Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Jim Gaffigan on opening for the Pope and why he’s over defending clean comedy

(Graphic: Nick Wanserski)
(Graphic: Nick Wanserski)

In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.


Jim Gaffigan is more than just some clean comedian who makes jokes about Hot Pockets. He’s practically an entire industry, acting frequently in TV shows, movies, and commercials for KFC and Chrysler, and touring extensively, generally bringing his brood of five kids out on the road with him. He’s released nine stand-up records, the latest being 2014’s Obsessed, and has released two books, including 2013’s Dad Is Fat. He’s also the star of his own sitcom, the aptly named The Jim Gaffigan Show, which will kick off its second season appropriately enough on Father’s Day, Sunday, June 19, on TV Land.

1. What’s a question you wish an interviewer would ask you?

Jim Gaffigan: Are you tired of defending being a clean comic?

The A.V. Club: You get asked a lot of questions about being a clean comic?

JG: Stand-up comedy has such a rich heritage in combating censorship, so when someone doesn’t embrace some of the fruits of what Lenny Bruce deconstructed, and George Carlin, sometimes I think people find it suspect. I even saw a tweet by somebody where they said, “You know, I’d probably listen to Jim Gaffigan if he cursed a little bit more.” I just think that’s kind of hysterical. That was probably a kid. He was probably an eighth-grader.

I think that the notion of a clean comic would not probably exist 20 years ago. Seinfeld wasn’t considered a clean comic. Comedians in the end just want to be known as funny. They don’t want to be known as a female comic or an African-American comic or an edgy comic. They just want to be funny.

I also think that it seems like a strange qualification for some of the success I might have achieved. It’s not as if people are going to theaters to see me do stand-up comedy solely because I’m clean. That’s not a reason to attend a concert, to not hear cursing.

AVC: It might be for some people. Like there are probably comedians who specifically play Christian conferences, but those people aren’t doing as well as you.

JG: Yeah, it’s weird. But I’m sure that’s a little bit of my persecution complex.

2. If you could ride a giant version of an animal to work every day, what animal would it be?

JG: I guess it would be a dinosaur.

AVC: What kind of dinosaur?

JG: Just one of those giant plant-eating ones. The kids would like it. And I could just go around doing spots, park the dinosaur outside, and get home really easily.


AVC: It would probably be slow, but fast at the same time.

JG: Right? It would cover a lot of ground. You wouldn’t have to worry about traffic.


AVC: The only downside is that maybe people would swarm your dinosaur.

JG: That’s true. But it would be fun to take to the country or walk to the beach. It would be an attention-grabber, so that would be a negative.


That’s an interesting question. I’m interested to see how other people responded to that.

AVC: Some people have said tigers. Someone said a giraffe. We’ve also had a couple of dragons and giant eagles.


JG: Yeah, I guess a giant eagle would come in handy for transportation. You just fly. It’s a good bird of prey, too. You could be like, “Okay, let’s just go take out that person.”

3. What movie have you seen the most?

JG: I would say the movie I’ve seen the most is probably It’s A Wonderful Life. I’ve seen a lot of kid movies over and over, but when I was a teenager, I really got into that. It used to air on television all the time, and then they stopped airing it, but it became a little bit of a tradition. So, yeah, I’d say It’s A Wonderful Life.


AVC: You’ve probably seen that movie at least once a year for however many years.

JG: Yeah, and when it’s on, I’ll watch it.

4. What’s a stupid thing you incorrectly believed for a long time?

JG: I incorrectly thought that the U.S. won World War II. when it really was the Russians that defeated the Germans. I think I’m pretty embarrassed at that.


AVC: Well, that plays into the bias of where you live, or what you learned growing up.

JG: Yeah, absolutely.

AVC: We won as much as anyone else, probably, in as much as someone can “win” a war.


JG: But we were in there for… I mean, even the sacrifice of the Russians was so much greater.

AVC: Have you played Russia? Have you been there?

JG: No, I haven’t been to Russia. I would love to go there. I would love to do a lot more international stuff. You’ve been? Did you love it?


AVC: I went last year. Flights were cheap, so we just decided to do it. That being said, I imagine it would be an uphill battle getting your jokes to fly there. Not your jokes, specifically, but all American jokes.

JG: I would want to go somewhere where I could bring my kids.

AVC: Well, you could take them. It would just be expensive.

