Where some comics like to push their own boundaries with each new special, Jim Gaffigan prefers sticking to what works. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. He excels at escapist comedy that’s rarely tied to the contemporary political or social landscape, focusing on his experiences as a husband, father, food lover and dubious outdoorsman who thinks hiking should go take a hike. As a clean comic, Gaffigan has made his name presenting listeners and viewers with a smorgasbord of material, mostly innocuous topics that reappear throughout his various specials, including his fifth and latest, Cinco.
Throughout the roughly 72 minutes of material in Cinco, Gaffigan jumps from topic to topic, finding his footing in a punchline before setting off towards a new, loosely related bit. He covers summers in the Midwest, fall leaves, fatherhood, beauty standards, how “Mary Had a Little Lamb” became the song of a generation, hiking, pickup trucks, the manliness of eating steaks, Catholicism, mullets, being the posterchild for the Aryan race, the English language, eating and more. Much, much more.
The difference between Gaffigan’s earlier material, found on albums like The Last Supper, Doing My Time and Beyond the Pale, and his newer comedy is largely a matter of nouns. Replace his famous “Hot Pockets” bit with a new observation about “Ram Trucks,” insert “hiking” where he used to complain about camping and, of course, there are the bits about his physique, his laziness and his poor parenting skills. Where others aim for quality, Gaffigan seems to revel in quantity, though that doesn’t mean there’s not quality built into the sheer amount of material he brings to each special.
One of Gaffigan’s smartest moments in Cinco comes when he equates 24-hour newscasters with being modern-day town gossips of the “You’re not going to believe this…” ilk. Valley girl voice and all, he cleverly parallels what viewers see on the news with the biggest loudmouth they likely knew in high school. From there, he moves on to an equally sharp observation about binge watching TV as a form of dating, but he loses the audience when he accuses True Blood viewers of being gay in the pejorative sense of the word. “Since you enjoyed True Blood, here are some other gay shows,” he adds, imitating Netflix’s disdaining suggestions queue. Knowing Gaffigan’s long history in the business, it doesn’t seem as though he’s trying to be mean-spirited by using the word (after all, he admits getting sucked into the show), but if he’s aiming for something layered or nuanced the end result feels more awkward than anything else.
But Gaffigan remains pervasively aware of his jokes. As he says moments after walking onstage, “Lower your expectations.” His self-deprecation forms an integral part of his comedy, shielding him from whatever potential criticism might come his way. By whispering in his well known falsetto-like rasp, as if he were a member of his own audience, he calls attention to his failures and turns the joke around on himself. Where his topics might feel like retreads at times, Gaffigan’s voice work serves his comedy well and keep things moving. Leave the heckling to the man onstage because he’s well aware how he’s doing. It’s a path he’s walked many times before.
Cinco is available on Netflix.
Amanda Wicks is a freelance journalist specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.