Jim Gaffigan has released six CDs, has both half hour and hour long Comedy Central specials, and has appeared in numerous television shows and films.
What sort of place is Chesterton, Indiana?
I actually grew up in Dune Acres, which is a suburb of Chesterton. Chesterton is the sort of place that didn't have a McDonalds until I was in high school. It was a very boring place. We would ride our bikes six miles to go to the Dairy Queen. It was all right. It's a unique place in that northwest Indiana is a convergence of Midwest farm life and the steel mill rust belt. The steel mills of Gary, which is ethnically diverse and Indiana, which is very white bread.
Young boys, free time, and suburban sprawl often leads to mischievous behavior. Could the same be said of young Jim Gaffigan?
I wouldn't say that I was a troublemaker. I was raised in a family that had a work hard play hard type of attitude.
You also played sports in school?
I went to a high school with a hundred students, freshman through senior. Saying that you're the captain of the football and wrestling teams was not that huge of an accomplishment. I was lucky to escape those John Hughes cliques that I hear my wife describe. The nerds, the jocks, and the potheads, in my high school everyone was all of those things. I did play college football for a little bit. That's why it's always fascinating when I'm portrayed as a nerd in television shows.
What sort of creative outlets did you have growing up?
A lot of it was my imagination. I was raised in a big Midwestern Catholic family where success was a job and wearing a coat and tie. The whole notion of creativity wasn't something discouraged, but it wasn't really explored. I didn't know anyone growing up that was considering being an actor or comedian. If I said that I wanted to be a comedian, it wouldn't be, "You're never going to make it." It would be more like me saying, "I want to be a unicorn." It was that type of surreal sort of option. I'd watch television and I'd assume that they got all of the actors from California or New York. As I got older, I'd hear stories of someone being discovered at a soda shop. It seemed like an erratic life that didn't provide any security or longevity.
Were you a class clown or the funny one amongst your group of friends?
I was voted funniest and biggest slob in high school. There were lots of funny people in my high school. I'm the youngest of six kids and my three older brothers were all very funny. They were uniquely funny. My brother Mike was very sarcastic with a very dark sense of humor, my brother Mitch was observational with a universal type of humor, and my brother Joe had a weird sense of humor. In a lot of ways, I'm a combination of all three of them. I stole from all of them to develop my comedic personality. When I started to have some success, the big joke was that I was the third funniest in the family.
How'd you get your laughs as a kid?
Imitating my father. My father was this larger than life figure who had a very deep voice from smoking. I do him a little bit in my act. I used to do him a lot more. I'm actually bringing him back. He was a banker before Republicans were bad guys. He was socially liberal, but a conservative who was a, "That's kind of bull shit," cursing and grumpy type of guy. Not that different from me, I suppose. In big families, there's constantly conflict. With six kids and the chaos of growing up, there's definitely a necessity for relief. I don't think it's a mistake that so many comedians come from large families.
Was it in high school that you became interested in acting?
I remember being five and sitting at the Chicken Unlimited with my mom and brother after we'd seen a movie and my mom asked my brother, who was six at the time, what he wanted to do when he grew up. He said, "Helicopter pilot." She asked me and I said, "Actor." It's always been there. It's something that they'd tell when they wanted to embarrass me for the next twenty years. I studied finance in college. The night before graduation, I was drunk at a bar talking to a friend and she was congratulating me on having my financial consulting job. I said, "Secretly, I want to be an actor and a comedian, but I suppose everyone wants to be an actor and comedian," and she said, "No, not everyone does." I was naïve to the fact that not everyone would want to pursue this life of ups and downs.
How did you decide on going to Georgetown?
I have a strange love/hate relationship with Indiana. I remember being ten, looking around, and thinking, "I've got to get the fuck out of here. There's been some mistake." I'd always been fascinated with international things, different cultures, and different types of people and DC held a lot of those things. I suppose, at the time, New York just seemed unfathomable.
You did Improv in college?
I did a play in high school and loved it. In college, I didn't really do anything. There was a theater department, but I had played football for two years and then concentrated on doing well in classes. There was this talent show that was a big to do at our college called Cabaret. I did that show, had a blast, and didn't see it as an option. I went down to Tampa with this financial litigation-consulting firm. I was miserable, not that good at it, and didn't like it. I studied financing and thought, "This is boring and it sucks, but when I'm paid to do this it'll be a lot better." A friend got me a job in advertising and while I was working in advertising in New York, I started taking Improv classes and really loved it. Stand up was a dare. I loved it. I felt that acting was a really complex bureaucratic thing where you had to go around begging for jobs, but, with stand up, you got to do it that night.
How'd that first performance go?
