Jim Gaffigan wastes no time in his new stand-up special, Noble Ape, jumping immediately into a significant event in his personal life: Yes, he’s grown out his beard, and yes, it makes him look, in the words of his ever-present, falsetto-voiced inner critic, “like an out-of-shape Civil War general.” After a minute or so of facial hair and man-boob material, the comedian segues into more pressing matters: In 2017, Jeannie Gaffigan, who directed and co-wrote Noble Ape and who’s been married to Jim Gaffigan since 2003, had a benign tumor removed from her brain stem. It’s a topic the couple has previously discussed in the press and on social media, a near-tragedy that Noble Ape processes into droll Gaffigan-isms about hospital names, the origins of Jell-O, and doctors comparing the dimensions of a tumor to the dimensions of fruit. “Interesting fact,” goes one representative setup: “Worst tumor: grapefruit. Worst fruit: grapefruit.”
Jeannie’s diagnosis, surgery, and recovery don’t make up the bulk of Noble Ape, but it’s a highly personal hour nonetheless, one that Gaffigan sees as an elevation of his skills as a stand-up. But if you go looking for it in the same place you watched his hour-long Cinco, you’ll come up empty-handed: Noble Ape won’t be premiering on Netflix. Rather than making the special available via a single source, Gaffigan’s going wide with Noble Ape, bringing it to movie theaters and digital/on-demand via the Comedy Dynamics Network on July 13, the same day it’s released as an album. “I want people to see that I’m evolving and I’m getting better at stand-up, that I’m talking about more complex things,” Gaffigan told The A.V. Club in March. “So what is the best vehicle to do that?” Speaking via phone, Gaffigan elaborated on the decision, the impact Netflix has had on stand-up, and the affect his wife’s brain tumor had on his career.
AVC: Why isn’t Noble Ape premiering on Netflix?
Jim Gaffigan: We live in this day and age where you do this content, these hour specials, which, on a personal level, they’re very gratifying. It feels like an accomplishment. It’s very personal. What you find is you’re faced with this predicament: [I have] this thing, this highly personal thing, and how do you get it out to people? In the end—maybe because I’m so Midwestern—you’re harvesting the crops. How are you going to get these crops to people? You can sell it to the easiest buyer. And yeah we live in a global marketplace, and I have five specials with Netflix. I’m grateful for having them there. But with every special, it’s—Comedy Central was, beyond a doubt, the perfect place to put Beyond The Pale. And I was grateful for the opportunity. Because there was a time when, [in] every dorm room, Comedy Central was on. And that was the same thing for King Baby. When we got to Mr. Universe and Obsessed, the landscape was changing. I knew at that point that I wanted to do something different and try and get it to more people. The frequency of plays on Comedy Central was not like it was for King Baby and Beyond The Pale. There was a lot of hour specials. And so I knew that I wanted to do something different, and I ended up doing a model that is known as the Louis CK model—a lot of people were thinking of it at that time, but he did it properly.
When I taped Noble Ape there were offers from just about all the usual suspects. And, by the way, I would point out, what they’re offering is completely different from what people used to offer five years ago. And so I was presented with this option of going to these multiple platforms. In some ways this was the most lucrative choice. But the choice was also to be in a lot of different places at different times because what I’ve seen over the years is it’s not just one outlet—it’s about the next step. Satellite radio or streaming radio services like Pandora and Spotify are really important because you can look at an hour special as an income source—you can also look at it as an infomercial for your sensibility and your point of view.
AVC: There always seems to be one monolithic outlet for stand-up—it’s Comedy Central, then it’s Netflix, and you could even go back further to when the comedy clubs held all the power.
