Jim Gaffigan's career is practically prototypical for a stand-up comic who broke in during the '90s. After years on the nightclub circuit, peddling charming, unchallenging jokes about the stresses modern city life put on a dumpy small-town Indianan, Gaffigan landed his own sitcom, Welcome To New York, which got good reviews but died in the ratings. But while other comics of his generation returned to obscurity or started scrounging for cruise-ship gigs, Gaffigan continued to pursue bit parts in movies and on TV, and along the way, he reinvented his comic style. His observational humor lost a lot of its initial peevishness, and it now relies on his hyper-awareness of his own mundanity, expressed in an "inner voice" that comments on his act throughout the show. Subsequently, his popularity has surged, aided by a frequently re-run Comedy Central special, countless TV appearances, and self-released CDs packed with his extended riffs on Cinnabon and Hot Pockets. While preparing for the release of his new CD and DVD Beyond The Pale, as well as an upcoming theater tour, Gaffigan spoke with The A.V. Club about failure, success, and the slow grind of being a comedian and character actor.
The A.V. Club: Why do you still live in New York instead of Los Angeles?
Jim Gaffigan: I could use a lot of the clichés, but I'll stick with, "I'm too pale." I'm essentially a transplanted Midwesterner. I love New York. I moved here in 1990, when I was 24, and started stand-up in '91.
AVC: Did you go to New York to do stand-up, or to get a job?
JG: I came to New York for a job. I'd always kind of wanted to live in New York. I grew up in this small town in Indiana where I was just like, "I gotta get outta here." I remember being a little kid and looking around and going, "Well, there's been some kind of mistake. I don't think I'm supposed to be here." When I grew up, I didn't know anyone in the entertainment world. I wanted to be an actor and a comedian, but I moved to New York really just out of this romantic notion of always wanting to live in New York.
AVC: Did you have a job lined up when you got there?
JG: I did. I'd studied finance in school and went to Florida for a financial-litigation consulting job. I was about to kill myself, so I moved to New York. Somebody helped me get a job in advertising. I was an account guy for a while, and then a copywriter for a while.
I come from a family of bankers, all conservative. Not what we consider conservative today, with all the negatives, but a conservative family where you're driven by security, and wearing a tie to work is considered success. My uncle was the first one to go to college, and at that point we'd been in this country for 150 years. It took us five generations to get to the middle class, and I was like, "Hey, I think I'm gonna go into the entertainment world!" Everybody was like, "Are you nuts?"
AVC: You probably have an interesting perspective on the whole red-state/blue-state divide, having moved from Indiana to New York.
JG: Manhattan's probably one of the bluest parts in the country, and Indiana's definitely one of the redder states. I have sympathy for both sides. That's not to say that I'm anything but a Democrat, but I think there's this condescension to middle America that's in some ways based on myth. Every now and then you hear, "Will it play in middle America?" It's really derogatory. "Will those dumb idiots think it's interesting?"
My wife's from Milwaukee and she's also an actor. We were in L.A. and I had a test for this sitcom that was all about people from Green Bay. I auditioned for the role of the father, and there was a scene constructed around Monday Night Football that opened with my character saying, "Are you ready for some football?" And the guy who went in after me did a very effeminate take on it. That's not to say that's not an interesting choice, but to have a football-fanatic father in Green Bay being effeminate about the Packers, it's just kind of disrespectful. I hope I'm not sounding homophobic. In that situation it was funny, and the actor was a funny guy, but within the context of portraying football fanatics in a derogatory way, I felt it was narrow-minded and dismissive. I remember sitting there and going, "Wow. There's literally gonna be riots in Wisconsin if you're portraying Packers fans as a bunch of sissies." I remember thinking, "I can't do this."
That's not to say I don't whore myself out in soda commercials.
AVC: So you had to audition for this sitcom? People don't just say, "Get me Jim Gaffigan?"
JG: No, not at all. I wish that was the case. I think the business is all about getting too much respect or none. Once you feel that you're entitled to something, I think that's when you go crazy. You gotta really remain humble. If you assume that you should get anything, you're gonna really go crazy.
