Thrilla in vanilla
George Carlin called it the "little world," the minutiae that everyday people experience. These days that microcosmos has been quietly cornered by stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan. Recognized by his pallidness and blockbuster "Hot Pockets" bit, the native Indianan is ubiquitous from late-night and cable TV appearances, the TBS series My Boys, the "Pale Force" cartoons on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, commercials, and his platinum-selling Beyond the Pale DVD and CD. The affable Gaffigan works clean (as in profanity-free, not post-Betty Ford), and his musings on birthday presents, bathrobes, bacon, laziness, and the like merit comparison to the sparkling observationalism of Jerry Seinfeld. Possessing a refreshingly staid stage presence, Gaffigan soft-sells his material, often via a high-pitched susurrus that serves as a clever Greek chorus or an ongoing audience critique, allowing the comic to riff and go off script. The Chronicle spoke to Gaffigan in advance of his five-show stint at the Paramount Theatre that will be taped for his next Comedy Central special.
Austin Chronicle: You graduated from the private Catholic La Lumiere School near LaPorte, Indiana. What was your high school experience like and how much of a class clown were you? How much of an outcast did you feel like?
Jim Gaffigan: It was a high school of a 105 students, so there was no real opportunity to be the most popular or the biggest outcast. I was definitely considered a class clown, but that's compared to like 20 other people in my class. It was kind of a unique experience in that the typical John Hughes high school experience, I didn't really have. I wouldn't describe it as the traditional notion of a private school considering it was this small school in the middle of the woods in Indiana. It's not like a school Al Gore and George Bush went to; it's not like that notion of a private high school – I don't even know if either of them went to a private high school. It was just a really small school, so there was typically like eight people in my class or maybe 10 or 12 at the most, which was great, you know. It made me embrace this notion that if I tried hard I could do anything, I guess.
AC: It wasn't a boarding school environment, correct? You went home at the end of the day?
JG: It was like an hour away. It was a boarding school, but it wasn't like you would never see your parents. You know what I mean?
AC: With Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. being a fellow La Lumiere alumnus, do you not feel like you potentially have a total "Get out of jail free" card? Surely, you're putting bees in J-Ro's bonnet, right?
JG: [Laughs] It's weird. The school itself probably has an alumni base of a thousand people, but that being said, I don't think that I have any influence with John Roberts.
AC: Are you being modest now? Have you tried sending him a few comps to a show?
JG: [Laughs] The thing is, I go to D.C. I love D.C., too. But I've never sent him any comps, and I would bet you a hundred bucks that he has no idea who I am.
AC: Understood, and I realize we're talking different generations. I think he was there maybe four years before girls were admitted to the school, but ...
JG: Man, your research!
AC: Thank you. And I do say, if you get in trouble: Play that up, man! So with that small environment in school, you said it didn't lend itself to feeling like such an extreme of the outcast or the total class clown. With your pallor, you would've been a shoo-in with a goth coven, but I'm guessing the "gothic invasion" hadn't hit La Lumiere full steam by then. Do you think if you were in a public school arena, you would have gravitated more toward your classic outcasts or the more academic kids? That question is so bad, we can ignore it.
JG: I know what you're saying, and I've thought about it because my wife went to a big high school in Milwaukee that had the rich kids and the jocks. I don't know. When I got to college, I was definitely friends with all these different groups of people – not like I was Mr. Popularity, but that whole clique thing seemed very foreign to me. Not to sound naive, but it didn't make logical sense. It's like, "There's the wealthy kids that go out to lunch every single day. I can't do that because I don't have any money, but they seem like a good group of people. Then the international students seem kind of cool, so I'll hang out with them." The whole clique thing – I've never really been somebody that's desired to be part of a group.
AC: Then, too, generally folks who had a sense of humor in public high school were somewhat freed up to have friends based on their friends' personalities. Apples to oranges with your class being so small, but I doubt it was difficult to get on with people.
JG: Yeah. Given the size, I'm just totally guessing, because in my high school you knew everyone and you spent quality time with everybody in your class. When you're a senior, you've even spent a lot of time with the freshmen. Again, it was like a hundred years ago, but it doesn't seem like there was much of a pecking order. It wasn't like a Lord of the Flies environment where like [stern voice], "Who's in charge!?" It was very much, "We're all kind of morons." But it definitely was an environment that you did believe you could do anything.
