meat but still want diarrhea,” he adds.

“Hooottt Pockets.”

 

The first night onstage was a dare. The next time, it got easier. Gaffigan says he got funnier, learned what made people laugh, learned from the audience. With each comedy-club appearance, each open-mic night, Gaffigan gained some confidence. In the beginning, his act relied mostly on the tales of a small-town boy moving to big-city New York—a shtick that was genuine, if overdone—and also included the foul language that Gaffigan now regards as a crutch for comedians. It took more than five years of performing until, in 1998, he took the plunge and became a professional, full-time standup.

The same year, he scored a part on the cartoon comedy show Dr. Katz. A shot at standup on the cable outlet Comedy Central followed. And in 1999 another Mid westerner, Letterman, gave him a shot, in a television appearance that changed Gaffigan’s career. Letterman nearly fell out of his chair laughing and invited Gaffigan to linger for a few minutes. Later, the established Hoosier funnyman invited Gaffigan to star in a new sitcom, Welcome to New York, developed by Letterman’s production company. The show lasted just one year, but Gaffigan played a character named Jim Gaffigan—more specifically, a Hoosier transplant in New York named Jim Gaffigan—in a role that suggested he could become the go-to Midwesterner in television comedy.

The show failed after one season but opened the door for dozens of other television appearances: Sex and the City. Ed. That ’70s Show. Law & Order. The Ellen Show. Along the way, he ensured himself a paycheck by becoming a pitchman for everything from Rolling Rock beer to Total cereal, kept a hand in standup with his nationwide tour and 2006 Comedy Central special (which sold 65,000 DVD copies in six months and more than 100,000 CDs), and tried dramatic acting in the darkly comedic The Great New Wonderful. Another commercial, for Sierra Mist, debuted during this year’s Super Bowl to wide acclaim.

“You have to understand, when I moved to New York, they’re like, ‘You’re the Indiana guy.’ And I’m like, how am I Mr. Indiana?”

This year, he has sold out a string of standup shows on his nationwide “Beyond the Pale” tour, another self-deprecating stab at his white-bread looks. (“I thought he’d be paler,” he mumbles again in that falsetto voice of the confused fan, who confuses Gaffigan for a pudgy, pasty Philip Seymour Huffman. “He was good in Capote, though,”) His routines seem to be in perpetual reruns on Comedy Central, and he’s gained virtual YouTube ubiquity with nearly 250 bits pirated from all over packed onto the video-sharing Internet site. That’s not to mention his Web site, jimgaffigan.com, loaded with his material. Meanwhile, his cult cartoon series Pale Force, making fun of his own limited pigmentation and equally light-complexioned TV talk-show host Conan O’Brien, is a regular feature on O’Brien’s late-night talk show, and Gaffigan has scored a dozen appearances on Letterman.

These days, even the fiercest critics seem to genuinely like the likable Gaffigan. One of his latest ventures, the TBS sitcom My Boys, has received praise from an unlikely source: When the show debated last fall, Tom Shales, The Washington Post’s reclusive humbug television critic, said the ensemble comedy showed “promise and even a trace of charm.” For Shales, that’s akin to a rousing “Brilliant!”

A long way from Indiana now, Gaffigan says he’s happy. He’s comfortable. He lives in New York and spends a few months of the year in his Los Angeles apartment. He works with his wife, Jeannie, producing Pale Force and co-starring in My Boys, and they have two kids, Jack, 1, and Marre, 2. There’s still plenty of touring, but when he does hit the road, he does it with friend/tour manager/ opening act Rich Brooks, and he tries to keep it to just a few days and a few cities at a time before a visit home.

He gets back to Indiana when he can. It was a good place to grow up, he says, and a good place to go home to. It’s a place where he says he still feels at ease, like he belongs. No matter how at home he feels in New York, he knows others think of him as an outsider, a “Midwesterner.”

“You have to understand, when I moved to New York, they’re like, ‘You’re the Indiana guy.’ I was made Indiana when I left Indiana,” Gaffigan says. “I was just a regular guy, but when I go to the East Coast and I look so Midwestern, they’re like, ‘You’re Mr. Indiana.’ And I’m like, how am I Mr. Indiana?”

Sitting on a couch in the bowels of a theater between two sold-out shows on the road in Colorado, leaning back in that everyman uniform he wore on stage, he does look a lot like a stereotypical “Mr. Indiana,” the Midwest’s ambassador to the world, mild-mannered, even-keeled, nonthreatening.

“My comedic point of view is not constructed around shock or insults,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s Midwestern; maybe it is. I gave up cursing in my act about four years ago, and it was not some Midwestern credo or anything. It was kind of a creative thing. Most comedians will admit when you throw in a curse word it gets a bigger response from an audience; it’s not any different from tricking them into it. I don’t think it’s that creative; more importantly, it’s not necessary. I’m talking about escalators and Hot Pockets. Is it necessary?”

Turning philosophical, he adds, “Humans, we respond to lust and hatred. It’s very easy to seduce somebody with lust—curse words, sex—and then hatred is ‘the enemy we share.’ I don’t think that’s a good foundation to any relationship. That being said, if you looked at my act 10 years ago, there might be some let’s-make-fun-of-models kind of stuff, but I’ve pulled back from that. It is funny, but it kind of gives me the willies.”

Gaffigan has lived in New York for 17 years. He met his wife there, is raising his children there. When he hails a cab at LaGuardia, he’s a New Yorker, coming home. Yet, he says, the cab driver will treat him like a tourist.

“Some people go to New York or L.A., and they’re no longer Midwestern,” Gaffigan says.

“I’m a very white-bread, Midwestern guy. It’s not like I’m wearing a map of Illinois and Indiana and Ohio on my T-shirt; it’s just that I’ve kind of had a Midwestern sensibility.”

Offstage, when Gaffigan isn’t working so hard to be the everyman, he still looks so average—so Middle America, they might say on the coasts. But his fair skin and the receding hairline are his brand. Even if they make him look like a tourist.

“I’ve never eaten a Hot Pocket and then said, ‘I’m glad I ate that.’ It’s more like, ‘I’m gonna die.’”

“You have to understand, when I moved to New York, they’re like, ‘You’re the Indiana guy.’ And I’m like, how am I Mr. Indiana?”

 

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