AVC: Welcome To New York was tailored for you, though.
JG: Yeah. I came up with the idea. The show was pretty good, but it was supposed to be about Midwesterners being smarter than New Yorkers. It was supposed to be the antithesis of Woody on Cheers. People would think that the Midwesterner would be naïve, but in reality, the Midwesterner was practical. But I would get scripts where they're like, "In this episode, you talk about when you used to talk to your horse." 'Cause there is this crazy perception.
Part of me loves telling people I'm from Indiana, cause they do think it's still Little House On The Prairie. Which I believe was North Dakota, actually. [Actually, Minnesota and South Dakota. –ed.]
AVC: Why didn't Welcome To New York work?
JG: I think that some people would say that it had a bad lead-in, which was the Bette Midler show [Bette]. At that time, CBS had Monday-night comedies, but they didn't have any Wednesday-night comedies. It's the climate of that business, too. They're trying to look for the quick fix. You've seen it with Friends. They're like, "Okay, Friends was successful, let's find five people that look like those five people on Friends," rather than finding five unique characters.
I don't want to sound like some pompous ass that tries to understand the television business. It's hard to do a really good show. It's hard to give people reasons to watch. Welcome To New York debuted during a presidential election year, and it was also the year that the Yankees and the Mets were in the World Series, which didn't help, because all through September and October, no one in New York was watching anything except for those games. That's eight million people there. Who knows? There are people who really remember that show and are like, "That was pretty good." It was an amazing cast. I was on this other sitcom, Ellen's second sitcom [The Ellen Show], and I thought that was a pretty good show too. The show-runner was Mitchell Hurwitz, who went on to do Arrested Development. And Ellen, she's really mega-talented, and so is Cloris Leachman, and it's not like Martin Mull's a slouch.
I dunno, I've never seen Celebrity Dance. It's huge, right?
AVC: Time for you to slap on some skates.
AVC: Which one were you really angling for when you came to New York: being a comedian or being an actor? Or was it always both?
JG: I didn't really come to New York for either. I did improv at first, and that's what got me into all of it. They're both wildly addictive and rewarding and abusive relationships that I have. Stand-up, there's an immediacy to it, and acting, there's just some jobs that are just so amazing, where you miss them like a great relationship. I did a bunch of episodes of Ed, and it was so fun to play this character that was obsessed with the female lead. Acting can be so fun.
I do feel like there's part of me that's like, if I just did one, I'd be smoking crack. Stand-up is kind of a crazy endeavor where you're peaking at 10:30 at night and then you're done, and you've got all these endorphins going, and you might have a drink at 2 a.m. And if you have nothing to keep you balanced, it can be really destructive. And then the acting thing, there's the rejection. A lot of my friends who are comedians say, "That acting thing is an insane pursuit."
AVC: Isn't rejection part of the process of being a comedian?
JG: Yeah, well, the thing about stand-up is, it's this amazing combination of control and no control. You've got the microphone and you've got material that's got consistency, but you never know. You never know if someone's really, really shit-faced in the audience and their only reference point for performance is to yell things out. There's an improvisational quality to stand-up that keeps it really organic. It's why I have this inner voice that I do, which is this running interpretation of how the audience might be reacting, or how one hypothetical person might be reacting to certain material.
AVC: How long have you been doing that inner-voice bit?
JG: I would say at least five years, maybe seven years.
AVC: It wasn't part of your comedy in the beginning.
JG: I did my last Comedy Central special in 2000, and I remember not doing the voice because it was something that I really enjoyed, but there wasn't a level of consistency. I didn't know how to manage the voice. People would be ask me, "So what is that voice?" And I'd go, "It's just one of the voices in our heads," and people would be like, "I don't have those voices!" I feel like I'm getting weirder and weirder as I do stand-up, but that's good. You want to evolve.
AVC: You started as a sort of conventional observational comic, and you're adding wrinkles as you go along.
