There’s a reason stand-up specials aren’t really released as films in traditional cinemas anymore. Partially, it’s due to that ol’ Netflix v. Cannes question of what constitutes a film, partially it’s because they have shorter running times than We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story—which clocked in at a sickly 70 minutes—and partially it’s because even though these films are extremely cheap, they’ve never really recaptured the box office grosses of Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip or Eddie Murphy: Raw, the two specials that made it a semi-viable commercial venture in the first place.
So it’s actually pretty charming to see that I can pop over to a cozy screening room at the Village East—where I used to sweep popcorn and hide in theaters watching films while on the clock—and see Noble Ape, Jim Gaffigan’s latest special. Gaffigan’s massive crossover appeal is almost undervalued these days. He’s a sympathetic everyman who can poke fun at coastal elites in a way both those elites and citizens of the flyover states can appreciate (when faced with the possibility of a North Korean missile reaching the East Coast, he finally exclaims “well we gotta do something about this! Now we’re talking about real people!”) So while it’s not like this film is going to get a huge roll-out, he’s still possibly the only comedian other than Kevin Hart who could really pull this off today.
And he largely makes the most of it. Gaffigan is sort of transitioning to a more robust film career, with literally twelve films released or in post-production so far this year. Noble Ape is a nice little gala to open up this phase. It also feels, and I don’t mean this as a reference to Gaffigan’s food material, like a full meal. Or at least, several different small, meatier courses. A big part of this is the presence of Jeannie Gaffigan, who has co-written all of her husband’s specials but steps into the director’s chair here. Given that much of the special concerns her cancer scare—during which Gaffigan re-purposes his eye for food material with a series of dark fruit-related similes—it’s appropriate that she’s helping pace the special, and does it with a deft hand.
The Gaffigans are an extremely tight-knit comedy family, which re-enforces Gaffigan’s skill in elevating dad-jokes to something more interesting. “Kids never wanna do anything fun like sit in a dark bar and drink beer,” he notes at one point. Gaffigan’s other biggest signature—anticipating counterpoints to his own jokes with that falsetto whine—also makes several appearances here, though not as intrusively as in some of his other specials. Some jokes feel like they come a couple of years too late (“the Japanese toilet washes you, dries you, it does your taxes”) and the various thematic threads—namely, a very entertaining but tangential story about Gaffigan totally whiffing it in front of the pope—don’t totally tie themselves together. But when there are two steady sets of hands steering the ship like this, maybe we’re just holding a really solid special to a lateral standard.
Noble Ape is playing in theaters in ten cities and can also be found on iTunes, Amazon, Google, the PlayStaion, the Xbox, and several major cable providers.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and comedian. You’d be doing him a real solid by following him on Twitter @grahamtechler or on Instagram @obvious_new_yorker. A real solid.