Jim Gaffigan isn’t quite a household name. It’s a strange thing to say about a comedian who consistently sells out multiple-night runs in theaters like the Wilbur, where he’s performing seven shows this week, but Gaffigan has never had that one smash sitcom that captured the zeitgeist, or that hit movie that everyone saw. Every so often, he’ll get a reminder of that.
“I’ve been making a good living, but there’s still tons of people who have no idea, and that’s fine,” he says by phone from his home in New York. After a recent show, he ran into a magazine publisher who had never heard of him but had known some of the other younger comedians on the same bill. “My manager would say, ‘That’s just the opportunity,’ ” says Gaffigan.
That’s how the 47-year-old Gaffigan has built his career, little bits at a time, appearing on TV shows like “Law & Order,” in commercials, surprising people with a turn in the film “The Great New Wonderful,” but with his stand-up career firmly up front. His audience may have seen him elsewhere, but he is primarily known as a comedian with near-universal appeal.
“I’m lucky in that I’m known as a stand-up, and my currency is not irreverence,” he says. “It’s just laughs. Ultimately there’s some subtext of social commentary. I’ve always loved the fact that in my audience there’s the Mormon family sitting next to the lesbian couple.”
He talks about familiar experiences — he likes eating (bacon, especially), tires easily of daily chores (he and his wife, Jeannie, have five kids), and doesn’t know why the handrail moves so much faster than the rest of the escalator. His is the kind of self-deprecating, Everyman humor that resonates with audiences. A typical Gaffigan joke goes like this: He’s in a shoe store, intimidated by a wall display filled with sport-specific choices. “Is there a slipper section?” he says. “I just need to get between places where I’m sitting down.”
A classic observational comedian, Gaffigan says courting controversy isn’t in his DNA. He doesn’t get into politics onstage, and he doesn’t deal in profanity. “I think there’s some comedians that really like to stir the pot,” he says. “I think that they enjoy conflict and they enjoy all these things. And I think inherently, I don’t like to stir the pot.”
Fellow comic Brian Regan, whom Gaffigan looks up to, knows this territory well. Politics and sex are fine topics for comedy, he says, but so are Pop Tarts and Hot Pockets. “It’s OK to just look at everyday things that are around us and say, hey, don’t walk away, come back here,” he says. “There’s something funny here.”
While Gaffigan’s audiences won’t get rants about government shutdowns or some celebrity’s poor behavior, they will get a thorough discussion of why people still go to McDonald’s when they should know better.
“No one’s going in there innocent,” he said on last year’s “Mr. Universe” stand-up special. “We’re walking into a red and yellow building with a giant ‘M’ over it. What’s this, a library? Well, I’ll get some fries while I’m here.”
Before a show last week in Washington, D.C., Gaffigan jokingly tweeted to President Obama, “We’re hanging out after the show, right?” He got some angry responses to what he felt was an innocent joke, a reminder of how easy it is to upset people with the mere mention of politics. He considers himself a fairly liberal guy but doesn’t want that to get in the way of being funny. “Some of what I do and some of what I like is stuff that doesn’t get caught up in the culture wars, that is a break from it,” he says. “Maybe I’m smart enough at this point to think that, you know, a guy who talks about doughnuts and bacon, you don’t need to know who he’s voting for. You know what I mean?”
One of the routines Regan loves is from Gaffigan’s 2009 “King Baby” special, in which he dissects everything about bowling, from the germ-incubating shoes to the fact that you can play it and eat nachos simultaneously. “I was laughing at the material, but I was also laughing at the take-no-prisoners approach,” says Regan. “It’s like he barged in with comedy commandos to the bowling center and said, ‘This is ours. We’re taking over. We’re taking control and we’re going to make a joke about every single thing that’s in this place.’ ”
Gaffigan views his comedy as a reprieve from some of the more intense discussions of the day, but admits he doesn’t purposefully set it up that way. “My belief is comedians get so much credit for the type of comedy they do or they don’t do,” he says. “In reality, comedians just do what they do. I think there are comedians that are evolving, and I like to think of myself as one that’s ever-evolving and growing. I mean, that’s what’s really fun about stand-up is that I feel like I’m getting better at it.”
He may get pegged as “the food comic” for his frequent forays into that topic, and people have come to know him more as a “family comic” after the success of last year’s memoir, “Dad Is Fat.” But he knows he’ll always have a chance to change that perception with more material, and he is planning on taping a new special later this spring. Those labels “would only bother me,” he says, “if I wasn’t going to write another set.”
His career is somewhat of a family affair. He writes material with Jeannie and twice a year loads the family on a bus to tour. “The writing thing is getting more and more complicated with five kids,” he says. “But it’s this constant dialogue about topics and about jokes. It varies. Some of it is a conversation that turns into a joke, and then I’ll rewrite it and my wife will see it and have a comment or a great line. The writing process changes.”
‘I’m lucky in that I’m known as a stand-up, and my currency is not irreverence. It’s just laughs.’
The upcoming year will be pivotal for Gaffigan. He is working on a sitcom pilot for CBS that might give him that next big push, and he may also be charting new territory with his stand-up once he has taped the new special. “There’s part of me that’s pretty excited and scared, because when you get done with an hour, and you tape it, you start from scratch, and this’ll be like my fifth hour,” he says. “So I’m like, oh no. I’ve covered every food item. I’ve covered laziness. I’ve done as much family stuff — ‘Dad Is Fat’ was just about all the parenting things I ever would imagine I might do. So it’s also a pretty exciting time.”Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.