AC: I think a fundamental tenet of stand-up comedy is intimacy, and the theatre setting is probably the ideal environment because you're not competing with curly fries, bachelorette parties, or papered rooms. But when you can start selling out a half-dozen or so shows in a single city, what kind of dialogue, inner or otherwise, is initiated about arena-think?
JG: Sometimes when you do a college, they'll put you in an arena or in some huge room, and that's not to say those aren't fun – and for some comics, it works well in a huge arena. I live in New York, and I probably could've done Radio City, and it would've been fun to do it on some level, but I feel like the quality of the show for the audience might not be as great. I mean, I'm kind of a low-key, quiet comedian. It's different with every theatre because some theatres at 1,800, the last couple rows are just horrible seats, but in some 2,400-seat theatres, they're all good seats. But when you get to arenas and you're like this guy who's occasionally whispering, it seems a little unfair. I don't know. At this point, I don't think arenas make that much sense. But then again, if you're in a city and that's the option to perform and they can put a curtain up and do like a quarter or half of [the arena], it seems more appealing. But when I do a show, I want everyone to want to come back, you know what I mean? It can be exhausting doing five or six shows in a city.
AC: A friend and I were talking that the dynamic changes where it becomes cheering more than laughing.
JG: Yeah! It's kind of like you're either steering the bus or the bus is steering you. I grew up outside Chicago, so the Chicago Theatre is this great landmark theatre, and if you're from the area, [you] want to eventually perform there. It's 3,500 to 3,600 seats, [and] it's like the bus is so big that it's hard to steer it and to keep the conversation with everyone in the room becomes a larger task. You'd rather be concentrating on being funny than keeping everyone in the room engaged. I'd rather have a conversation with someone in a quieter, more intimate setting than in some big warehouse. It's like, "Hey, I'll talk to you in that empty airport terminal." You do shows in Vegas, and the rooms are constructed to have like a circus in it. So when you're in there doing stand-up in these gigantic rooms, it feels a little bit disproportionate.
AC: What do you think of Bob Newhart's advice for young comedians that "if they can, they should go back and get born in the Midwest."
JG: Gosh, I've never heard that. You have done the most research of anyone that I've ever talked to. You're obviously a comedy nerd like me. The Bob Newhart thing is interesting, because I think there are regional differences that play into someone's point of view. That being said, I don't know if I necessarily agree with that, because some of the comedy greats like Bill Hicks, his style and his point of view, are probably informed by being from Texas.
AC: Oh yeah, and somebody like David Cross spent a lot of his youth in Atlanta. And outside of being a little tongue-in-cheek, I think Newhart was also speaking to having a quieter persona perhaps and an inherent work ethic, one that you possess but which is perhaps belied by your relaxed stage presence. And some might view your post-show meet and greets as Jim being a swell guy, but I think they're also a very canny way to build your audience. Is it fair to say your popularity is a combination of quality material that has been stage-tested in ways some might not realize plus relentless effort?
JG: There's a couple different things there. I do think I pound really hard to make jokes work, but I'm an eccentric observationalist so if you're talking about the mundane, the style of comedy is kind of driven by efficiency and thoroughness. Whereas [for] a social satirist, it's more spontaneous. Like, the vice president accidentally shoots somebody, that gets five minutes. But the meet and greet: You have to consider that I'd been doing stand-up for like 16 years and my goals were to be on Letterman and ... I would do meet and greets after shows when I was doing comedy clubs, and some of that was, to get invited back to a comedy club, you had to fill it up. So, yeah, there is some of that. But the theatre meet and greet, in some ways it's like someone's paying 30 bucks, it's not that big of a deal if you take a picture with them afterward; if they had like some bonding moment with their girlfriend over one of your jokes and then you can take a picture with them. I wouldn't say that it's so much a marketing plan as hopefully there's something a little bit humble about it. If you asked me five years ago, am I going to be doing theatres? I would say "Maybe. Maybe I'd be opening for Dave Attel." I do strive for my stand-up to have a universal appeal, so there is kind of accessibility to the style of stand-up. Let me also go off on this tangent.