JG: That’s what’s so great about Netflix expanding everywhere is that it can open things up. I did shows in Oslo and Helsinki, so it does give exposure to a lot of American comedians. But it has to be where English is. Like in some countries, they don’t translate sitcoms. It’s usually smaller Nordic countries. But I would love to perform in Moscow. That would be amazing. Or maybe St. Petersburg.

5. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever heard about yourself that isn’t true?

JG: Sometimes I block some of the stuff out that’s not true. I think I read somewhere that I don’t curse for religious reasons, which was really kind of hysterical. That kind of confirmed some of my fears surrounding being known as someone who actually goes to church.


There’s been some crazy stuff. There was a USA Today story when Beyond The Pale was first airing on Comedy Central. There was a TV listing that said “sitcom actor Jim Gaffigan tries out stand-up.” At that point, I had been doing stand-up for 15 years. So that was kind of funny.

6. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?

JG: In Iceland, I had sheep head, which was pretty weird. It was kind of smoked, and it was half a head. It was like eating the face of a sheep. It was not bad.


AVC: With eyes and teeth and the whole thing?

JG: Yeah, there was an eye. It was really weird. But it wasn’t that bad. It kind of tasted like venison. I mean, people eat cow tongue.


AVC: That’s true, and that actually looks like a tongue. It has taste buds on it, or whatever the cow equivalent of taste buds are.

JG: It’s really off-putting.

7. What’s the first concert you ever went to?

JG: I think it was Rush at Rosemont Horizon or whatever. Or it was James Taylor at Alpine Valley. I tried to buy a beer with my driver’s license that I had gotten that day, and they took my driver’s license.


AVC: You weren’t confident enough. You didn’t go in and sell it.

JG: I don’t know what I was thinking. It was the stupidest thing in the world.

AVC: Do you remember either show particularly well?

JG: I remember them pretty well. I remember that for the Rush show we had pretty bad seats, and I remember it was indoors. I also saw Simon & Garfunkel at Comiskey Park, and I saw Bruce Springsteen at Comiskey Park.


I don’t remember them being the best days or nights of my life, though. You know what I mean?

AVC: Sure. You just remember going.

JG: I remember at Bruce Springsteen, I went with some friends, and there was some girl that was really angry that there weren’t real Bruce Springsteen fans there. She was upset about that.

8. What’s the most interesting opportunity you got for your work?

JG: I think maybe performing before the Pope. That’s pretty weird. I actually didn’t even open for the Pope. I went on before the Popemobile came in.


That wasn’t even the first time that I opened for a car. At the Iowa State Fair, I opened for [NASCAR driver] Kyle Busch’s car. It wasn’t even Kyle Busch. It was just his car. I did 10 or 15 minutes, and then they wheeled out his car, and people just looked at his car. It was very strange.

AVC: Plus, he probably has more than one car.

JG: Yeah, it probably wasn’t even his car. It was just the decals of the car.

AVC: How many people were at the Pope thing?

JG: Three million, 7 million, I don’t know. It was insane. I knew it was a losing situation, because people were not there to see me at all. And it’s not like music playing in the background before the Pope or Obama speaks. It was me doing jokes. So it was not a scenario I was going to win.


AVC: But how could you turn it down?

JG: It’s not like you’re even doing it for the gift bag. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But it was kind of funny and weird.

AVC: Did you get to meet him?

JG: I did get to meet the Pope. He had no idea who I was. There was just some guy behind him speaking in Italian saying “comedica.” But I got my mother-in-law to meet the Pope, and she’s very Catholic, so that was game-set-match.


AVC: Did you tailor your material to be more Catholic-friendly?

JG: Not really. I did jokes that I thought would appeal to the audience, but I didn’t write that much material just for the event. I did a joke about being aware that everyone was there to see the Pope and asking people to please not leave after I go on because there’s somebody coming on after.


There was no censorship. People weren’t like, “What are you going to say?” I think they knew that I wasn’t going to go up there and do anything inappropriate. But it was weird. It’s not like you do bacon jokes before the Pope comes out. But I had jokes about having a bunch of kids and a little bit about this or that. But again, it was a situation I couldn’t pass up.

AVC: Of course not. You know you’ll never get asked to do it again, so you have to figure out how it works and make it happen.


