NEW YORK — Jim Gaffigan is hungry. Naturally. The comedian’s observations about food — from Hot Pockets to Cinnabon to chicken and waffles (“I know it’s lunch, but I want breakfast and diabetes”) — are essential ingredients of his stand-up. He even wrote a book devoted to eating: 2014’s “Food: A Love Story.”
On this day, Gaffigan’s lunch doesn’t come until deep into the afternoon. He’s in between shooting scenes for “The Jim Gaffigan Show,” a semi-autobiographical sitcom whose second season premieres Sunday on TV Land. He and his wife, Jeannie, are executive producers and co-writers. The lineup of guest stars includes standard big-name celebrities — Jerry Seinfeld and Alec Baldwin among them — as well as more unusual choices, like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and author Malcolm Gladwell. When the show wraps, Gaffigan will be off on a bus tour of the United States and Canada with Jeannie and their five children. It stops at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre in September for six shows. Later this year, Gaffigan will be on screen in “The Bleeder,” a drama directed by Philippe Falardeau that also stars Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts. Then there’s a series of stand-up dates in Europe. He’s perpetually exhausted.
Gaffigan settles into a couch in a room designated as a play area for children on the set, including his, who range in age from 3 to 12. They’re an endless source of material. The space isn’t exactly Disneyesque — there’s a box of Crayolas, an empty Paw Patrol inflatable pool stuffed with toys, and a puppet stage that Gaffigan will later agree to stick his head through to appease a photographer. A crew member hands him a plate crowded with dumplings, sesame beef, egg fried rice, and an obligatory serving of something green.
“What is this?”
“A bunch of different things.”
“That sounds like me. I guess it would only be appropriate for me to eat during this interview, right?”
With so much to hype, you would expect Gaffigan to be in full-out promotional mode. But in keeping with his reputation for being unfailingly accommodating, he has agreed to sit down for a higher-elevation discussion on such subjects as comedy’s place in the arts, being Catholic, and a nonpartisan comic’s dilemma in a politically saturated year that becomes less funny with each passing day.
“Comedians can nerd out all day talking about this stuff,” he says with a smile that sometimes tips toward maniacal.
Q. Bill Maher, John Oliver, and other comedians who mine political material gain a certain gravitas because what they’re doing is considered seriously funny. You’re the food guy, the family guy. Not that those aren’t important topics, but aren’t you compelled to talk about the 2016 presidential campaign?
A. Obviously, I’m not a Donald Trump supporter. When he was on his way to winning the nomination, I selfishly thought, “Oh, but I want to do international shows.” As a comedian in North America, I can be the doughy white guy from the Midwest who’s lazy. That’s my identity. When I go abroad, I’m American. I’m no longer the pale guy who’s not sexy. If you perform internationally and one of the people that could become president of the United States is Donald Trump, that’s what they’re going to want to hear about when you’re doing a show in Amsterdam or Copenhagen.
Look, I think politics is fascinating, I think irreverent comedy is great. There are people that are a lot better at it than me, so I don’t do it. But I’ve got shows in London in October and if Trump is leading in the polls, I’m going to have to talk about it, especially because I’m also a guy who looks like he’s Mormon or Republican anyway.
Q. Does comedy get treated like a lesser art form because it’s “just” about making people laugh? Do you feel that people think, “It’s not as though he’s a ballerina.”
A. Definitely. The ancestor of the comedian is the court jester. It’s not the adviser to the king; it’s the black sheep of the family. I do think that comedy’s relationship to the arts is a strange one. The artistic community doesn’t want the mainstream. But a great comedian is supposed to make everyone laugh. Someone like Bill Burr does that. You might not agree with him, but he does that. He’s presenting truth to power. I think that the artistic community is sometimes a little bit like, “Uh, should we climb aboard this?”
