"Do you really need to curse when you talk about doughnuts?" says Gaffigan
Comedian Jim Gaffigan is best known for two things: his children and his love of food.
He covered a lot of material about his five kids in his bestselling book, Dad Is Fat — so on his most recent comedy special, Obsessed, which debuted April 27 on Comedy Central and is available now on iTunes, Gaffigan dives deep into his passion for cuisine. Topics include kale propaganda, Southern food and what exactly is the difference between an anchovy and a sweaty eyebrow (hint: nothing).
TIME spoke with the stand-up comic about comedy and why there’s no need to swear about bacon:
Are there things you would never make fun of?
As a comedian I have a core belief that anything can be funny, but I am not built in a manner where I need to figure out a way to make abortion funny. There are comedians who are great at that stuff and I’ll leave it to them. I kind of want my comedy… I don’t want anyone in the room to feel uncomfortable. I am not really into “us vs. them” comedy where it’s like, “How ‘bout those idiots?”
So you’ll make fun of yourself with your pale skin and sun allergy, but won’t make fun of anyone else’s?
I think everyone can relate! But it’s not some sort of elaborate plan — it’s just what works for me. I think comedians get so much credit or criticism for the time of comedy that they just do. It’s just how it comes out. Like Bill Burr is doing the exact right kind of comedy that he should be doing and so is Chris Rock. It’s not like they are both sitting at home thinking, “If only I was a little more angry.”
You tend to be a very “clean” comic. Is that your default setting?
I’m not the kind of person who feels comfortable cursing or talking about some intimate sexual experience in front of strangers, but I curse in everyday life. I think some of it is the topics that I discuss. What’s wrong with your life if you’re cursing about bacon? Do you really need to curse when you talk about doughnuts? But it’s great when some comics curse! Who would want Lewis Black not to curse?
Or George Carlin!
Exactly. Standup has such a rich tradition of battling censorship. It crosses the line, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to cross the line.
Lenny Bruce took his comedy all the way to the Supreme Court. Your comedy probably won’t end up there.
My comedy isn’t even going to end up on the People’s Court. It’s interesting doing these interviews. I do a special every two years and do a round of interviews with them because you forget… standup is so great, because there’s an honesty to the conversation. You know exactly how you come across. It’s a great opportunity to learn who you are in the context of other comedians or the entertainment industry. I don’t think about myself as clean — we have a tendency to categorize things, and I think the clean thing is kind of silly. It’s not like we live in a culture where someone not cursing is that exceptional. It’s not like people are saying, “Unbelievable, go see this comedian who doesn’t curse for an hour!” That’s not what is going to drive people into a theater. It comes down to funny or not, identifiable or not.
I don’t think it’s necessarily what you’re known for, but doing research for this conversation it came up, a lot. I don’t think I had noticed it before.
Right. People come up and ask me, “Why don’t you curse?” and I say, “Because Jesus told me not to.” Brian Regan is probably the best comedian on the planet and he doesn’t curse, but it’s a strange thing, because my favorite comedian is probably Dave Attell and he’s filthy! But I don’t think of him as filthy, I think of him as just as funny as Brian Regan. I think there’s just a tendency — you’re a writer, you know this — to look back on what we’ve done and do a surgery on it. “Okay, what made George Carlin great?” What made him great can’t be summed up in one sentence. His career spanned decades.
Right, but some people — and I’m being a bit facetious — do think Carlin’s career could be summed up in seven dirty words.
Of course there are people who think that. But that’s doing a huge disservice to this incredible wordsmith. Seven dirty words is a brilliant piece of comedy, but when it came out, it was a powerful statement that captured a moment in time and these words that weren’t allowed to be said on television, but now, they are allowed to be said on television and, as an observation, it’s been done.
A lot of comedy has been diffused because society has caught up with it. What was once transgressive is now commonplace.
Right, look at Richard Pryor! You look at him and a lot of his material — I wouldn’t say ripped off, but a lot of his material has been bastardized by a lot of comedians. You look back at his material and say, “Oh, that is where the joke started.” Something about my material, though, is that I don’t deal in irreverence. “Irreverent” is like liberty or your concept of freedom — it’s constantly shifting. What is considered irreverent today isn’t going to be considered irreverent in ten years. It’s constantly moving. Dealing with nuts and bolts and observational comedy, there is some longevity in it. That’s why a Bob Newhart CD is still funny, but some topical stuff can wear thin.
The topics you talk about are things that everyone tends to agree on — everyone loves food, everyone loves doughnuts. Your topics aren’t going to get dated.
It’s weird, and again, none of this was intentional — none of it — but I feel like I got lucky. My special Beyond the Pale still sells and it’s because the topics are still relevant. I mean, I’ve definitely written my fair share of jokes about answering machines that are not relevant, but there is something about the topics that still work. If you look at the track names on my CDs, you’d be like, what is that, a shopping list? I love what I do, but there is something about what I do that — there’s not a sexy angle. I’m not talking about stories of me with hookers — I’m talking about doughnuts. There’s an absence of a dynamic taboo breaking.
Do you think that has affected your career at all, though? It seems like that could be a positive.
I love what I do. Sometimes when I talk to other comics, we get to this point in the conversation where I think, “We get paid to do what we want. That’s a victory in itself!” Sure, I can worry about whether I get more attention or less — I mean, I make a living as a stand-up comedian! I can afford to have 5,000 children. That’s a miracle! I grew up in a small town in Indiana where the closest thing to the entertainment industry was the marching band. But, again, I think the type of comedy that I do is authentic to me. I don’t think I can do the Garth Brooks thing and create a dark side version of me. I don’t think it’s either hurt or helped, but I think it’s a miracle that I get to do what I want. We all could have ended up lawyers! No one aspires to do construction on the side of the FDR highway. I want to be sensitive to that, too. I think you can get caught up in all of it, but the entertainment industry is not fair. It’s a weird business. That said, stand-up comedy is the only aspect of the entertainment industry that is somewhat merit-based. If you put in the effort and the time and the audience responds, that’s it. You can’t hoodwink people for a couple of decades. There’s no debate that Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld and George Carlin were great comedians. They had careers that spanned decades. It’s not a fluke.
This is your fourth comedy special, so you must be doing something right.
This is my fourth special, but stand-up comedy does not feel like a job. The thing that I love about stand-up is that I feel like I’m getting better at it. There’s something very rewarding about that. I can do four specials, because there’s an outlet for it. I can tour and do that. I’m lucky because I can write everything with my wife and we have this collaboration. It works, but I’m not under some delusion that I’m going to be in the same category as Carlin or Seinfeld.
How long did it take to write this one?
Maybe a year or a year and a half. I feel like this one took less time than the others. I know Louis does an hour a year and the British comics do an hour a year. Jake Johannsen has done a new hour of comedy for like 20 years. 20 years! That’s insane! Different topics take different amounts of time, though. Cheney shoots somebody and then a social satirist gets ten minutes. For me, it takes longer to write an hour and because my topic isn’t based on the news cycle, I would rather spend time with the material and make it really good.
You do have a lot more children to distract you from writing.
Yes, in the end, I would rather be considered a decent dad than a prolific comic.
You are fairly prolific, even if you don’t get your one hour a year that other comics are getting.
Right, but I have to. I love it, but I have to. I’m constantly touring and there’s an unspoken arrangement that the comedian has with the audience that you’re going to bring new stuff. Otherwise they are not going to come back. I want people to leave one of my shows thinking, “I’m definitely coming back.” So new material is pretty important, but it’s also really fun to come up with. There’s nothing better than coming up with a new joke. Nothing.