Jim Gaffigan may be one of the least controversial comedians of our time. A family man and a lover of food, his comedy rarely stumbles into blue or even political territory. His best jokes rely on simply making as many people laugh as possible. The philosophy of “funny is funny” serves him well in The Pale Tourist, his latest two-part special for Amazon.
One special takes place in Canada, the other in Spain, and in both Gaffigan answers the question: “What if the five minutes of city-specific material at the top of every comedy show was actually the entire show?” It’s possible that no one was asking that question, but nonetheless it’s a pleasant experiment. Throughout his international tour, Gaffigan spent extra time taking in the sights, sounds, people, and, of course, food of each country he was in, using that intel to create a completely new hour of material specifically tailored to that country’s audience. It may sound a little gimmicky, but it’s an admirable challenge for a stand-up who’s been in the game for three decades and a welcome break from jokes about America’s current moment—though Gaffigan can’t help but throw in a few jabs at his own country and its obnoxious residents.
The trickiest thing about this approach is avoiding the “ugly American tourist” trap. On the surface, the optics of a white, American man coming into say, Spain, to tell jokes about Spanish culture aren’t great. But Gaffigan proves he’s done his homework and isn’t there to skewer anyone (well, maybe a few Americans along the way); he’s using this method to connect with people in the cities he visits. And for the times when he’s worried he may have crossed a line, he employs a tried-and-true Gaffigan bit: the high-pitched, whisper voice of the audience as an aside. “This guy’s a jerk,” he’ll say with a side-eye. “A jerk who’s done research.”
Part one takes place in Canada, arguably an easier leap to make from U.S. audiences, and all the funnier for it. He hits on some expected targets like Canadians’ politeness, hockey, and poutine, the last of which, though, is especially on brand for Jim Gaffigan: “What if we covered it in everything that causes heart disease? Let’s do it, we have free healthcare.” But as the set goes on and Gaffigan gets more comfortable knowing he has the audience on his side, he dives into hyper-specific references. Because of the research he’s done, the jokes not only hit hard in the room, but also serve as entertaining lessons about lesser-known aspects of Canadian culture for the at-home audience.
Part two in Spain is a little slower out the gate. The cultural divide is wider, and Gaffigan seems to be making that larger leap a little more trepidatiously with a quieter, more reserved presence on stage. Again, he starts off with some obvious targets—Spanish people’s touchy-feely nature, siestas—using a Spanish accent at times that adds to the discomfort of poking fun at aspects of a different culture. This is the only time things feel borderline inappropriate, and it’s as if Gaffigan knows he’s treading potentially dangerous waters, waters he certainly isn’t used to. But with encouragement and laughter from the crowd, he grows in confidence as he moves on to the more nuanced jokes and observations about specific cities, celebrations, and, yes, cuisines in the country.
The true marvel is that there is no overlap in either set. That might sound obvious based on the premise, but even the format feels completely new each time, not as if there was some sort of Mad Lib template into which Gaffigan simply punched new, nation-specific words. Even the material about his general experiences with traveling or jokes about his family feel fresh each time. It makes you wonder how many other countries he tried this approach in—even if the sets weren’t as successful as the two that made it into the special, it’s an impressive feat to even attempt to write that much new material about topics you’re not familiar with, an exercise that can only make Gaffigan a better comic.
The Pale Tourist is not the most raucous or laugh-out-loud comedy special from Gaffigan. But thanks to his ever-present charm, friendly approach, and endless relatability, the feel-good pair of specials reminds us that the funniest jokes are the universal jokes. Sure, the sets specifically relate to the countries he’s in, but more than geography, they speak to the human experience and all relate back to the core of any Jim Gaffigan act: jokes about family, food, and the absurdity of humanity.