'I'm not running for mayor, I just want to make people laugh'

Jim Gaffigan


I've been a fan of stand-up comedy since I was a kid, so I can say with assurance that Jim Gaffigan is one of the all-time greats. The humorist, who has found success thanks to his unique, family-friendly perspective on marriage, parenting, food and the absurdities of life, is currently in the midst of his "Noble Ape" tour.

Over the next few months, Gaffigan will be performing in arenas and theaters across the globe. That includes in a stop in Atlanta, where he'll pack Philips Arena on Saturday, Nov. 11. (As of this writing, tickets were still available at JimGaffigan.com.)

I recently spoke with the pleasant, fiercely intelligent comic -- one of only 10 in history to sell out Madison Square Garden -- and we had an interesting conversation about the evolution of stand-up, the internet's role in its continuing popularity and the journey from playing clubs to arenas.

(Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

You've been performing stand-up for over two decades. What is one of the biggest ways the art form has evolved?

I think the biggest change has been the opportunity for people to consume, understand and appreciate stand-up through YouTube, satellite radio, Netflix, Comedy Central. It used to be you'd kind of get a glimpse of stand-up on a late night show and later there was Comedy Central. YouTube, in a lot of ways, has transformed how [people access stand-up]. If you're curious, that's how you can consume a lot of it.

I have 12-year-olds at my show that have a real appreciation and understanding of stand-up. Part of that is parents don't have to worry if they bring their kids to my show, but kids in this internet age can access stand-up in a manner that I couldn't when I was in my mid-to-late 20s. You had to buy albums. Audiences know how to behave and appreciate stand-up now. They have an expectation of what it's going to be like.

There was a time when people thought all comedians are like Rodney Dangerfield or Andrew Dice Clay. That's not saying anything negative about them. Just that now people understand there's so many different styles of stand-up.

Culture seems more divisive than ever, especially if you take a look at social media. It feels like everyone is outraged about everything, all the time, which led to a ridiculous reaction to your recent "CBS Sunday Morning" segment about massages. Does that affect how you approach new material?

There's something interesting about all comedians being different. Some comedians peddle in irreverence. I'm not somebody who really does. And I've been doing it long enough where if people are offended by me, I find it entertaining. I'm not thrown by it, because I have friends who are way more irreverent. People would have a much bigger problem with them than they should with me.

My sensibility is I'm kind of '90s New York City comic who believes my responsibility is to make everyone in the room laugh, not just people in the last row. I'm more self-effacing than irreverent, more observational than shocking.

Are there parts of your routine that you change up based on where you're performing? For example, are there bits that play well in one region that don't go over in other parts of the country?

Obviously, regionalism is authentic. For example, I don't really talk about it as much now, but I am a Catholic. So expressing that during a show in San Francisco, they might be like, "Oh, he's a weirdo because he believes in God." And if I do a show in Mississippi, they might be like, "Is he making fun of Jesus?" But in both scenarios, for me I'm making fun of humans.

Stand-up is a conversation and the conversation changes. You might talk to a friend from college different than you talk to a friend of your parents. You adjust conversations a little bit. I do the same material. I might learn something about how it's coming across. I live in New York City and there's a difference between how material is embraced in Manhattan versus Brooklyn. But again, at the core, I'm a guy who wants to be able to work everywhere. I want the jokes to be that strong and I'm not running for mayor. I just want to make people laugh.

You've performed in bars, clubs, and giant arenas. Do you have to modulate your style to adjust for the size of the rooms, or does it transfer well?

It can be a different task. Some of it's pacing. It's a different task, but the same skillset. There was a time when I would never consider doing larger places like arenas. But technology has caught up so much and it all comes down to "does the audience have a good time at the show?"

There are certain things that are part of an unspoken agreement between the audience and performer. One: it's gonna be funny. Two: it's worth my time and money. Three: the environment is conducive to a positive experience. And the technology has evolved where the environment of arenas are conducive to great comedy shows.

Some of that is the screens and some of it is the sound systems. Because you don't want to perform somewhere where people are like, "I didn't hear him." It helps not being the first one in a place. At Philips Arena, they've had comedy acts there before. The people who work these things are experts are this.

How tough is it to be polite to people who approach you thinking they're being original or hilarious? You've probably heard every possible joke or comment about your routines at this point. Can you even pretend to humor comments about Hot Pockets anymore, or do you just go straight to autopilot?

I'm from a small town in the Midwest, so I was raised to have a certain amount of respect and be polite. Look, it depends. If I'm walking outside of a bar and some drunk guy yells "Hot Pockets!," some of that's my fault for walking by a bar on a Friday night. If it's a teenager that says something sarcastic, it's like, I've got a teenager. I know they're trying to figure out sarcasm.

By the way, that's very minor. I think there's something that makes me approachable. I've been with friends who are much more famous and people won't come up to them. But I think a comedian is considered kind of an everyman. A lot of people are like, "With Jim it's no problem." And there is part of me that it is no problem. Unless I'm with my kid. That's not to say it's a problem, but I'm not going to interrupt dinner with my kid to go and take a picture with someone.

Finally, you've got a lot of dates on this tour. How do you keep the material interesting for yourself? Is there a trick to maintaining spontaneity?

It is very much a conversation and the audience knows my sensibility, so it's pretty enjoyable. They get my sense of humor, so it's not like trying to be funny in front of a stranger. That's not to say I don't go around New York City trying material out. I'm always trying to improve.

I really enjoy doing it, so for me the performing thing is never a problem. Maybe I'm tired from traveling or something, but it's always a fun challenge. Any comedian will tell you that you're in control, but there's no guarantee. So that's pretty exciting.

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