JG: Yeah, there’s no one you can ask. “Hey, you opened for the Pope last year, what was that like?”

I also performed at Bill Gates’ 60th birthday party, where it was Bill Gates, Jeff Bazos, Warren Buffet, and all these other billionaires. That was the front table, all those guys. And I’m sitting there with the wealthiest men in the world, and I’m talking about being lazy. So that was a pretty weird one.

AVC: When you got asked to do that was it like, “I can charge this guy anything?”


JG: Whether it’s Bill Gates or not, you don’t want to mess up someone’s birthday. But it was also very flattering that Bill Gates even knew who I was. It was fun. But so much of life… even a red carpet, it’s fun, but it’s awkward.

AVC: My husband is a booking agent for bands and gets so many requests for his acts to play weddings. It’s always like, “Why would I want to do that? It will be the worst.” It’s so awkward.


JG: People want me to perform at their weddings. And I’ll say, “No, this day should be about your wedding, not about me telling jokes.”

9. What embarrassing phase did you go through?

JG: I think I’m still in it, right? I don’t know. I feel like life is an eternally embarrassing moment. I’m never somebody that looks back on the past without a little bit of awkward regret. Whenever I run into friends, it’s always, “Remember this or that?,” and there’s no story where I’m not like, “Eek.”

10. Have you ever stolen anything, and if so, what?

JG: I got caught stealing when I was 8 or 9. I think I got caught stealing Silly String or something. It was so embarrassing. I remember just being in tears. After that, I never did anything like that again. But I learned right away it’s never worth it.


AVC: Who caught you?

JG: The store manager or something like that.

AVC: Was your mom there? Did you have to apologize?

JG: No, I think I was there by myself. I grew up in a day and age where they’d just send an 8-year-old to the store to buy cigarettes. It wasn’t that, but it was a pretty horrifying experience. They pretended to call the cops, and I tell you man, after that I never stole anything. I was so horrified.


AVC: Have any of your kids stolen anything? Have you caught them taking candy from a store or anything?

JG: Yeah, but usually when they’re really young, and then you’ll make an issue of it, bringing it back, apologizing to the clerk, and saying “please don’t call the cops” and stuff like that. It’s certainly one of those teachable moments. And they’re terrified, the kids, but it sets in that it’s just not worth it.

11. Who’s the most famous person you’ve ever met?

AVC: Probably the Pope, right?

JG: Yeah, I think it’s the Pope. Other than that, I don’t know.

I was also a little worried that he was going to be like, “What are you doing here?” Like he was going to sit there and go, “You’re not a real Catholic, what are you doing?” But yeah, I would say it was him and that was definitely a crazy experience.


You know, it’s weird. Fame is not something that… I think as a kid, it was important. And now, I was probably more nervous interacting with Malcolm Gladwell than I was with Brad Pitt, and Brad Pitt’s pretty famous. But I don’t know, it depends. Fame is all relative, right? There’s famous and there’s also who’s important to you individually.

Bonus 12th question from Ruth Negga: If you could be a country, what country would you be?

[Due to scheduling complexities, Ruth Negga’s 11 Questions won’t run until June 27. —ed.]
JG: Oh, this is a tough one. I think I would be Ireland, because Ireland is a place that’s beautiful and interesting, but I remember when I went there as a teenager with my parents, I was like, “Okay, I’ll go to Ireland with my parents. It’s going to be green.” I think people underestimate it, in that it’s, “Oh, it’s green,” and then you get there, and it’s like, “Wow, it is green!” It’s, “Oh, there’s Irish music,” and then you get there and you’re like, “Oh, this Irish music is amazing!” You underestimate it. You’re like, “Oh, there’s people telling stories, blah blah blah,” and then you’re like, “It’s fun and interesting.” I feel like hopefully people have a different expectation of me, like, “He’s the clean guy who tells food jokes,” so that’s my answer.

AVC: What do you want to ask the next person, not knowing who it is? I will say that it’s a comedian, if you want to tailor it, but you don’t have to.


JG: If you were a medical doctor, what kind of doctor would you be, and why?

AVC: Do you have an answer for that?

JG: I think I’d be a psychiatrist. I imagine the comedian will also say psychiatrist. I imagine most creative people would say psychiatrist.


AVC: Unless it’s a really hacky comedian, and then they’ll say gynecologist.

JG: Right, exactly.