JG: Yeah, I think for most comics, it's about finding your voice and adjusting what turns you on. Not to sound like a dick. It's not that I started stand-up saying, "I wanna be the guy that does the voice of the audience and doesn't curse!" Over the past three years, I just literally got rid of all the curse words in my act. Any comic would tell you, you throw an F-bomb in a joke, it helps it a lot. But it is a little bit of a crutch. It's kind of like some hot girl wearing a tube top. She's already hot. With the tube top, she's gonna get a lot more attention.
AVC: On the Beyond The Pale DVD, you included your first stand-up performance, and there's some profanity on that, but it's bleeped out.
JG: I felt like it wasn't even necessary. I remember that coming up, where somebody said, "Can we bleep out that 'fuck' you said?" And I go, "What for?" And they're like, "'Cause if there's some store that doesn't want curse words…" And I'm like, "Well, it's not like it's that important." It's not like I'm the social satirist of the day where I'm explaining the improprieties of the Bush administration. I just didn't feel like it's a censorship issue.
AVC: It's an interesting performance to watch, because you showed a lot more confidence than a lot of beginning stand-up comedians would, yet the material isn't especially advanced.
JG: I see utter fear. I dealt with pretty severe stage fright up until I was doing stand-up seven years. There's a lot of comics who feel comfortable up there immediately. I feel comfortable now, but seeing that performance brings back memories of utter terror. And that was a pretty safe environment. Some people have been like, "Well, that wasn't that bad of a first performance," but it was a showcase show where everyone invited 15 people. There were probably two years after that where it was pretty ugly. I was some blonde guy in a suit trying to make people laugh in Brooklyn, and they were like, "Who the fuck is this guy? This guy looks like my boss."
I've had plenty of friends tell me that their first time doing stand-up, they do well, and then they tank for a while after that. Kind of like the first time you do a drug, you're like, "Huh! This is pretty darn good," and then you spend all your money trying to get the same high. [Inner voice.] "Ooh, the drug parallel. Ooh, fascinating, so intellectual."
AVC: When you launch into your Hot Pockets routine, the audience applauds, because they know what's coming. Does that surprise you, that you have a bit so well known that fans hand you Hot Pockets boxes to sign?
JG: It's weird. Mostly it's flattering, and it also kind of throws you a little. You're like, "Okay, I, uh… thank you?" I'm much more interested in making people laugh than getting applause breaks. Some comics'll go, "I did Letterman, and I got eight applause breaks." And I'm like, "Really? What are you, running for senator? Cause I thought we were supposed to make people laugh! What are you, Joe Biden?" The applause thing is very nice at the beginning or at the end. People recognizing the Hot Pockets joke… I mean… It's a pretty small minority of people who even know who I am. But you never know. I remember coming up with the Hot Pockets joke. I looked at those commercials and thought it was hysterical how awkward and weird the whole product is. But that might just be my point of view. Sometimes you just tap into something that's kind of universal that hasn't been done.
AVC: Steve Martin said he stopped doing stand-up when people were shouting out the routines along with him in the arenas he was playing. Would you ever kill a routine if it became too familiar, lest you become the catchphrase guy?
JG: I don't think that's something I really have to worry about. I'm a long way off from my own baseball cap. People who've enjoyed my stuff have always been, and I mean this in the most positive way, comedy nerds. If that expands, that's great, but I don't have any expectation that there's gonna be flags with some slogan, like Larry The Cable Guy. He's more popular than Bush.
AVC: There are dolls of him now.
JG: I was back in Milwaukee and there's dolls in the drugstores. But that's filling a need. It's a great conversation when the audience is a willing participant. But I don't have any delusions that I'm gonna reach any kind of level like Larry The Cable Guy or Dane Cook.
AVC: You can at least have more confidence in your material when people are buying tickets to see you at a theater, versus you being fifth on the bill at Zanies.
