Jim Gaffigan has a knack for staying on America's radar. Since our February 2006 interview with the sun-starved 42-year-old stand-up, Gaffigan has toured with Beyond The Pale (2006), appeared on Late Night With Conan O'Brien with his Pale Force web series, and secured a primo spot in the TBS sitcom My Boys as the lead's domesticated brother. His stand-up continues to develop—he's still a nitpicky, comfortably uncomfortable observationalist, but he's shifted away from Pale's hyper-food focus ("Hot Pockets!") in favor of jabs at his own laziness. The new material is currently making the cross-country rounds as The Sexy Tour—it hits theatres in November, and an early December show in Austin will be recorded for his next Comedy Central special in March. Even with increased exposure, Gaffigan is still the same goofy comic, making good use of his trademark high-pitched "inner voice" to broadcast what he perceives to be the audience's thoughts at any given moment. The A.V. Club called Gaffigan in early November to discuss character acting, Hot Pockets, and how he met his wife.
The A.V. Club: Has anything particularly sexy happened to you yet on The Sexy Tour?
Jim Gaffigan: Well, I've gotten so sexy, I'm almost thinking of changing it to The Sexiest Tour. No, The Sexy Tour was obviously just a joke. It's funny, though, it's with Comedy Central, and there were these affiliates that do exchanges on ads, and supposedly in Tampa, one didn't want to do some promotion or something. They were like, [High-pitched voice.] "The Sexy Tour, that's dirty." And I'm a clean comic. It just proves that there's a lot of people who don't have any idea who the hell I am. I just thought it was funny, it's like, "The joke is that it isn't… it's not sexy." And they're like, "They don't get it."
AVC: Do you find people still have preconceived notions that stand-up is dirty?
JG: I do a meet-and-greet after every show, and there'll always be a couple that'll be like, "We should have brought our 17-year-old son, it was okay." It's not that I'm clean, I don't think, it's just that people feel comfortable seeing my show with their parents, you know what I mean? It's not like they have to be embarrassed. Stand-up comedy is all about people like Lenny Bruce—they made it possible for there to be no censorship. And I'm somebody who's like, "Thanks for all that work; I'm going to talk about beanbag chairs."
AVC: In your last A.V. Club chat, you mentioned dealing with terrible stage fright as a younger comic. What goes through your head now before shows?
JG: Theatre shows are so rewarding and so easy in a lot of ways. It's like someone literally just lobbing a ball to you. "Here you are, it's a beautiful setting, and here is a wiffle ball, and I'll give you a tennis racket." And you're like, "All right." Boom! But to answer your question, there's usually like 10 or 15 things I'm trying or changing. I'm not going to be like, "I'm going to talk about eggs for 10 minutes." It's things that have been tried and tested, but there's still something to change about where I place the jokes, some use of language, changing the wording. And then depending on the crowd, I might open up doing certain other chunks of jokes, or it might be going a safer route. But I don't have to deal with stage fright. It's weird: I can't believe I'm actually saying that, because at one time it was such a huge part of me. I did a show on Monday night that was the worst audience in the world. And it was at a great comedy club, so that's why I'm not going to say its name, but the thing is, what I always kind of admired about watching someone like Chris Rock is that he's like, "This show doesn't matter." He's just trying to work these jokes out. It's not like I was getting heckled or anything, but parts of the crowd weren't listening. But my whole thing was, "I'm not there trying to get caught up in seeking their approval, like 'Hey, lady, would you be quiet?'" I was like, "Well I've got like 90 people over here that I can try this material on," if that makes sense.
AVC: What about the theatre shows makes them easy?
JG: Well, I guess easy is the wrong word. But it's the funnest, I think. They know your comedic point of view; unlike a comedy club, they're not just walking in off the street. The setting really elevates everything. There's almost something about doing it in a historical or majestic kind of setting where people can focus.
AVC: This is your first tour since being on My Boys. Has that kind of exposure changed your stand-up experience?
