After seven previous albums, it’s easy to guess what Jim Gaffigan’s going to talk about on his latest, Mr. Universe, even before listening: fast food, his laziness, his paleness, his physique. And he’ll surely do “the voice”—his high-pitched impression of the incredulous, easily offended audience.
But Gaffigan anticipates this and is prepared. “Oh, he’s doing that voice already?” he says as “the voice” literally 35 seconds into Mr. Universe. Indeed, the album is one of Gaffigan’s most self-aware (he begins by tempering applause with, “What if I suck?”), which seems incredibly liberating. There are expectations, sure, but Gaffigan subverts them instantly, taking his material to more poignant, strange, and unabashedly silly places.
Take fast food, a staple ever since his Hot Pockets bit became so popular, audience members request it at shows like it’s “Freebird.” Mr. Universe sees Gaffigan deconstructing what makes these “restaurants” so nasty, then mocking himself for mocking them. When talking about McDonald’s, he admits he feels shame eating there, which allows him to immediately defend himself by deconstructing the idea of the restaurant itself—disposable culture. “It may take me a while to digest that Quarter Pounder With Cheese, but that tramp stamp is forever,” he quips.
Gaffigan’s also very aware of how he comes across onstage, which brings a personal and surprising touch to his other major joke staple: laziness. His weight is a hot topic, and the entry point is the simple line, “I don’t have a personal trainer,” followed by “the voice”: “Really? That’s a shock.” With the audience on board, he can poke fun at every aspect of working out, gym culture, running stores, and personal trainers, neatly tying more than 13 minutes of tight material with a quip about seeing disgusting people at the gym, only to realize he’s staring at his own reflection.
Mr. Universe finds freedom in self-awareness—the kind of freedom that can get laughs throughout a whale joke by simply repeating a whale sound, or doing an Arnold Schwarzenegger impression, then wondering why it is that everyone in the world has a great Ah-nold in their back pocket. In fact, his final bit sums up the goofy meta-ness perfectly: He pretend-calls a credit-card company to challenge a purchase of ExtenZe, and winds up having a long chat with the fake operator—while acknowledging that he’s not using a real phone—for a full two minutes. Gaffigan lets the audience into his world, and he comes off more endearing for it.