JG: A lot of comedians secretly want to be rock stars, and I'm not one of them. I probably wouldn't have turned it down, but it's not like I was in a band when I was a teenager. I studied finance in college, so I'm kind of like that brainwashed group that was supposed to go have a job that they would do until they're 60, then go play golf for five years and die. I'm grateful that I actually ended up doing something I enjoy. But a lot of my friends, there's part of them that really wanted to be a rock star. And that's not to say they're seeking fame, because they're sincere, but I don't desire to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. The high that I get from coming up with a new joke or doing a theatre show is pretty sweet, and I want to protect that in a way. I would be fine if I was not known or I didn't have any more popularity than I have right now. I would love it if my popularity was not tied to "Hot Pockets," but other than that, it's like "I'm fine."
AC: With the timelessness and universality of your observational material, I'm curious if there could be a post-economic crash uptick in popularity for you. Your stuff is very escapist, and with this economy and people being worn out from eight years of raging against the machine, I wonder if you might be akin to Busby Berkeley. Do you see your particular brand of humor coming to the fore due to things beyond your control, the way Nirvana happened to hit a perfect wormhole or the Beatles happened to hit a post-Kennedy assassination American funk?
JG: I think that's really interesting. You remind me of this one friend of mine because we talk about comedy in this analytical, philosophical way.
AC: I suck the fun out of it. You can say it. I'm just kidding.
JG: No, my only concern is that I don't want to sound like a pompous ass. I love this conversation, but I don't want to be [affects a generic James Lipton-esque voice], "It's interesting. Me. Me. Me!"
Here's what I would say: I think some of my success now, I'm already the beneficiary of the fact that we have been living in an era where socially we've been divided as a country. So there have been these people that hate George Bush, that love George Bush, there's devout secularists, devout Christians. And because of my topic matter and my point of view, at my shows there will be the Mormon family at the meet and greet followed by the lesbian couple followed by the goth kid. The same people that go to a Larry the Cable Guy show might come to my show, and the same people that go to a David Cross or "Comedians of Comedy" show might come to my show.
AC: With the colossal success of your live shows, your CD and DVD sales, the "Pale Force" cartoon, and your TV and film acting, do you worry that your Sierra Mist and Rolling Rock side projects might go on the back burner? Or do you see yourself always making time to be a corporate shill?
JG: The commercial thing, you know, in a lot of ways, I'm very grateful to have had that opportunity to have done that. But I feel lucky that the commercial campaigns that I did were not for diarrhea medication, you know. But the whole "corporate shill" thing, I almost feel like [doing commercials] now would be more of a corporate shill thing. When I was an unknown actor and comedian doing Rolling Rock ads where I essentially just improvised them, it was great. But now as people get to know my name and who I am, then I feel like it's getting to be a little more whorish. That's why I haven't done any.
AC: You know I'm teasing and not taking this Bill Hicks purist "off the artistic totem pole" stance.
JG: I used to get grief from some friends when we were struggling comedians and I'm like, "So wait a minute. I'm supposed to work for Pepsi to be a temp in their office for a year versus a one-day thing?" Am I working for the man? Yeah, but I'll work for the man for one day versus six months. Then again, in defense of Bill Hicks' point of view, if you don't need the money and it's an embarrassing ad, I don't know why you'd do it. But maybe that person has like three kids he has to put through college, so he's gonna do the Sleep Number bed. Who cares?
AC: I understand you talk about laziness on this tour – sorry, "Spoiler Alert," readers. I think the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business" moniker was retired with the late great James Brown, but you are awfully prolific. What would be an example of your laziness?
JG: Well, there is a certain kind of inefficiency to any creative process, and there's a certain downtime that you're like, "I shouldn't be watching Countdown with Keith Olbermann. I should be doing this work that needs to be turned in tomorrow." So there are these feelings of laziness, but I talk about it and also eating poorly and being a sloth in almost a nostalgic kind of way. I have two young kids, you know, so it's not like I can veg out for two days. But when I'm on the road, I relish doing nothing. It's very sincere, and some of the guilt associated is not drummed up, it's very much there if I sit and noodle on my Facebook account for two hours when I should be doing something else. That is a form of laziness and procrastination that is sincere, and as you get busier, the consequences of the laziness more guilt-ridden, at least for me.
Jim Gaffigan performs Thursday, Dec. 4, 8pm; Friday-Saturday, Dec. 5-6, 7 & 10pm, at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. For more information, call 472-5470 or visit www.austintheatre.org.