The 10 Trials of Jim Gaffigan

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Jim Gaffigan’s latest stand-up special, Obsessed, airs this Sunday (April 27) on Comedy Central. Over the course of over two decades of doing stand-up, Gaffigan has honed his craft with incessant touring, predicting the Hot Pockalypse and talking to himself in “that voice.” If you like bacon, fast food or being in heaven, you probably already know something of Gaffigan’s comedy, but you may not be aware of all that he had to endure on his way to being as funny as he is today.

1. Growing up in the shadow of Gary, Indiana

When he was five years old, Gaffigan told his family that was going to be an actress when he grew up. That was a tall order for someone of any gender living in Chesterton, Indiana, and as he told Chicagoist, much of his childhood was spent reaching for the closest bastion of the entertainment world:

I grew up trying to convince my friends to go into Chicago…And Northwest Indiana, we’re kind of like the forgotten cousins that are right there. I like telling people in Chicago I’m from Indiana, and they always say, ‘Where is that?’ And I’m like, it’s 10 minutes away! And they go, ‘Isn’t that the road to Michigan?’ I’m like, yeah, well technically it is.

Gaffigan’s Midwestern upbringing helped create his distinctly middle-American voice, along with, as he told Marc Maron, a chewing tobacco habit he later replaced with nicotine gum. It also led to one of the strongest bits on Doing My Time, where Jim shares his Indiana state pride:

2. A slow, rough start in New York comedy

Gaffigan went to college at Georgetown, then headed to New York City at 24 for a job in advertising. Along the way he worked jobs like waiting tables at an Indiana Mexican restaurant (fast-forward to :58):

Gaffigan started out in New York comedy by taking some improv classes. One night a friend talked Jim into doing some stand-up comedy with him, “and then he bailed on me and I did it alone.” From there Gaffigan was hooked, if unsuccessful:

I started in New York, and it took a long time for people to forget how bad I was. I’d go to this nightclub, the Village Gate, and I would just bomb. The comedy I was doing then, it was a mix of a lot of different approaches.

Like any young comic he took any gig he could, even if it was a rowdy black room in Harlem he was in no way prepared for:

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3. Living in a post-Carson, pre-alt comedy era

Nine years of building his chops and discovering his style landed Jim Gaffigan a spot on Letterman. As he told the Nerdist crew, it did not mean he had “arrived,” a concept he doesn’t even really believe exists in show business:

He was also in an artistic community that pushed comics into a specific aggressive mold left over from the 1980s stand-up boom:

Following a guy who’s simulating having sex with a chair or someone who’s screaming, you’ve got to kind of compete with that. It’s all within the context of things. When I first started, there wasn’t these alternative or underground rooms. I don’t know. I’m thankful for where I’m at.

4. Working clean these days

You might not know it now, but on his way up Gaffigan didn’t always work clean:

When I did curse in my act, you know 10 years ago [speaking in 2013], it usually indicated that I wasn’t done writing the joke.

He also curses on Doing My Time, but only because the record label asked him to:

In their defense, they signed me to this deal and the guy was kind of like, “You know, you might want to curse because teenagers really like that.” When Beyond The Pale came out, there was a blog review I read: “Kind of funny, but there was no cursing,” as if that was the missing element. It’s kind of weird. I think people do what they do.

Once Gaffigan left swearing on stage behind, he then faced a comedy community stigma against clean comics as being “soft” or “hacky.” One interviewer even felt comfortable comparing him to the Full House version of Bob Saget, which Gaffigan rightly took as “a fucking insult”:

Comedians get way too much credit and way too much criticism for not cursing in their acts. What, am I supposed to throw in an f-bomb when I’m talking about bacon? ...At the same time, David Cross shouldn’t get credit or criticism for swearing in his act. It’s just his style of comedy. It fits his personality.

5. Still finding a way to be controversial

You would think somebody who’s self-identified as “writing jokes about bacon and escalators” would have a hard time getting into trouble on the Internet, but then this tweet happened:

Ladies I hope getting your nails done feels good because not a single man notices you got them done.— Jim Gaffigan (@JimGaffigan) May 1, 2013The resulting Twitter firestorm and hundred-thousand-note Tumblr outrage got so far out of hand, Jim Gaffigan even got told how to behave in public by Chad Ochocinco.

Blasphemy Jim RT @JimGaffigan: Ladies I hope getting your nails done feels good because not a single man notices you got them done.— Chad Johnson (@ochocinco) May 1, 2013Jim then apologized to the deeply flabbergasted Internet community, and promised to limit his edgy quips about beauty standards to marine life jokes.

