If you count his out-of-print independent albums, Jim Gaffigan has released as much material since 2001 as Van Halen has since 1978. That’s a fitting comparison, because in many ways Jim Gaffigan has become a form of classic rock in the modern comedy landscape. His albums are always on the charts, you know what you’re going to get when you see him live, and there’s a good chance most of the people you know like him. And to stretch that even further, on his 12th release, Quality Time, Gaffigan is coming off of what music fans call “a difficult album.”
His previous special Noble Ape dealt with his wife and writing partner Jeannie Gaffigan’s near-death experience with a brain tumor. But while the beloved ginger has moved back to sillier topics this time, there’s a deeper cynical edge than before. Over his nearly 30 year career, Gaffigan has evolved into a master of relatable observational jokes, able to play a grumpy oaf and fatherly philosopher all at once. But now he’s far more willing to joke about murder.
Quality Time often feels like the first time you hang out with a close friend after a brush with tragedy, or the first time you heard an older family member make a dark joke. This is obviously still the Jim Gaffigan we know and love, but he’s suddenly much more interested in exploring the darkest angles of PG subject matter.
I don’t want to give the impression that suddenly he’s gone Carlin. You could still play any of these jokes for kids and have them rolling with laughter worry-free. But the gleefully sour twists to his bits here represent an artistic change of pace. Murder news shows, cannibalism, stabbing celebreties, the pathetic nature of our relationship with dogs: this is 75 minutes of a good-natured man blowing off steam.
Thankfully, rather than coming out of a stressful family experience angry, Gaffigan seems unleashed, free to do what he wants. It’s still a joy to experience the world with him. He opens with a nice relatable chunk about his body weight, easing us into his slightly saltier world. “I don’t know what happened,” he opines about his body. “All I did was eat abusively for 40 years, and suddenly I’m fat? That doesn’t seem fair.” This opening chunk is really the only familiar part of Gaffigan’s routine. His children have gotten older, lending a freshness to his family material. Each story becomes an opportunity to explore a new idea, sometimes to the point of absurdity.
In a show full of wonderful jokes, the star is a seemingly never ending sequence of horse jokes about half way through. With a mischievous sparkle in his eye, Gaffigan unloads horse jokes for at least ten minutes straight. Just when you think he’s about to put the routine out to pasture, he saddles up for another. As the crowd starts to get annoyed, he lets them know, their annoyance brings him joy. It shouldn’t work, but Gaffigan is such a brilliant writer that he coxes uproarious laughter out of the trolling.
After each deluge of jokes, Gaffigan pulls back to a story to reset the crowd. Even these bits, from seeing a bear with his family while recovering from surgery, to taking his young kids to Anne Frank’s house, emphasizes how thoroughly love drives Gaffigan. Rather than a litany of complaints, his good-natured grouching comes across as someone who’s always having fun with his family. Even when he’s being forced to go to a movie with 30 of his in-laws. Seeing Gaffigan deflect the weight of the world by slamming his silliest ideas into it is oddly cathartic.
Watching comedians you love grow over time is a delight, and Jim Gaffigan’s commitment to continuously releasing material is something to celebrate. Rather than coast off the success of his biggest specials, Gaffigan keeps putting jokes on record. When times get tough he opens up about it, but never in a way that alienates. If anything the slightly darker turns in his last two specials have made him all the more relatable. Quality Time isn’t his best work, but it’s still incredible. And in an industry where so many comics release only one or two albums in their entire career, it’s comforting to know Jim Gaffigan is always around the corner with a new update about how he’s doing, in good or bad times.
Quality Time is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
John-Michael Bond is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. He’s on Twitter @BondJohnBond.