Q. When people call you a “clean” comic, it sounds vaguely demeaning, like you’re doing comedy-light.
‘Comedy’s relationship to the arts is a strange one. The artistic community doesn’t want the mainstream. But a great comedian is supposed to make everyone laugh.’Jim Gaffigan
A. It’s strange. Larry King once told me, “I used to ask comedians, ‘Why are you filthy?’ And now I’m asking, ‘Why are you clean?’ ” I don’t know when that cultural switch happened. There’s such a rich heritage of comedians dealing with censorship that some comedians think being clean is, in a way, the equivalent of wearing a burka — you’re somehow not free, even though, obviously, people wear burkas for different reasons. People think there’s some standard making you be clean. But it’s just how [my comedy] comes out. It’s not like I don’t curse in everyday life.
Q. I liken the evolution of stand-up language to the way violence has been depicted in films over time. A little blood used to be considered graphic. Now torture porn is routine.
A. What is irreverent or shocking changes constantly. Some of it is progress, and some of it is we’ve become numb to things. People love to be shocked and surprised. But some comedy is not constructed on that. The humor at a roast is very different than an episode of the British “Office.”
Q. Also, the notion of what’s humorous evolves.
A. I was watching an episode of “Match Game ’73.” Don’t even ask me how. Gene Rayburn opened the show by — what we would consider — sexually harassing a woman, and it was perfectly acceptable. That was the humor of the day. It’s fascinating to see.
As a country, we’re way more sophisticated about stand-up comedy than when I started in the early ’90s. Comedy Central wasn’t a thing, YouTube and satellite radio, obviously, weren’t things. Since then, there’s been a generation or two of people who have grown up watching comedy specials, so they’re super-educated on stand-up.
Q. But they’re seeing three minutes on YouTube — Jim Gaffigan on bacon. Technology makes everything instantly accessible, but often out of context.
A. Yeah, but as technology moves along, it has, in a way, reinforced the uniqueness of live performance. Nothing can replace the authenticity of that experience. Comedy is unique in that it’s point-of-view driven. People might go see Beyoncé and they’ll want to hear her classics. With a comedian, they might want to hear an [old] joke or two, but they’re more interested in the point of view.
Q. You don’t talk a lot onstage about your Catholicism. Are you afraid some audiences might be put off by it?
A. It’s more about me believing that people will think I’m a weirdo. My faith is this kind of private, confusing path that I’ve taken. I lived across from a church for 15 years and never went in it. Then I met my wife, and now I go there. When [the subject of] me being Catholic comes up, I get nervous because I don’t know anything. I’m certainly not an expert. I get nervous that there’s going to be some kind of Catholic exam. That’s my insecurity; that’s not what my personal belief system is constructed on. Also, because I am a comedian with cynicism as a part of my personality, I can see the contradictions. I spent most of my adult life as an agnostic or atheist. Maybe I’m worried that people would think that because I’m Catholic I wouldn’t be open to gay rights or transgender people using a bathroom.
Q. You believe that perception of Catholics is still widely held?
A. I don’t know. The Catholic Church has got some history — recent history — that is not great. How I justify it is: I’m American, too. In this country, we enslaved people, we killed people, we didn’t allow women to vote. We haven’t had a female president. But I’m still proud to be an American. Then there’s a contrarian side of me that’s like, “Yeah, I am Catholic.” It’s probably the only interesting thing about me. I’m certainly not a saint, but then, a lot of them weren’t, right? There’s also something else about my faith: The concept of mercy is a powerful idea to me. I need the idea of forgiveness; that there’s some higher power providing forgiveness.
Q. Do you have to consciously work to avoid becoming Jim Gaffigan the character?
A. There is a dose of people-pleasing in me. I kind of shy away from food items in my new [stand-up] hour, but if it’s funny, it’s funny. As you get better, you can talk about more complex things — it’s not just about my laziness; maybe it’s about my narcissism. It great when you develop a relationship [with the audience]. We know this guy is a glutton, but he struggles with it. So I can go two steps ahead with that story.
One of the advantages of being a parent is that you can see your children trying new things, and it takes a certain amount of bravery. When it comes to my stand-up, seeing my children be brave makes me want to be brave. We can all get kind of comfortable.Interview was edited and condensed. Mark Pothier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @markpothier.