My first performance is on the DVD. It was definitely rewarding. It was a bringer show. If someone watches, they might think, "That doesn't look like his first time." It was my first time, but it was the nicest audience in the world. It went pretty well the first three times, and then for two years I bombed. When I started in the early nineties, it was when stand up was in a bust. The comedy boom of the eighties was coming to an end, so all of these comedy clubs were closing. Right now, we exist in a comedy boom. If you want to do stand up and develop your craft, it's not the hardest thing in the world.
What do you think of bringer shows?
It's a necessity, I suppose. I understand the perspective, but I feel that people are taking advantage of people trying to pursue a dream, which I would think isn't good on the karmic balance scale. When I started, I'd do some of these bringer shows, bring fifteen people to the club, they'd put all of these regulars up, and two and a half hours later they'd put me up, which was kind of cool.
Would you eventually do more open mics than bringer shows?
There were some bringer shows, but there were these open mics that were comics performing for comics. I'd always done open mics, but it's hard to get a measure on a joke performing only for comics.
How long were you doing stand up before you noticed some sort of a difference?
I had been doing stand up for five years when I got Carolines Comedy Hour with Greg Giraldo. The best credit I had for the first eight years I was doing it was that Dave Attell thought I was funny. Your peers thinking you're funny is important. Getting Dr. Katz was a big to do for me too. Everyone in my generation of comics had all done Conan and Letterman three years before I had done a late night TV spot. Comedy Central wouldn't give me a Premium Blend. When I did Letterman, it changed everything.
What are some things that you know about stand up now that you would have liked to have known when you were starting out?
Dave Attell told me something very important that it took me a while to understand. "Getting to the point of undeniable ability." Dave Attell can do a joke and even if the audience doesn't like him they'll laugh at it. I think that getting undeniable is really important. The problem with the comedy business is that you'd think that it would be a complete meritocracy but it's not. You'd think it would just be, "That person makes people laugh," but it's not. That being said, it's more of a meritocracy than other aspects of the entertainment industry. With acting, it's just, "We're looking for someone with red hair."
A big realization is not getting caught up in other people's expectations. Other people's expectations can make you frustrated when the reality of it is that things are going great. It's a lot of things that you'd eventually have to learn. People ask me what should I do and I was the same person asking what I should do. You have to learn a lot of things the hard way for them to make sense.
What do you think of comics that start as young as sixteen, like Todd Glass did?
First of all, I think Todd Glass is really funny. When someone starts really young, it's good because their point of view begins at that age. There are parts of me that wish that I'd started when I was younger. I like where I am now, so I wouldn't want to change much. As an art form, there's a lot we don't know about stand up. That's why comics love talking about it. There's no Meisner Technique. There are different styles of comedy like a social satirist or an observational comic, but it's weird to compare them. I don't think you can compare what David Cross does to what Todd Glass does. It's two different styles. I like them both. When people put all stand up comedy together, it's like comparing The Fugees to Aerosmith.
Would you say then that it's better to not approach comedy as a competition?
Totally. What's so amazing about stand up is that it's an individual thing. It's not to say that people don't get caught up in competition and the injustice of what happens when so and so gets such and such deal. The whole idea of comedy competition is horrible. I think that presenting stand up comedy as a critical hierarchical type of thing like Last Comic Standing does is ridiculous.
When did you first start doing the road?
I stayed in New York. I kept my day job for a very long time. I didn't want my living to be reliant on some crazy booker of one nighters. You're a product of your environment and if you're surrounded by drunken people all the time you're going to have to figure out how to make those drunken people laugh, which is great if you want to do that. Just don't expect that same material to make an audience in Chicago at eight PM laugh. People are always finding their way and adjusting their act. I think the road is hard. It sounds very elusive and fun. Five days in DC or Atlanta. But it can be isolating, there are a lot of bad influences, boredom, you get done with work at one AM. What are you going to do except for get in trouble or waste time? Some people are more disciplined. For me, it's why I like doing theaters. I can do a theater on Friday or Saturday and then be home by Sunday. It could be that I'm older. With roadwork, they put three shows on Saturday at forty-five minutes to an hour, which can make you delirious. And that's coming from someone that's done six shows a night.
What do you do when you want to do some new material?
I write everything with my wife. I discuss it with her. I usually try it at the appropriate environment, but it's hard because if I'm doing a theater people are coming to see me kill and I don't feel like I can try stuff out necessarily. I like to try stuff out in New York. That's the advantage of having a couple of short spots where you can try a joke over and over and re-write it onstage.
Do you do more of your writing off stage or onstage?
It changes all the time. I go through periods where I'll have an idea and I'll write it down. I'm a noodler. I've had my Cinnabon joke for five or six years, but the jokes that make up its core have changed dramatically. What was the main joke has become secondary and I don't even do it anymore. I stopped doing it because I saw a commercial that essentialy did my joke.