JG: I also think that there is something of “This is the decision for right now.” As observers and comedy nerds, we look at other outlets and we go, “When are they going to step up? When is Amazon gonna step in?” And so some of it is you have to make decisions in the moment. So if we had this conversation two years from now, it would be a completely different decision. In making this decision, one of the factors was how people consume stand-up comedy has dramatically changed. When I started you would either see it on a late-night television show or maybe a Young Comedians Special or in a comedy club. And now there’s satellite radio, there’s streaming services, there’s YouTube, there’s Hulu—even how we’re doing something with all these different platforms, whether it be a cable operator or DirectTV on-demand. It’s behavior that we thought we wouldn’t engage in. I’m talking about myself. I think when I used to see “on-demand,” I was like, “Who are these people that are doing these on-demand things?” And now I find myself engaging in that because it’s just easy. But I’m still learning. There’s Facebook, and there’s the YouTube of it all, and there’s Jeffrey Katzenberg doing something that is, like, three-minute Game Of Thrones episodes. It’s ever-changing.
It’s weird. I think, as a comedian that works today, this isn’t my last hour, but it’s my most important hour, so I have to make the right decision. But it’s also one of those things where I feel like I can be experimental, and—I learned this from books, doing CBS Sunday Morning commentaries, and even acting—how people know you or get exposed to your comedic sensibility is from multiple platforms. So this idea doesn’t seem that insane to me. As long as I don’t have to deliver copies of this thing to people at Spectrum and Cox and DirectTV, I’m fine with that.
AVC: Has anyone said to you, “This idea is insane”?
JG: No, I mean I think that there is a—I read the same articles that you read, right? There are discussions surrounding the consolidation of stand-up in one place. “Is that good? Is that bad?” But I’m also of the opinion that anything that helps comedians make a living is good. So if I get a television show on Netflix, that’s good for comedians. I don’t look at that as this looming monopoly. Mainly because I’ve been in stand-up so long and I’ve seen these turnovers—when YouTube started, people were like, [Affects panicky voice.] “Everyone’s going to steal all the content, and it’ll all be gone!” And in some ways the market corrects itself.
But I also know that, this special, I know it’ll get out there, which is great, and I’m grateful for that, because it is a personal one, and I think that I’ve gone to a different level in my stand-up. But, also, my wife almost died last year, so I don’t consider any of this shit that important. My manager would be mad if I said that, but I think this was the best decision for me at this moment. All the offers that I got were great. But in the end, anyone who goes into the entertainment industry understands that if you make a decision purely for money, you’re going to end up regretting it. But Seinfeld and Chris Rock making $20 million, I think that’s amazing.
AVC: And it’s not like every comedian who’s signing a Netflix deal is getting $20 million. There’s that conversation that’s sprung up after Monique said she was only offered $500,000. It’s getting people exposure, but the reward isn’t always necessarily equitable.
JG: Netflix has been great to me, and Netflix has been great to great comedians like Ali Wong and Tom Segura. But as more and more people jump into the pool, it’s not gonna have the same kind of positive impact for an up-and-comer.
AVC: Or for the consumer. It’s a concept The A.V. Club has talked about for a while: “option paralysis,” where you have hundreds of options presented to you and you have no idea which one to choose. Or on the journalist’s end of it: I’m getting press releases for new Netflix stand-up all the time. I have to imagine that sensation is being felt by even the most ardent stand-up fan.
JG: Absolutely. I do believe that it will all be figured out. Stand-up has gone from a late-night treat that some audience members really embraced, but stand-up is a many-colored rainbow. If you like Chris Rock—which I do, I think his last special is brilliant—that doesn’t mean you’re going to like every type of comedy. I’ve witnessed over the course of my career audience members not really knowing how to respond to some stand-up, to then it’s on YouTube and Comedy Central and satellite radio and they can develop their own palate for it, and their own likings. [Gathering all stand-up under a single heading] would be like describing all music as just “music.” It’s an insane premise. Even saying “guitar music,” you can’t just say “guitar music.” There are so many different types: Spanish guitar music, blues guitar music. Obviously, you can tell I know nothing about music, so maybe I shouldn’t have embraced that idea.
I’ve seen stand-up grow into this entertainment option that has transformed my life and my friends’ and peers’ lives, where it is an option of going out to theaters and I’m grateful for that. But we still don’t know how to categorize it. I say this as a guy who’s begrudgingly called the “clean comic” or “the food comic.” It’s a mischaracterization. Seinfeld, they didn’t call him a clean comic— they called him a comedian. But these crude adjectives are insufficient in describing [the material]. I wouldn’t challenge someone to describe the brilliance of Bill Burr because it would take more than an adjective.