JG: Yeah, totally. Even if people don't know who I am and their friend got them tickets to my theater show in Denver or whatever, you've still got the okay of their friend. There's a little bit of "prove to me what you got" that exists in any kind of performance, but if people have seen my special, they'll say, "All right, this guy is funny." It makes it easier, but more importantly, more fun. I'll do some corporate gigs where it's a captive audience that has listened to four days of seminar stuff and then they have to see me, and they're very nice, but it's not the same as doing the Pantages Theater in Minneapolis.
AVC: You've appeared on some of the VH1 specials where comedians riff on popular culture. Do you know ahead of time what you're going to be talking about?
JG: They send you information. I did some of those, like I Love The '70s. I know people love those things, but it's kind of the same joke over and over again. I've tried to keep a distance from it. It's kind of the Viacom formula of "Let's get these comedians to do all the work, and we'll pay them nothing." But yeah, they give you a list of topics that are gonna be discussed. Michael Ian Black, he's a master at that stuff.
AVC: Sometimes it seems the people on those shows have no idea what they're commenting on.
JG: I get the same impression. They're like, "Oh, you didn't know what this doll was? Can you say that you loved it? Because we need a segue from this part to another part."
I think it's important to control your opportunities, because in the entertainment world, it's not up to you. I'm not sitting here under this naïve belief that someone in Hollywood is going, "Gaffigan! What kind of a show can I build around him?" So you have to find things that can showcase your point of view. Comedy Central is really valuable for me, because otherwise, I'll get some audition and they're looking for a Robin Williams type, and I'm not a Robin Williams type.
AVC: You guest-hosted The Late Late Show when they were looking for a new host. Was that your audition?
JG: Yes and no. I don't know that I'd have turned it down if they'd offered it to me, but it's a huge commitment. I'm trying to focus on being a failed actor now. It's not something you go into lightly. If they really want you, they come and get you. In other words, I didn't turn anything down, but it wasn't like anything was offered. But it was fun, and I thought I was pretty good. I thought Michael Ian Black was good, too.
You never know where you're gonna end up. There was part of me, when I started stand-up, that said, "If I could be a writer on Letterman, that would be amazing!" And now I think of writing on a late-night show, and it's not appealing at all.
AVC: It sounds like there's a risk in this career of doing something that locks you in and doesn't give you the freedom to do more.
JG: There's a certain balance between finding an opportunity to do what you really enjoy and getting caught up in the flattery of people wanting you to do things. There are sitcom auditions that I turn down, but with the Sierra Mist commercials, a lot of people are like, "You're doing commercials?" And I honestly feel like those Sierra Mist commercials are better than a lot of sitcoms I get offered. It's hard work, and I'm paid a lot of money, and I do it because I love the soda. Michael Ian Black and I have a great time.
It's really interesting being a struggling actor and a struggling comedian. When my special was airing the first time on Comedy Central, there was a blurb in Entertainment Weekly that said, "Gaffigan has an hour special on Comedy Central. Let's hope it's better than those annoying Sierra Mist ads." And I go, "But I didn't think they were that bad!" And then there was this thing in USA Today where the TV critic said, "Jim Gaffigan has failed a couple times in sitcoms, so now he's trying stand-up."
I don't expect anyone to know who I am, but it's a crazy business where like, "Wow! That guy doesn't even think I'm a comedian!" I just think that shit's fascinating. He's a TV critic! I've been on Conan like 18 times, Letterman 12 times. He's never seen any of them.
AVC: As a stand-up comedian, are you expected to go looking for work on sitcoms?
JG: It's not necessarily a standard thing for stand-ups. I am very grateful that I get the auditions, but it's a pretty daunting task. Yesterday I had three auditions for three different shows. If I had a photographic memory, it wouldn't be such a large task, but it's a pretty big task to get off-book for nine pages of dialogue for each show.
Of course I'm complaining about things that I would have loved to have seven years ago. The whole pilot-season thing, that's a pretty fascinating little endeavor they have going on. I'm a character actor, and I feel like some of the things that I go in for, if they saw a headshot, they'd say, "Yeah, he doesn't have to waste the three hours preparing. We're not going with a balding, doughy, white guy for this."
Aren't I positive?