The one with people stapling food directly to themselves?
How long have some of your older bits been in development, like Chimichanga Week on A & E or Hot Pockets?
The Mexican thing with Chimichanga and all that has been retired since I did Doing my time . Unless someone sends me an e-mail to request a joke, I try to keep moving forward. I'll be on a television show and I won't really be able to do stand up for six months. That Hot Pocket thing, going from one joke to seven minutes, has been six years. If I can add elements to make it better, I keep it around. Hot Pockets is kind of like the Manatee joke where someone might say, "I drove an hour and a half and didn't hear that Hot Pockets joke."
When do you think someone should move to LA or New York to pursue comedy?
It's a very individual thing. New York and LA embrace different styles of stand up. There's an alternative scene in both. New York has embraced Eugene , Demetri , Slovin and Allen, and has shows like Moonwork. I feel that the attention span in New York is different with some of the comedy club audiences. I feel like New York has a better energy to develop stand up. I'd wait until you can make a dent. But if you're coming from a town of seven hundred people, you might as well dive in. It's hard to live in New York. If you're coming from comfortable middle class living and then have to move into an apartment the size of a closet, it might be a hard adjustment. There's a lot of people that have been really successful in LA. The alternative scene has let Patton , Zach, and Maria Bamford develop their unique point of view.
What do you think of the term alternative comedy?
It doesn't bother me. Independent of the label, it exists from the notion that working in a traditional comedy club makes it hard to do certain material or gain access to an attentive audience. I think there's some value to that. It comes down to being funny or not being funny. When I do Largo or Invite Them Up , I see it as a treat to perform for an audience that has an expectation and open mindedness that isn't the prove-it-to-me kind of thing you'd find in a comedy club. If you do Comedy Death Ray , you'll see that those people are comedy fans. I call them comedy nerds, and I'd include you and I in the group. It's great that there are people that value comedy as an art form.
I'm out in LA right now and I'm looking to do spots, and I got a message on Myspace saying, "I'd love to see you do a really edgy set." I chuckle because I've been doing this for over fifteen years and I went through years where I was Dave Attell like. What does it mean to be edgy? Does it mean that you insult the president? I would think that edgy means non-typical.
I read that Pale Force was picked up for another twenty episodes. How will these episodes compare to the three that you've made so far?
They'll be very similar. It's still going to be these guys fighting crime with their paleness and this quasi humiliation of Conan. A fourth of them will probably be on Conan, but that's not up to us. The rest will be on some NBC website thing. They're fun to do.
Who do you write them with?
Pale Force as an idea was come up with by Paul Noth, who is a cartoonist for the New Yorker. The music is done by Patrick Noth. Paul and I write them all. My wife's involved. It's the perfect writing situation where we all understand each other's sensibilities. We're not looking to do anything but something that would make us laugh.
What are some acting roles that you have coming up soon?
I'm in this movie The Great New Wonderful . It's at the Angelica, and it'll be somewhere in LA, DC, and Boston. The list is on their site. I'm doing this TBS show called My Boys. Paul and I are also doing a pilot for Adult Swim. I'm in a film called Stephanie Daley that was in Sundance that'll hopefully be distributed in the fall.
Have you thought of writing a movie for yourself to star in?
I'd like to do that, but I've been a bit spoiled by the immediacy of stand up. I've been fortunate enough to get some good roles in indies. I really enjoy acting. I value it as a very important creative outlet for me, but it's a hard game. I don't look like Matthew McConaughey and have a comedy background, so most of the roles I'm offered are, "You're the dorky friend of the lead who does dorky things and doesn't know anything about life," which is fine. It's just hard to get excited about auditioning for roles that are that cookies cutter.
What do you think of the state of comedies today?
I have two kids, so I don't get to see a lot of movies. With the exception of Napoleon Dynamite, I haven't seen anything that I've gotten a kick out of. Maybe I'm too jaded from being in the comedy business too long.
What do you like to do after a performance?
It changes. When I'm in New York, I just like to get home to my family. If I'm on the road or doing a theater, I like hanging out with the people that came to see my show. I always do a meet in greet. If they paid thirty bucks to come and see me, the least I could do is say hey. It's fun. You go to a city for one night, do a theater, wander around the town with Rich Brooks, who opens for me in all of these theaters, and we'll get BBQ or something. I'm much more of a night person.
Jim will be appearing October 14th 2006 at the Town Hall.
Visit Jim's content heavy site Jim Gaffigan.com to get footage of Jim in action, buy his CDs and DVDs, see episodes of Pale Force and his video podcast Our Massive Planet, and, most importantly, have a good time.