When you talk about option paralysis, it’s interesting because I view my career as a backward view of that. I remember even when I would just tour doing stand-up clubs, people would come up to me at, like, the D.C. Improv, and they’d be like, “I’m here because I saw you in Super Troopers,” and then someone would say, “I’m here because I saw you on Dr. Katz.” I’ve always gotten people to my comedy in different ways. I feel like this is a fascinating topic that we’re skirting around, but I don’t know if I’ve organized it.
AVC: Backing up to what you were saying about the crudeness of the adjectives that get applied to stand-up, I’m curious as to why that vocabulary never evolved the way that it has for different music genres.
JG: I’m just taking a stab here, but I almost feel as though it’s this prehistoric, 1960s version of describing Lenny Bruce as “filthy,” you know? Even the idea of describing someone as “irreverent”—and there are people that are irreverent and that are masters at it, but irreverence is like liberty: It’s ever-moving. The irreverence that Bill Hicks embodied in the ’90s, if we look at that stuff, some of it is downright homophobic, but some of it is still irreverent, you know, like when he was talking about pro-life people blocking cemeteries. It’s brilliant, right?
But I don’t know. Maybe it’s because music has a rhythm and style behind it. Whereas comedy, we get caught because it has such a history with censorship and morality—which is kind of an ancient attribute—that we get caught up in those, rather than stylistic choices. Because I think comedians kind of think of, you know, there’s the preacher ranter like Sam Kinison or Chris Rock, and then there’s the absurdist monologist of Steven Wright or Mitch Hedberg. I think comedy nerds, we view comedy different than the whole categorization that occurs. People would look at Hedberg and go, “He’s a pot comedian.” That’s this puritanical view of this genius that he had. Or they would look at someone like Greg Giraldo and say he’s just “irreverent,” when he is not irreverent. He is this brilliant social commentary underneath it. I don’t know. Anyway, this soapbox I’m on is very comfortable.
AVC: I always catch myself if I’m about to describe something comedic as “irreverent” or “off-kilter.” Would anybody ever want to see a reverent comedian? Would you ever describe something as “on-kilter”?
JG: Right. I understand that, in the entertainment industry, they have to work from buckets: “It’s a drama. It’s a romantic comedy. It’s a mystery.” I understand the value of it. I just think that stand-up is so individualized. I don’t think that we know how to classify it or kind of categorize it like we have in music because every now and then there is someone that disrupts it.
AVC: Not to keep coming back to the music analogy, but so much of the musical vocabulary is based in hundreds of years of formal training, and that just doesn’t really exist for stand-up.
JG: Prior to Comedy Central and YouTube, people were not exposed to an enormous amount of quality stand-up. I’m not saying anything against Evening At The Improv or anything, but that was just kind of five minutes and they would eventually go through the good people and then they’d start just putting people up there because of commerce. But you know, for people to develop their own opinions and their own appetite, it’s not that long ago. That’s the ’90s, that’s the early 2000s.
AVC: You mentioned Jeannie’s health scare earlier and how it has affected your decision-making. What kind of perspective did that throw onto what you do for a living?
JG: It clarified that this is vocational stuff, stuff that you do because you love it. There used to be a Colin Quinn quote about “Perform every show like it’s your last.” But when Jeannie had this experience, there was this reality of like, “Oh, I’m probably not going to be able to do this the way I’ve been doing it.” The opportunity to just come up with material or talk about a joke with Ted Alexandro before a show or have a writing session with my wife and then trying out the jokes—I have a greater appreciation for my opportunity for creative fulfillment, as corny as that sounds. But it’s like, it’s very much there. And I’m like, “If I like doing this, I better do it now.”
AVC: You’ve been acting more frequently—did that contribute to it all?
JG: I’ve always wanted to act. I feel as though the opportunities are coming in a different way than they did before. Being the lead of a comedy that went to SXSW or the lead of a drama, it’s just now those opportunities are coming, which is amazing.