JG: There's definitely a handful of My Boys fans, but it also depends on what city you're in. There's one or two people at the meet-and-greet that are like, "I love My Boys." But there are also two people preceding them that were like, "I'm a huge fan of That '70s Show, and you were on that."
AVC: How has stand-up opened doors for you as an actor? Or is it just as a character actor?
JG: Stand-up obviously is a huge advantage in getting considered for work. But I should say there's a certain type of work that someone like Dane Cook is offered that they would never offer me. And some of that has to do with, I'm more of a character actor. I don't know, I find that honestly, the stand-up thing in some ways is a little bit of a cliché to carry around, because people don't consider stand-ups really actors. "Hey, wouldn't it be hysterical if we gave this role to a comic, or maybe some guy who drove a forklift—not an actor?" So there is a little bit of that, but there is something about… When it comes to Law & Order bad guys, it's like, "Okay, we've already gone through the Broadway bad guys, now let's just start going through the comedians."
AVC: Stand-ups get no respect.
JG: The entertainment business is such a strange, crazy perception business that you're either given way too much respect, like people saying, "You should be the head of the sitcom!" Or you're given no respect, where they're like, "You should audition to be the garbage man that lives four houses down." And you're like, "But I… all right, okay." But I think the television thing is changing so much. The success of Sarah Silverman will almost create a place where the industry people will be like, "Wait a minute, maybe these comedians can do their own show." Do you know what I mean? But to be fair to those people, they're just trying to keep their jobs. There were so many years where they were like, "Just give a comedian a job." And then it didn't work for, like, 10 years. And they're like, "Well, don't give a comedian a show."
AVC: Beyond The Pale is almost all about food and your addictive relationship with it. Is that kind of material cathartic to talk about onstage?
JG: I go there because I like topics that are universal, meaning everyone can get 'em; I'm not talking about something that's loses 25 percent of the people in the audience. Also, I like topics that can last. I'm sure there's going to be some people that have great jokes about the elections, but in four months, those jokes are going to be pretty tired. But the whole food thing… I guess to answer your question, a lot of people have that attitude toward food. Even if people don't have a food addiction or whatever, they identify with the peculiarities that bacon is that good, or they find it interesting that, say, ketchup is the king of all condiments. It's pretty straight observational-type stuff. There's something that's really fun about the challenge of making the mundane funny, too, I think.
AVC: How has talking about Hot Pockets so much changed the way you think about them?
JG: I always think of me and Hot Pockets as this ice-dancing couple, where together, we can get the gold medal, but we've been hanging around for too long, where it's just like, "Please, while we're not onstage, can you just do your thing over there and I'll do my thing?" "Hot Pockets" is a very unique thing. If I never wrote another joke, "Hot Pockets"… There's so many different ways of how to describe [the bit]. It used to be the comedy nerds that would be like, "I like your manatee joke." And now I'll just be walking down the street and some drunk guy in a bar in a tank top will run out and yell "Hot Pocket!" at me. So it's gone from the comedy nerd that's fascinated with stand-up to some guy you can't even imagine looking on YouTube at anything. So the whole thing with Hot Pockets is—first of all, it's in the news so frequently, either by recalls or the introduction of new products. They're in there more than Lindsay Lohan. So there is enough stuff to keep it fresh. But I'm really grateful that there's other topics from this tour. People will send me Facebook messages saying, "Bacon is the new Hot Pockets." I don't even know what Hot Pockets was in the first place.
AVC: People yell "Hot Pockets!" at your shows all the time—requesting the bit like they're shouting "Free Bird." In that case, is there any trepidation in giving the fans what they want?
JG: Let me preface this by saying I never had an expectation that I would be doing theatres, so… This whole people-yelling-jokes-out thing. It's very odd and strange that someone's yelling something out, "Just do it!" I kind of have two sides about that. There's part of me that's like, "Well if they drove an hour and a half to hear the Hot Pockets joke or the holidays jokes, is it going to kill you to do them?" I know comics that have the philosophy "Once you do that special, you never do that joke again!" I'm thinking, "Well, you know, is it the end of the world if you do do it?" "Hot Pockets" is always at the end of my show, because there is a portion of the audience who's like, "I just want to hear that Hot Pockets joke, and then I'm going to leave." It's not like they'd get up and leave, but it's some of why they're going. It's much about stand-up being a conversation—you like talking to your uncle, but if you uncle only told the same stories, you'd be like, "I'm not going to visit that guy, he's crazy." You'll allow him to do something old, but the new material is very important, obviously.