6. Hot Pockets as a cross to bear

Aside from his “inner voice” (captured best at the top of Beyond The Pale)...

...there may be no Gaffigan trademark more famous than his bit about Hot Pockets, which he performed on his first album and brought to mouth-destroying perfection on his second.

The bit’s still part of his touring act after all these years, due almost entirely to fan demand:

I always think of me and Hot Pockets as this ice-dancing couple, where together, we can get the gold medal, but we’ve been hanging around for too long, where it’s just like, “Please, while we’re not onstage, can you just do your thing over there and I’ll do my thing?”

Gaffigan dramatized the fan reaction as this ad for King Baby:

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It’s so inescapable in its Beyond The Pale form that he’s largely resigned to being That Hot Pockets Guy:

I walk down the street, and people will shout, “Hot Pocket!” or “Bacon!” or even “Hey Manatee!” If I died today, in the newspaper, the Hot Pocket thing would go at the top of my obituary, above my other accomplishments.

7. Working the road extremely hard

A lot of comics tour, but Jim Gaffigan tours. He covers so much of the country Marc Maron finds it vaguely insulting. That much travel means getting pushed to eat road food and local “specialties” whenever possible…

...and getting invited to sleep in friends’ creepy houses where you’re made to feel bad for an hour every hour.

Logging enough club dates leads to some truly bizarre experiences, like this incident on Long Island where Gaffigan was moo-ed off stage, in a good way:

8. Working so hard as an actor that people forget he’s a stand-up

He’s appeared in everything from commercials (over 200 of them, earning him the prized title of Business Week’s “Salesman of the Year” 1999) to legitimate Broadway theater (the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama That Championship Season in 2011). He’s also done a slew of movie and television roles, from acclaimed work in Away We Go and My Boys and Ed, to the title role in Shia LaBeouf’s notorious recent plagiarismfest (NOT JIM’S FAULT).

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Achieving his actress dreams hasn’t made Gaffigan any less of a stand-up, and he still prefers doing his own comedy:

It would be easier to give up acting [than stand-up], just because I think it’s so impossible to do something good. I know among comedians, it’s like, if you can be on a TV show and not be embarrassed, it’s a success. There’s part of me that really loves acting, but acting is truly an insane pursuit. The whole notion of auditioning, and then your sensibilities matching up with someone else’s— it’s really a long shot.

But at times the perception that he’s an actor has distracted from his specials, like when Beyond The Pale aired on Comedy Central and USA Today dubbed it “sitcom actor Gaffigan tries stand-up.”

9. Working so hard as a stand-up, people forget he’s an actor

As Jim told the Denver Post, “I spent half my career known as the guy that’s an actor that also does stand-up, and now I’m a stand-up who dabbles in acting.” Despite racking up every acting credential he can, Gaffigan’s HBO-level roles tend to be moments like his Flight of the Conchords guest spot…

...perhaps because “does comedy” = “only plays himself” in the minds of some casting directors:

I find that honestly, the stand-up thing in some ways is a little bit of a cliché to carry around, because people don’t consider stand-ups really actors. “Hey, wouldn’t it be hysterical if we gave this role to a comic, or maybe some guy who drove a forklift—not an actor?” So there is a little bit of that, but there is something about… When it comes to Law & Order bad guys, it’s like, “Okay, we’ve already gone through the Broadway bad guys, now let’s just start going through the comedians.”

10. So many kids

Gaffigan wasn’t always someone who wanted to be surrounded by tiny humans. As he reveals in his excellent and excellently titled book Dad Is Fat:

I do remember that when I was single, I was a loner by choice. I ate alone, went to movies alone, and even spent time by myself alone. The thought of a roommate to the single me was absurd. Now I have many roommates. I have an 8-year- old, a 6-year-old, a 3-year-old, a 1-year-old, and I don’t think I’ve even met the other one yet. Hey, there are five of them! Five kids may seem overwhelming to you, but how do you think I feel? Ten years ago, I could barely get a date, and now my apartment is literally crawling with babies. It’s like I left some peanut butter out overnight.

Yet more than anything else, family has made Gaffigan the comedian he is today. His wife Jeannie is his writing partner and show producer, and Jim not only makes time to be with her and his five kids on Sundays if not more of the time

...but they also help keep him in a comedic, joyful mindset:

Babies should be classified as an antidepressant. It’s pretty hard to be in a bad mood around a 5-month-old baby. That’s not to say that when they’re screaming it’s a delight, but—you see the creativity that is kind of inherent, that, you know, growing up kind of squashes a lot, and the point of view of a comedian is just to look at the world differently, and I think that children have that. There’s something about being a parent that has, I think, made me a better comedian.

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