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Television

Q&A: Jim Gaffigan may look ordinary, but his comedy is anything but

Jim Gaffigan
Comedian Jim Gaffigan is star of “The Jim Gaffigan Show.”
(Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

An enormously successful comedian, actor and author who has opened for the pope, Jim Gaffigan is also the star of TV Land’s “The Jim Gaffigan Show,” in which he plays a less enormously successful version of himself: a middle-aged, lazily observant Catholic comic living in lower Manhattan with his large family. The series’ second season concludes Sunday, Aug. 21.

Gaffigan, who writes the show with wife Jeannie Gaffigan (played onscreen by Ashley Williams), is rightfully proud of it. But he worries a little that “the adjectives you would use to describe me — comedian, clean, five kids, likes food, Catholic — all those things are possibly the most unsexy descriptions, things that would make a lot of people go, ‘No thank you.’ But the show is not that.” In fact, it’s a smart, dry and delightful mix of old-fashioned dopey-dad sitcom and meta-fictional experimental comedy, studded with guest shots and cameos that this season included Jerry Seinfeld, Will Ferrell, Tig Notaro, John Mulaney and New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan (as a bartender).

“I wanted every story to have an impact,” Gaffigan, 50, told me recently in the midst of his “Fully Dressed” tour. “I wanted it to say something a little more than ‘Jim loses a pair of shoes.’ ”

We were backstage at the Pacific Amphitheater in Costa Mesa, where the Orange County Fair was in progress, and the comic would shortly play to a full house.

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Is there a difference between a fair audience and other crowds?

I think it’s all kind of the same, unless there’s an age restriction, like in some casinos that you have to be 21 or sometimes 18. It’s usually a cross section, but sometimes you’ll do a show and you’ll look out there and it’ll be 15-year-olds, and sometimes you’ll look out there and it’ll be 60-year-olds and 30-year-olds. If you get, like, 4,000 people, it’s like, all, everyone.

But the good thing about larger venues is that you know people are paying to see you. It’s not as if someone’s going, “All right, I’ll spend 30 bucks and see what this guy’s like.” They know. They’re making the investment of time and money.

Do you go out under the assumption that there might be a 9-year-old child in the crowd, or do you not worry about that?

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I don’t really worry about that. I think the young kids are more of an issue for the audience — like, if you do a corporate event, people will be laughing but they’ll keep an eye on the CEO. And so if people are laughing — not that I get too, you know, nasty or anything like that — but they’ll keep an eye on the 9-year-old. If they can’t see the 9-year-old, they don’t care.

But I’m amazed when there are 12-year-olds that are like, “I really like your stuff.” They just have a different sophistication than we did. They grew up with this. If you’re a kid interested in stand-up, you can become an expert by the time you’re 11.

You can see a lot of it online.

You can see all of it. And that whole clean thing, it wasn’t this calculation of like, “I’ll be clean.” It’s just kind of how it comes out. Like is it really necessary to curse if you’re talking about muffins? How angry are you? I mean, I curse in everyday life.

Were you interested in comedy as an 11-year-old?

I think I was. I moved in fifth grade, and comedy was a pretty instrumental tool for me to add an adjective to “white.” So it was the “funny white guy,” “the funny pale kid.” I remember just doing bad elephant jokes. And then among my family, where I’m the youngest, I became less of a nuisance among my siblings because I could do an impression of my dad. I was less just a threat for competition for food because I was someone who could do an impression of the tyrant we lived with.

You play your dad in a couple of episodes this season. Is that a good impression?

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It’s a good impression. It’s exaggerated. I mean, he’s the pre-Phil Donahue dad. He was definitely gruff, but it was the era of children should be seen, not heard. You had kids for a lawn crew. Kids were kind of a nuisance. It’s not the dad of today. I’m sure he never changed a diaper. And he never felt any guilt about it.

It’s interesting because we wrote a book, my wife and I, “Dad Is Fat,” and we wrote about my dad. And I sent the initial version of the essay to my brother, and he was like, “What the hell, Jimmy?” And I was like, “What?” And he’s like, “This is just mean.” But it’s point of view, right? It’s from the child’s point of view.

