When Jim Gaffigan took his sixth standup special, Noble Ape, from his cozy and profitable Netflix home to the relatively risky Comedy Dynamics Network, it was, as he explained to The A.V. Club, because he was at something of a crossroads. Noble Ape was his first special to address the near-death experience of his wife and writing partner, Jeannie Gaffigan. While the intrusion of such a mammoth event into his signature metier of self-effacing observational comedy didn’t precisely see Gaffigan bare his soul, it did witness the comic steering his craftsmanship around the gravitational pull of something genuinely terrifying.
What, then, to make of the fact that Quality Time, Gaffigan’s follow-up to Noble Ape, is premiering on Amazon? (It’s Amazon’s first-ever original stand-up special, making Gaffigan’s defection from current genre-dominator Netflix that much more of a big deal.) Well, not discounting Amazon’s deep pockets or anything, but Quality Time seems designed to reassure his audience that he’s still the same Jim Gaffigan. You know, America’s dad-bod incarnate, making himself the butt of food and Midwestern unworldliness jokes while projecting an everyman common sense that renders observational comedy the rightful domain of full-bodied white guys everywhere. “This is what I look like. It’s mostly my fault,” is Gaffigan’s opener in Quality Time, slyly encapsulating the ensuing 75-minute set by planting his old flag, once more, in the generous breadbasket of his agreeably outsized onstage persona.
Amazon, puffing up its new comedy cash cow in advance of the special’s Friday release, advertises Quality Time by applying the Wall Street Journal’s dubiously narrow title of “The King Of Clean Comedy” to its newest acquisition. And, sure, Gaffigan’s sensibilities aren’t ever going to veer into Chris Rock’s or Dave Chappelle’s lanes, but Gaffigan’s hardly setting himself up for an in-house residency in Branson, either. He’s too much of a careful craftsman for easy labels, even if Quality Time (directed and co-written by Jeannie Gaffigan) appears engineered to return to normalcy, in his life and comedy.
If that smacks suspiciously of brand solidification after the near career-derailment Jeannie’s illness temporarily brought about, Quality Time is at least quality old-school Gaffigan. The uncertainty engendered by his wife’s (largely recovered) health barely surfaces in Quality Time, replaced by oblique references to the all-in family travel adventures the Gaffigans undertook in response. Indeed, it’s a medical crisis of his own—an emergency appendectomy during a family trip to Alaska—that forms the most harrowingly funny extended anecdote, with Gaffigan’s blend of self-mockery landing with deceptive deftness. As he puts it at one point, the worst thing in life is to “come off like an idiot,” whether for the annoyingly self-assured vacationing lawyer who took it upon himself to diagnose Jim’s searing abdominal pain, or his own mid-helicopter airlift prayers that said pain wouldn’t turn out to be related to his much-discussed food intake. “Because if it’s gas I don’t think I can return to my family,” states Gaffigan.
If the main weakness of Quality Time is its steadfast adherence to the sort of shtick that’s served Gaffigan so well in the past, that’s hardly going to deter anyone already on board with his style. Eschewing segues to, at one point, bust out with an abrupt “Lovely weather out there...” is practically meta-comedy in its knowing predictability. But the ensuing bits about the heat in Las Vegas are plain funny, no matter how many weather jokes you’ve heard. His family’s newfound tourism provides the perfect opportunity for Gaffigan to make his traditional even-handed, equal-opportunity fun of both himself and those crazy people with their crazy ways and accents and whatnot. Gaffigan happily plays the rube when that’s where the joke is, mocking himself for clomping along on safari (or “animal stalking”), or thinking his young children could appreciate the Anne Frank house, while reserving plenty of amiable scorn for his foreign hosts.
Noble Ape’s modest triumph was in showing how Gaffigan could stretch his style to encompass the truly, unexpectedly awful, so Quality Time’s snap back to the familiar—echoing his family’s wary return from the brink—could be seen as a similar autobiographically formalist victory. It can also feel a little too familiar, as Gaffigan ambles his way through the tried-and-true (dogs, in-laws, food, fitness, TV, food). But if there’s a sense of beer league complacency in how Gaffigan seems to effortlessly stroke out long, productive hits with his trusty material, there’s also the sense that he’s itching to try out some new, more unpredictable tricks. He ends his Alaska anecdote with a sure-fire bit about his family running across a distressingly curious bear. After a tensely rollicking few minutes filled with bear spray, bear flares, and the fact that his pasty-post surgery self must look to the bear like a delicious “land salmon,” Gaffigan punctures his audience’s complacent enjoyment by hinting that there was never a bear.
Apparently, there was a bear, though Gaffigan’s follow-up revelation, “I do sometimes lie up here. I’m not proud of it,” twinkles with a pride in knowing just how nimbly he’s able to toy with his audience. Later, he launches into a solid 10 minutes of faux-hacky horse jokes, before stepping back to taunt the audience: “I can see on some of your faces that you would frankly prefer—if I did more horse jokes.” Calling the resulting tension “a hell of my own making,” Gaffigan allows the barest glimpse of the workmanship that goes into making his comedy look so effortless.