AVC: Do you remember the first time you tried out your "inner voice"?
JG: Yeah, definitely. It was a character that I did that was always part of my personality. And I still will do it in everyday life. If I'm late to meet my wife, I'll be like… [Inner voice.] "I can't believe you're late." I used to do it at this place Surf Reality on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. But during my Comedy Central Presents, I made a point of not doing it, which seems kind of odd, but it is something that certain audiences wouldn't get. But it's something to keep the material fresh. I remember being in DC and hanging out with Dave Attell—he was the headliner and I was middling—and me just going crazy with the inside voice, 'cause there is an improvisational kind of side to it. And it just really clicked. Attell was like, "Ah, you found your gimmick."
AVC: How do you feel about that word, calling it a gimmick?
JG: If it was the only thing I did, then I would be worried. I'm preparing for this new hour, and it's not like it's a key element. It's much more of—I'm all about food references, right?—it's more of a seasoning, a very light seasoning of it. In smaller doses, I feel like it's more effective.
AVC: You do a Cinnabon joke on Beyond The Pale, as does Louis CK on his new Chewed Up special. Is there room for more than one comic in the Cinnabon universe?
JG: Oh yeah, definitely. Comics write to their point of view. If you're an exceedingly irreverent comedian, you've got to see where that point of view fits or produces the most funny. It's finding topics that have not been mined to death, but there's part of you as a comedian that thinks there's still something in those topics. People are like, "Don't do it! Don't do it!" Airlines would be a classic example. If you came up with a great observation on airlines, it would almost be more rewarding. I can't believe I'm saying this in an interview, but I have jokes on fast food, which you'd think, "Are you out of your mind?" On the surface, it sounds like the worst topic. But there is something about the challenge of taking something mundane or something that's been beaten down as a topic. Certain ones, though… Like, I have hotel jokes that are unique and hopefully good, but I've taken them out of this hour, 'cause I'm taping this for a special, and I'm like, "Nothing hotel, nothing travel, really."
AVC: Do you have a threshold for things that are too mundane to comment on?
JG: Oh yeah, yeah. I worked on USA Today as a topic for while. I tried to do something on hand chairs, chairs that look like hands. I really tried. But some topics are not truly universal. You could sit there and have this point of view on USA Today, and people would be like, "What's wrong with USA Today?" Right now, I have jokes about the drugstore. And living in New York for 20 years, the people who work in drugstores, it's hysterical, the indifference and everything. They work in large open areas where I'm like, "How about drugstore employees, blah blah." But there's a lot of people that are like, "Yeah, no, they seem fine." 'Cause in certain parts of the country it's not a big deal. But in Manhattan, it's like, "You were fired from Wendy's? You can work at this drugstore." Even describing it sounds boring.
AVC: On your website, you mention that you're available to play man-on-the-street characters, and that section starts with the sentence, "I've done man on the street work in commercials (Kodak), industrials (IBM) and meeting women (my wife)." What's the story with the latter?
JG: I did meet my wife just in a neighborhood deli, that's for sure. She was going out and I was coming in.
AVC: What was your opening line?
JG: "Do I know you?" It was definitely something that lame. I have horrible eyesight, and I'm kind of goofy-looking enough that people will look at me. And so I always have to look at them, and I have to look harder at someone 'cause I have horrible eyesight. I tried to do a joke about it a long time ago that, from far away, if I'm walking at you, "Hey, it's a big pale blob, that's Jim Gaffigan." But for me, I can't see anyone. I'm kind of like, "Hey, how are you, oh yeah, all right!" I honestly did think that I had met her. She ran this inner-city theatre program, and I was like, "What's that like, to be nice to people? What's that like, to have a conscience?"