When did you start writing with your wife?

I guess about 14, 15 years ago. She was running an inner-city theater program, and I had met her a couple of days before and saw her directing 100 eighth-graders with the help of a friend or two, and I was pretty impressed. But I was very reluctant to — I mean, I know some comedians that get so successful they just hire writers, but it’s a very personal thing. Even when another comedian will give you a line, you’re usually like, “Yeah, that’s not going to work.”

I knew I was dating her because I thought she was funny, but I didn’t imagine that we would be this writing team that would write books and eventually episodes of shows. Initially, it was bouncing around a joke or two, and then her saying, “I really have a problem with this joke — it doesn’t work, it’s not clear.” So some of it was directing, but I think when we were writing the books, that’s when it really kind of reached its peaks. In the television show, we have battles, but we can really kind of figure it out.

Has working with her changed your comedy at all, opened you up to new things?

I think it did open me up. I think I became less intrigued with the notion of shock. I mean, comedy is about surprises; it’s about two unrelated ideas and stuff like that, but shock, I think, became less important of a currency. So there would be jokes, and she’d be like, “Do you have to say that? Can’t you think of something better than that.” And I’m like, “What’s wrong with that?” And she goes, “It’s disgusting.” And I’d be like, “All right, I could say this.” She goes, “I’m still offended by that, but you know what — it’s better written.”

In my first special, I had these jokes about being Catholic, and she was like, “You should do those,” and I was like, “No, ’cause people will think that I’m like a religious freak.” But those were my insecurities surrounding it.

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She describes herself as having a PhD in Jim Gaffigan; some of it is a sensibility and point of view — that you can disagree over — and then there’s just great observations she’ll come up with that can find their way in there.

One episode this year, “The Trial” — in which you’re thrown into Social Outrage Jail and found guilty of being “a dumb, ignorant, stupid, white guy” — is based on the overwhelmingly negative reaction to an actual tweet of yours from 2013: “Ladies I hope getting your nails done feels good because not a single man notices you got them done.”

There are moments where you’re like, “Oh, I don’t want to be famous; I don’t want to be under the microscope at all.” I enjoy the fact that people like my stuff, but I’m certainly not a flamethrower. But comedians do have a tendency to be flamethrowers, to say outlandish things. Still, I wanted that episode to be less about the crime and more about the punishment. It’s like, we’re all reasonable here; we don’t want to be sexist or homophobic, but if we step into it, we can go, “Hey, sorry, my bad,” and people should say, “OK.” But every now and then, people are like, “No.”

In the episode “The List,” after not making a list of the 100 best comics in New York, you go deep into Queens and the depths of alternative comedy. Do you feel commonality with 20-year-olds, that they get you? Or is there a new kind of comedy that’s funny in a different way from what you do?

What I love about stand-up, and I’m going to eventually contradict myself, is that it’s a meritocracy. You either do it and you’re good at it and the crowd responds and they come and see you, or you don’t. There might be flashes in the pan that are big for about a year, but in the end, it is a meritocracy.

There are kind of these waves. When I started in stand-up, there were maybe 80 comedians in New York City — maybe. And everyone knew everyone. And now it’s grown exponentially. So there’s times I go into clubs, and I’m a comedian, and I don’t know any of the comedians. And that’s very strange. And there are references that are just lost on some people. The age thing, it’s weird because I think in your 20s, everyone’s all the same age, it seems like; and your 30s and 40s, it’s all the same. But it reaches a point where it’s like, “Oh, wait a minute, I’ve been doing this for 25 years.”

I did a benefit with Ricky Gervais, and I got offstage, and he goes, “Oh, you’re just out there doing jokes.” I go, “Yeah. That’s what I do. That’s what all of us do.” In the end, it’s the Borscht Belt show in the Catskills. It’s either funny or it’s not, you do the job or you don’t.

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‘The Jim Gaffigan Show’

Where: TV Land

When: 10 and 10:30 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)


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